A reader wrote to me last week asking if I had any advice for her in regards to her ‘hotheaded’ behavior. Below is an edited example of the letter:
Dr. Berman –
Do you have any advice for me regarding my temper? I come from a long line of people who lose their temper easily, and though I have tried to escape this behavior, I find myself ‘losing it’ again and again. Afterwards, I feel absolutely terrible, and am wracked with guilt and shame. I don’t want my children to grow up in the same environment I did. However, I have tried everything (meditation, counting to 10, etc.) to no avail. Please help me learn how to control my temper!
Thank you so much for reaching out! First, let me congratulate you on your self-awareness and your dedication to your ‘soul-work.’ I firmly believe that we are all here to seek and find all the barriers within ourselves that we have built against love. It sounds like your temper is one such barrier. However, I don’t think your temper is a result of you not loving your own family enough, but rather a result of you not loving yourself enough. What do I mean by that?
You have created a story in which you are a damaged villain. You come from a family of hotheaded people who (in your mind) tainted you with their tempers, and now you must limp through life, trying to hide this beastly, horrible, un-lovable part of yourself. You try to lock it away, to keep it apart from the people you love the most, your children. You try to count to 10. To mediate. To take deep breaths. But, always, always that ugly side of yourself comes out. And I bet it comes back with a vengeance, more powerful and nasty as a result of being hidden and denied for so long.
But, what if your temper isn’t a beast at all? What if your temper is something you should cherish, care for, and deeply honor and adore? As poet Rilke says, “Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that we should pay homage to our bad behavior or never try to improve ourselves. Just the opposite! When we finally stop running from our flaws and living in shame, something incredible happens: We can actually change. We can grow. We become powerful.
So what if you stopped thinking of your anger as a problem? What if you realized that your anger is a gift? Your anger is not a soul-deformity. Your anger is not going to harm your children. You are allowed to be angry. Anger is an acceptable, healthy and worthy emotion. (You may want to read The Gift of Anger by Marcia Cannon to learn more about the value of anger and why we should stop running from anger as a society.) Anger only becomes ugly and dangerous and damaging when we refuse to accept it. As the old saying goes ‘that which we resist, persists.’ By resisting your anger, you are only giving it more power. And as the anger grows, so does the shame and self-hatred and the feelings of powerlessness. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s not serving anyone.
So my advice would be this: Let yourself be angry. That doesn’t mean you have to scream and throw things (but you can if you wish, in a safe way, such as by screaming into a sink full of water or punching a pillow or otherwise ‘losing it’ in private to get that adrenaline out without scaring your kiddos.)
But I think something amazing will happen to you when you let yourself be angry, without judging that anger, without attaching yourself to that anger, without making up stories about that anger. Look at your anger in a curious, detached, open and vulnerable state. Observe it. It’s not you. It’s not who you are. It’s not your past and it’s not your destiny. It’s just a cloud passing through the sky—yes, as innocent and natural and worthy as a very cloud. Nothing to get worried about. Nothing to feel ashamed of. Nothing to grab onto.
When you really start to live in this space and stop thinking of it as ‘your temper’ but rather as a normal emotion that comes and goes just like happiness, sadness, or fear, I think you will find that those flares of rage go away. It won’t control you anymore. It won’t be the beast that you hide in the closet. It will be just another part of yourself, a part of yourself that you bring love, attention and care to when necessary, and a part that you release when it is time.
Reader, I hope this helps. And I hope you are proud of yourself for your effort here, and that you thank yourself for showing up…and that you finally let your dragons become your princesses.