anger: what is it good for?

No emotion is unacceptable or unproductive or pointless or meaningless.

No emotion has any moral content whatsoever.

All emotions may be welcomed, noticed, felt to the full, permitted to take the time they need.

No emotion needs to be held tightly or milked or framed or preserved.

These are tenets of mindfulness — among other things, an openness to emotion, to let emotion speak, to let it come in, to let it pass, without judgment, and without trying to make the emotion do anything such as stop or get stronger.

Whether the biblical writers understood emotions and motivations / intentions as distinct things is uncertain. It seems to me that Jesus, for one, tied actions back to motivations when he talked in the Sermon on the Mount about such things as lusting after someone or hating someone being as wrong as adultery or murder. I don’t see much evidence that the distinction between emotions and motivations was clearly defined — kind of like our own ordinary talk about such things. I think that’s important to keep in mind when looking at what the Bible teaches or does not teach about emotions.

For example, sometimes we use the word “anger” to mean more than the emotion — to mean hateful and evil intentions and actions, including violence, shame, judgmentalism, malice, dismissiveness, and so on. Perhaps Bible verses mentioning anger, calling us to put it aside, repent from it, avoid it, might have motivations and intentions and actions in mind, too.

One verse in particular seems to get at the distinction between sinful motivations and morally neutral emotions — “Be angry, and do not sin…” (Ephesians 4:26a)

How does one be angry, without sinning?

For one thing, it’s useful to think about emotions as offering us information. A former pastor, Bob Hopper, once preached that anger comes from a blocked goal, fear or anxiety from an uncertain goal, and despair or depression from a goal that seems impossible. Looking at emotions this way can help us think about or work on our goals wisely.

Maybe I’m angry because Amy is doing something I don’t like. My anger can reveal to me that my goal is for her to be a certain way. It’s not possible for me to make her be or do anything. I can ask — I can use various tools to try to persuade — I can model — but I can’t make it happen by my own will and effort. If my goal is a matter of mere preference or convenience, I can work to let go of it and accept her the way she is. If my goal is a matter of sin and righteousness, I can hold onto the conviction of what is right, AND accept her the way she is, AND trust and hope that, with my efforts and with her own and with God’s work, she will move in the direction of what is right.

If I just buried my anger, OR if I took it out on her, what would I learn? Nothing useful, either way.

Maybe I’m angry because of some injustice against me. Maybe it’s an imagined injustice. Maybe some current circumstance has restimulated feelings from another time of real injustice. I can work to accept and metabolize the old feelings and do more healing work on that past episode, sitting compassionately with that wounded past self. I can work to recognize the difference between the current situation and the old one — work to correct my perception of the current reality and thus my interpretation of it. I can preach truth to myself.

Or — maybe the injustice is real this time. And if I squelched my anger about it, swallowed the unjust situation, I would be betraying myself. I would be saying I’m not worth defending, not worth providing for, not worth protecting, not worth considering, not worth respecting.

If, on the other hand, I welcomed and listened carefully and compassionately to my anger, I might notice that the injustice is real, and take steps to address the situation. There’s nothing wrong with working for real justice, even for yourself. “Love your neighbor as yourself” makes self-love a high standard, not a low one. (Otherwise it would mean to treat our neighbors with as dismissive and contemptuous an attitude as we apply to ourselves in the name of selflessness.) It can be an amazingly loving thing to accept, welcome, and compassionately listen to your own anger (or any other emotion, especially other “forbidden” ones) — it’s an inner voice that has so often been squashed and squelched and denied and negated and condemned.

Or, I might decide that I am strong enough, secure enough, certain enough of my safe, warm, and beloved status with God my advocate and father, that I can set aside this injustice. Yeah — that looks a lot like the result of the squelching of the anger above. But the motivation — the meaning of the setting aside — is entirely different. One is saying and feeling that I deserve no better. The other is saying and feeling that I already have everything I need, including the justice that really matters.

Another part of being angry without sinning can be emotional release.

There’s some study — or more than one — I came across that claimed that the idea of catharsis — physical expression of anger redirected in some safe way, like punching a pillow — did not reduce anger and aggressive behavior. I don’t really know what to think about that. Perhaps whether or how much cathartic activities help release anger depends on factors that were not investigated in this study — things like the will to change, respect for others, etc.

