Why moms who struggle with anger need to be braveWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Loneliness isn’t typically associated with motherhood. The shared joys and trials of motherhood build friendships almost as fast as you can say, Could you spare a diaper? But that doesn’t mean moms never feel alone. Some of the loneliest moms of all are the moms who struggle with their temper.
Among our closest friends, we might reveal struggles with controlling our weight or our spending, but to admit that we have trouble controlling our anger seems just too awful, too shameful to share. Angry moms expect the sting of stigma, not sympathy – even from other moms.
And so we struggle on alone, wondering why we’re so different from other women. Why is our anger so fierce, so quickly ignited, so hard to shake off?
All we know to do is to try harder. Next time, we think, I'll show more self-control. And we pray – oh please dear God! – that next time works out better than last time, and the time before that.
But are we gaining any ground? According to Christian psychologists Gary J. Oliver and H. Norman Wright, it rarely helps to "try hard" to stop being angry. Instead, they suggest, we need to take a good look at our anger, closely examining feelings we’d much rather deny and hide from. To make real progress, we need more than self-control. We also need to be brave.
First, we need courage to admit that we’re angry
In their insightful book, A Woman’s Forbidden Emotion, Oliver and Wright emphasize that before we can begin to gain control of worrisome expressions of anger, we need to be able to recognize and admit that we are, indeed, feeling angry.
That may sound simple enough, but for Christian women in particular, this step is often excruciatingly difficult. Here’s why – and maybe you’ll recognize this to be true for you:
According to Oliver and Wright, many women believe they're "not allowed" to feel angry.
Wracked by guilt, women who hold this view devote a tremendous amount of energy to stuffing down an emotion that they (falsely) believe is sinful, or unfeminine, or somehow "unnatural" or unacceptable in women.
And it’s double jeopardy for these women if their husband shares similar misconceptions about anger. Discussions with their spouse can pile on more guilt and get mired down in the "rightness" or "wrongness" of the anger, rather than addressing the problem that’s the cause of the anger.
Whether it’s repressed because of embarrassment or fear of condemnation, anger that can’t find a healthy "voice" tends to build up over time until it can no longer be contained. Bewildered moms may wonder why they’re suddenly – and now obviously – "angry all the time." In truth though, the anger was there all along.
Simply feeling the emotion of anger is not wrong, writes Oliver. Anger "was designed by God as a gift and has tremendous potential for good." Anger can be an important message that our legitimate rights are being violated, or our needs or wants are not being fully met.
"Don’t apologize for your anger," continues Wright. ". . . As a woman, you need not be uncomfortable with the anger you feel. Instead, see it as a messenger telling you about the cause. Then, with God’s love and helps, tackle the cause."
We need courage to admit the underlying cause of our anger
When we hide from examining our anger, we’re also hiding from the truth about our life. Anger is a secondary emotion; there’s often another emotion underneath. It’s not enough to think, I'm angry about this. We need to be able to complete the sentence I'm angry because ________ as honestly and as completely as we can.
Oftentimes our anger is simply ignited by sin, selfishness or an over-sensitivity that finds fault when none was intended, or by physiological factors like fatigue, hunger or illness. And children are always going to act childishly, and push our patience to the limit. But other times, when we look for the secondary emotion behind our anger, we might be surprised by new and even more uncomfortable revelations. But these revelations can lead to the understanding we need to finally get our runaway anger under control.
Gary J. Oliver explains, "Just below the surface are almost always other emotions that need to be identified and acknowledged. Hidden deep underneath the surface anger are fear, hurt, frustration, disappointment, vulnerability and longing for connection. At a very early age, many of us learned that anger can help us divert attention from these more painful emotions. Anger is safer."
An "over the top" reaction from us suggests something else is going on. When we "lose it" because our young adult slept in yet again, we might not realize our anger is intense because it’s fuelled by fear – our fear that our child might be fired from their job, and our deeper worry about the sputtering launch of their career.
Grief, loss and deep disappointment often fuel anger too. For example, we might suddenly become resentful of our son or daughter, when in reality we are hurt that they moved out of home "too soon."
When we understand what's really underneath our anger – our fear or hurt or frustration – and choose to talk openly about those emotions instead, we can diffuse our anger very effectively, and engage others to help. Instead of getting all worked up about our anger by continuing to talk about it, we choose to talk instead about the very different emotions underneath – our hurt or disappointment. Talking about these "softer" secondary emotions tends to prompt softer language from us that's less threatening to others.
