Saturday, November 14, 2009

Learning from Anger

Anger is a signal,
and one worth listening to.
— Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger

As a culture, we are confused about anger. Is anger a good thing to let out, or an inappropriate self-indulgence? How can we manage it well if we’re not sure how to think about it? Might it even be useful to us during caregiving?

Before you get carried away with yourself, stop and think. Understanding your anger could be an act of self-preservation. Rather than denying anger or wishing it would go away, try thinking about it this way. Anger is normal. Not only that, within limits it can be healthy and useful. We’re not talking about pathological anger that is unleashed as a weapon to damage or control others. Rather, this is the domesticated variety that can be a highly valuable signpost.

Anger can let you know what you are ignoring. It may show you when you are neglecting your own needs. If you are over tired, haven't taken time for yourself, haven't been exercising or eating properly, you may over-react to things you would normally handle well.

Anger may also raise its head when you are resisting some aspect of life that you would be better off accepting. Caregiving gets a whole lot smoother when you look at what you’re resisting and accept what you cannot change.

If you have unrealistic expectations of yourself, others, the medical community or your caregiving experience you have set yourself up for anger. Life simply can’t measure up, so try lowering or changing your expectations.

Finally, anger will show you when you need to be speaking up about something. Feelings of constructive anger are often valid and understandable. When we tamp them down instead of exploring and expressing them appropriately, they build up.

The next time you find your anger welling up, ask yourself:

1. Is this an immediate life or death issue? If not then perhaps your reaction is out of proportion, or at best, unhelpful. When you take the time for a deep breath, you can see that these off-the-wall reactions give a clear message. If you have spoken harshly to someone, apologize. Ask them to understand the stress you are under. Then take some downtime. Take a walk. Do some yoga. The best way to respond to issues will be found. The answers will come.

2. Am I upset about something over which I have no control? You can’t change other people or certain aspects of caregiving. Of course there will be instances when you need to take action, but other aspects simply are as they are. You can always try to shift your interpretation of them, or even consider accepting them. If you find yourself thinking, “Why can’t he see what he’s doing?” or “Why can’t she be different!” stop and think about the other’s personality traits or changing life conditions. Who must they be to be speaking or acting as they are? Precious time and energy are spent railing against the personality or behaviors of others, when understanding them, even having compassion for them, and/or making clear requests gets a situation resolved.

3. Do I need to communicate about something important to me? If you do, plan out what you will say and how you will say it. What words might the other person be able to hear? Speak with compassion. Using “I” statements will make what you have to say easier to hear. For instance, let’s say you need to ask your life partner for help. Make your request cleanly, as in, “I am feeling major stress from doing all my usual home chores AND helping my Mom. Could we just talk about another way we could team up to get the household chores done? I think I might crack otherwise.”

Emotional availability to life is essential for vital living. It is part of being awake to life. When emotions are managed well, the ebb and flow between practical brain and emotional intelligence creates a rhythm that can buoy and empower you as you navigate caregiving.

Let your healthy feelings flow through you. Ride them, giving them their proper place in your scheme of things. Take considered action when you need to, but when a situation is out of your hands, relinquish control and give yourself energy outlets. Be patient with yourself. You are getting your new sea legs. As you move over the shifting ground of caregiving, accept the movement. With acceptance you may be present enough to see the blessings in this time. Look for them.

As always, if any aspect of caregiving feels to be too much for you, consider seeking the support of a good therapist or counselor. The relief alone of having someone totally there for You can take much of the pressure off.
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