So — I still believe in the usefulness of cathartic action. I try to go to my room and punch my bed and yell. I encourage Amy to do the same. We talk about drawing angry pictures, and sometimes we do. Some people split wood, use a punching bag, buy thrift store dishes to break; for a while I used a dart board. (A punching bag felt too much like hitting a real person, and I couldn’t stand the thought of breaking dishes that someone could have actually used.)

I also have a listening partner. We agree ahead of time that when we have a listening time, the listener will maintain unconditional positive regard, won’t be shocked, won’t judge, won’t be worried, won’t offer advice, won’t psychoanalyze, won’t go off on her own related story. One talks, and maybe cries, laughs hard, yells, acts out / role plays, hides / trembles, throws punches or kicks, screams into a pillow — anything like that. The one talking can deal with current situations, or track them into the past situations whose associated feelings the current one has dredged up again. She can think out loud about possible solutions. She can say the most ridiculous and impossible things that she would never say for real, but that occur in her deepest heart and mind anyway.

Again, it may seem that, if hating someone is tantamount to murdering them, that verbalizing or acting out anger about someone, even to a listening partner, would be validating hatred. I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, anger is not hatred, even though they are often linked. For another, if the feeling is already inside, denying it or keeping it inside isn’t going to get rid of it. Expressing it gets it out, confesses / admits it — releases it — not like freeing a lion from a cage, but like defusing a bomb. And that’s the ultimate intention in listening partnership. We desire to love our neighbor, whether our child or parent or friend or coworker or spouse or acquaintance or whoever. These angry (or other) feelings are in the way. Acting to release the feelings frees us to love the way we want to.

I’m honestly not sure that prayerful repentance accomplishes emotional release. Perhaps it can, depending on how it’s done. If it can be tearful, or get one laughing hard, or if it can involve some safe yelling and punching. I don’t think a prayerful repentance is fruitful if it involves trying to put a lid on these unpleasant feelings, trying to shed them without going through them first.

Cinderella

Today, I was talking with a friend about kids and their perceptions of and attitudes toward violence and anger.

Tonight, Amy and I watched Cinderella — her first movie, and years after I’d seen it last.

She loved it, generally, but was upset by the way the mice kept attacking the cat and vice versa, and the way the king kept jumping around and flailing his sword and throwing things. (She also wanted Cinderella and the prince to stay in the palace and not go walking / dancing outside.)

My friend was talking about how her child has mentioned how other kids talk — talking about punching or wanting to punch people, or choking stuffed animals, slapping them in the mouth and eyes, and that sort of thing. How it makes her think twice about saying even something as innocent as “We’ll just bonk him on the nose” about the scary ghost imagined downstairs.

We agreed that we want our kids to know they’re worth standing up for — to know they are allowed to defend themselves. But that it’s not okay for them to start a fight, and that it’s best to try to resolve conflicts without physical violence. That it’s not okay to throw or break toys, or hit people, but that it’s fine to punch a pillow or bang a blanket.

In real life, of course, cats catch and eat mice. But they don’t talk or wear clothes or try to trick one another or use forks, dishes, or other “weapons.” It’s nice to see a hero outwit and defeat an enemy… but why is the cat an enemy, and not just a natural predator? This cat is named “Lucifer” and is clearly portrayed as a villain.

How would you talk to your child if they were upset about the mice and the cat in this movie?

(Fortunately, she didn’t notice the “leave the sewing to the women” line in the one song.)

And the king — well, I guess it reinforces, negatively, what I’ve tried to teach Amy about how to handle frustration and anger and impulsiveness in general.

I know, it’s just a kids’ movie, and they had to add stuff to make it movie-length and all… but these are the things my kid noticed and was upset about. Good thing we chose Cinderella and not one of the movies that has any “real” fighting in it.

Anger. And Truth.

1. Do you think there is an important distinction between anger and the way one expresses anger?

I tend to think so. I think anger the emotion is like any other emotion — having no moral content in itself, as valid as any other feeling, just as permissible. Even when the anger is irrational, or out of proportion, it’s still just a feeling — it’s possible to recognize its irrationality or disproportion and still acknowledge the fact of the feeling.