For example, we might say, I'm sorry that I sound resentful. The truth is, underneath it all, I've really missed you since you moved away from home. Others can now sympathize with our hurt, rather than being alienated by our anger, and will be better able to help us problem solve, since they now understand what the real problem is.
We need courage to express our needs
As moms, we often struggle to balance our needs with the needs of our family. Based on their years of counselling devoted moms, Oliver and Wright suggest that resentment is a frequent cause of anger for women. However, we hesitate to talk about our frustration or resentment openly, because we can’t determine whether we’re being selfish or not.
We feel we should be grateful to be a stay-at-home mom, so how can we complain that the kids’ relentless demands are driving us crazy? We feel we should want to spend time with our kids when we get home from work, so how can we complain that we’re tired and stressed and need time alone?
Perhaps though, our outbursts of anger are already speaking for us. Perhaps it’s time to talk openly about what we’re feeling in ways that are honest and clear, and to respectfully convince others of our legitimate needs.
"[T]he fact that others are important does not mean that we are unimportant," writes Oliver. "God is not glorified when we trample and ignore who He has created us to be. . . . [A]nger isn’t necessarily selfish. The healthy expression of legitimate anger can be a statement of dignity and self-respect."
When we’ve been unable to acknowledge our anger for a long time, it can be surprisingly difficult for us to put our finger on the real issues that are bothering us. Throughout their book, Oliver and Wright suggest many legitimate issues that can fuel anger in women, and in moms.
Check out the partial list included below, and perhaps prayerfully discern if any of these issues might be underlying your anger. Some of these potential anger triggers might surprise you. But it really is okay to name any of these issues as contributing to your struggle to control your temper.
Keeping an anger journal, suggest Oliver and Wright, can also be tremendously helpful in pinpointing what’s really igniting your anger. Several weeks of recording details about what happened, when, and what you were thinking at the time can reveal personal crisis points and underlying thoughts you weren't aware of before.
We need courage to consider new ways of dealing with our anger
At some point, we need to face a difficult question: Is the way we’ve learned to manage our anger working – or are we needlessly hurting those we love? As hard as it may be to admit it’s not working, the pain we feel in this area may, in the end, lead us far ahead of others who never seem troubled by their anger.
Finding the courage to set aside what we think we know about anger and being open to explore what "the fullness of Christ" might mean in this area can be a path to real change. We need to be sure we know what healthy and constructive expression of anger looks like, as well as the three common mis-managed anger styles: conflict avoiders, exploders and passive-aggressive anger.
"Understanding your primary anger style points you in a healthy direction," explains Oliver. "Besides your anger style, it’s also important to identify what your personal indicators are that you are getting angry." Once we've learned to watch for signs that our anger is escalating, we have the opportunity to deal with it early on, before it’s out of control.
Being proactive by choosing, ahead of time, a better response to use next time, is key, suggests Oliver, along with praying regularly for the Holy Spirit’s strength to remember and follow through. "The best time to deal with your anger is before you get angry."
Underlying issues that might be fuelling your anger
You love being a wife and mom, yet you yearn for "something more"
Unfair division of workload at home
Struggles with the mundane aspects of your role
Feeling unrewarded and unappreciated
Feeling you are not "good enough" as a wife or mother
Excessive demands on your time
Struggling to balance time with your family vs. time at work
Feeling socially isolated or having few close friends nearby
Expecting your worst fears to come true
Fear of abandonment or separation or divorce
Grief and loss
Feeling that you’re invisible – that you don’t matter
Continually sacrificing your own needs to care for others
Feeling that others control your life or make all your decisions for you
Unresolved guilt or shame over something that happened in the past
Loss of one of your parents through divorce
Loss of your birth parents after you were adopted
A sense of powerlessness to change your circumstances
Struggles with feelings of rejection
Facing continual criticism or ridicule
Expecting perfection from yourself and others
Prolonged stress – regular "workaday" stress or a period of unusual stress
A recent major life change: turned 40, divorced, widowed, etc.
Lack of job security
Feeling ill-suited to your job
Experiencing sexual harassment in your workplace
Family of origin
Your father was dominating and controlling
You learned unhealthy patterns of dealing with anger from your parents
One or both of your parents never seemed to accept you, or you never felt "good enough"
For many more insights into managing anger as a mom, and as a woman, we recommend Oliver and Wright's book, A Woman’s Forbidden Emotion.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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