How one expresses anger is different, though. I don’t think it’s generally okay to hit or kick or bite or yell at people, for example. And I think one should be careful about banging and slamming and stomping, too, making sure that nothing important is broken or hurt. It does seem that anger needs some sort of forceful physical outlet, but it still needs to be a safe and appropriate one: chop wood, punch a pillow, go running, throw darts (at a dartboard, of course), etc.

It’s not pleasant when someone is angry at you, whether their anger is rational or proportional or not.

But it’s more manageable when the someone can still speak with respect, and can delay the physical expression until a safe time and place. There have been times when I’ve been so angry I can’t speak with a pleasant tone of voice, but I CAN tell the other person that I’m speaking to communicate, not to attack, even though my voice sounds nasty.

What do you think?

2. The children’s lesson in church today was about the armor of God metaphor in Ephesians. One item is the belt of truth. It has never occurred to me to associate it with TELLING the truth — for me it’s usually connoted KNOWING the truth.

Not that I think telling the truth is unimportant. Just that what we need to stay strong in faith is not so much keeping our behavior up to a certain standard, but in knowing the Gospel and being open to it speaking to all parts of our life.

What do you think?

Earplugs again

Today I got out my earplugs again.

I didn’t sleep well last night — I was probably up from about 2 to about 5 or 6. Then I had two hours of babysitting, which went well but is still tiring. Amy only slept a half hour for her morning nap.

So when she was still talking, and sometimes crying, perhaps because she’s got this new habit of throwing her beloved blanket out of the crib, I was getting irrationally angry. Part of me said it would be safer not to try to go in and comfort her because I was irritated enough I might yell or be rough. Part of me said it would be good for her to learn that when she throws her blanket out of the crib, it doesn’t come back.

I put in the earplugs so her sounds (both the contented babbling and the crying) wouldn’t aggravate me further.

And I continued working on her one year scrapbook, thinking again about the irony, that it can be fun and pleasant to do something about Amy even while I’m irritated with Amy herself.

She slept about an hour. Not long enough — for her or for me. But we’ll be okay.

Miserable little rash

Poor Amy keeps getting fresh rash. It’s not huge, not scabby or broken or anything, just persistent / recurring. Honestly, if you saw it, you wouldn’t think anything of it.

I did some reading today, and found over and over again that changing frequently and exposure to air are the most helpful things you can do for a diaper rash. We thought we were changing pretty frequently already, but we’re going to keep working at it. And the old comforter is back in place for naked time after diaper changes.

I also found some other ideas that we’re going to try:

  • Use a cup of vinegar in the final rinse when washing diapers.
  • Change detergents — we buy stuff with no dyes and perfumes, but perhaps the store brand isn’t as good as the brand we tried before.
  • Use diaper cream LESS frequently — 2-3x a day rather than with every change — allows skin to breathe.
  • Dress baby in a diaper without a cover for more breathability. The Bummis wraps we use are not like the old days’ rubber pants — they are fairly breathable. But a plain diaper is even more breathable. This will require leggings of some sort, though, since the weather’s colder now. I’m working on knitting a pair — this time I found a pattern.

There have been some unhappy incidents lately. Amy has been so miserable, apparently with the rash, that she screams the old bloody murder scream on the changing table, whether you’re touching her or looking at her or not. Twice I’ve yelled back.

I don’t like that I get angry and think things like “It’s JUST a diaper change!” or “There’s nothing wrong!” — feelings are not rational and I shouldn’t require that she provide an acceptable reason for being upset. At the same time, my feelings don’t have to be rational either. I do need to keep working at appropriate expression and safe metabolizing of anger, but it’s okay to be angry. And yes, being screamed at is annoying, no matter what the reason.

Today we are all making progress. There already is a difference in the redness of her rash. And even though she screamed again at one change, I talked us both through it, explaining to her (and reminding myself) that I know she’s not crying to annoy me, but because she’s upset, and that she has a right to her feelings and I choose to have compassion and respect for her, and that I have a right to my feelings when I find her behavior annoying even though it’s not her fault.

Sure, because I’m the anxious type, the thought crossed my mind, what if this means I need the full dose of Risperdal. But no, this is not a four- or five-day pattern of escalation. It’s just some elevated triggers (Amy hasn’t cried like this in months) and elevated response to them, and I’m doing better already.

Emotions are weird

I like being able to have emotions.

But sometimes they’re weird and / or annoying.

Like when you put the baby down for a nap around 3:30 and you still hear occasional talking at 4:45, half an hour before you need to leave to take the baby to meet her daddy for dinner at the dining hall.

It’s not crying. She seems perfectly content to just sit there and talk to herself.

If she doesn’t sleep, she doesn’t sleep. She usually copes pretty well with missed naps. Not great, but not unbearable.

So getting mad about it doesn’t jive with rational mind.

Wise mind patiently sits here and tells me that rational mind may have analyzed things just fine, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to be angry or that it doesn’t make sense over in emotional mind. After all, this non-napping is unexpected and unwanted.

Wise mind also reminds me that it’s possible to feel an emotion and not let it dictate my behavior.

And Amy keeps saying “uh-oh”; I wonder if she’s tossed one of her things out of the crib or something.

I’ve been feeling on edge a bit lately, anyway. We’re still new here, and making friends and otherwise adjusting (and finding a church) takes time and plodding and risks and all that. And yesterday was odd and Mark has to work late again tonight (had a football game last night, too), and I was only able to make one of the doctor appointments I need. (I have two days when Mark has fall break and can be home to take care of Amy. Amy doesn’t know anyone here well enough for me to ask someone else to watch her.)

This morning, though, we had a little outing. I met three other moms at the coffeeshop and we enjoyed hanging out, eating scones, and watching each other’s little ones.

I can’t believe she (apparently) didn’t sleep at all for this hour and a half.

Please let it not be another poopy diaper. So tired of poopy diapers, especially these ones where it’s all slimed and doesn’t shake or scrape off nicely. One or two a day, fine, but not every diaper…

There’s some cries mixed in with the talking, now.

———

Edited to add:

Now it’s 5:12. Three minutes before we have to leave. Guess who is silent, perhaps asleep?

———

Edited to add:

It’s now 8:31.

Indeed, she was asleep when I went to get her, and was not happy about waking up. She’s pretty quick to adjust, though. And it was just a nice wet diaper, not poopy.

Dinner was not great, but we all seemed to mellow out as it went on. It’s hard to strike the right line between complaining and bottling; I suppose I should try to just state what I’m feeling, in an informational way.

When Amy and I got home, I spread out the old comforter and let her play naked. Just as one big rash was finally almost completely faded, another one struck. Humph. I’ve been using my wool soakers, too, for more breathability. She had some frustrations, mostly about me keeping her on the comforter, but mostly played just fine.

And when I sang Old MacDonald, I started to hear “I-O,” maybe even “E-I-O” just after I sang those parts. Throughout the song she was watching intently, and moving her lips, perhaps imitating.

She was not happy about getting a new diaper on, calmed down for her bottle, and was not at all happy about being put to bed, but almost immediately went to sleep.

Ahhhh…

Dreams of hostility

Every once in a while — two recently, one last night — I get these dreams full of rage and hostility and rejection and confrontation and complete lack of understanding / respect and defiance and denial. I’m on both the receiving and giving ends of these emotions and turmoils.

Leaves me a little breathless and sad in the morning.

And a little confused. Are the other characters representing themselves? Themselves in the past or in the present? Or are they representing aspects of myself? What does it mean to see myself as these other people? What exactly is it that my dreams are telling me I need to work through and metabolize?

Some ideas…

I continue (as I likely always will) to fight to understand what it means to be a self and how I am to live as a self without disregarding others. This struggle applies to everything — how I think about whether or not I want or am willing to accept another child(ren), how I interpret and communicate with Mark and other people in my life, particularly navigating gracious honesty.

There are things I want to be a certain way, and I have little hope of seeing that happen. Blocked goals / frustrated desires often provoke anger.

There are things that stop me in my tracks, things that flabbergast and bewilder me, things that should not be, things that don’t make sense.

And yes, there are things in myself that are in conflict, things that are difficult to sift through, interpret, evaluate. It is hard to discern the voice of God, the voice of my real self, and the voices of the past and the inner critic and fears and rational mind and emotional mind and wise mind and superego, ego, and id, or whatever else you want to label the various inner voices.

Which brings me to a question for Austin or Beauty or both or any other DID person. Do you see the various parts / alters in your system as aspects of your true self — do you see even a hint or glimpse of the possibility of integration? Or is it more like they’re other people, separate from your true self, so that wholeness would mean their death rather than their integration?