Why You Can’t Suppress Anger and How to Learn to Regulate Emotions

"I snap at my kids, and I feel like a monster." But did you have breakfast today?
Vera Yakupova | 12 November 2020
Why You Can’t Suppress Anger and How to Learn to Regulate Emotions

If we type “how not to yell at your kids”, the search engine gives out books with titles like “Mom, Don’t Scream”, “Stop Yelling at Your Child” and hundreds of pictures with distorted screaming faces of adults and sad kids. One involuntarily feels that the mother who is angry at her child is some kind of monster.

Constant yelling and aggression towards a child are certainly not suitable for a way of upbringing, because they destroy the psyche, which is proven by psychological and neurobiological studies. But sometimes even the most accepting and patient parent gets angry with their child.

Vera Yakupova

We promise ourselves to never snap at our children again, we try to “count to 10”, but then he again throws a cup on the floor, and we do not have time to look back, as we find ourselves shouting “Will you stop?!” The feeling of guilt and the advice to take a deep breath do not help, because emotional regulation is a difficult skill that needs to be trained correctly. Let’s figure it out how.

We tolerated and tolerated, and then snapped

It is among intelligent, well-mannered people that anger often manifests itself like this: people tolerated something, but then had a flash of anger and snapped, and then everything is back to normal again. It is a cycle. How does this happen? This is because “good” children do not get angry.

Obedient children are taught not to get angry, but occasionally there are situations that cause anger. What do they do with this feeling? That’s right, they suppress it. But suppression is not control. We need emotions in order to navigate the situation and build our behavior in an optimal way for ourselves.

Think about mining for a moment. A mine has a special warning system in case of pressure increase and methane accumulation. If dangerous processes begin to occur, the system gives a signal and the miners rise to the surface. We remember what tragic consequences can be if the warning system is turned off. So, emotions are the same “signaling system” for our psyche, by which we orient ourselves what happens in a situation.

If you ignore the growing discomfort and irritation for a long time, then at some point the tension will reach an extreme point, there will be no strength to restrain it, and it will “explode”. Psychological science considers the suppression of emotions not a very useful regulation strategy, many studies link it to depression and other disorders.

Okay,” you’d say, “it’s wrong to suppress emotions. So what do you do with them?”

It is important to train yourself to notice even the smallest signs of irritation and fatigue in order to do something in time: get out of the situation, stop doing what you no longer have the strength for, exhale and remind yourself of supporting words.

For example, do not do the cleaning when your two-year-old already threw 3 tantrums in the morning and you had taken your older child to training. Or do not communicate with a neighbor who constantly comments on your life in such a way that leaves you with an unpleasant aftertaste inside. It is at this moment that control is possible, and not at the boiling point, when rage is building up inside you.

Did you have breakfast today?

In Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the following experiment is described: the researchers counted the number of positive and negative decisions that judges made before lunch and after. It turned out that hungry judges made significantly more negative decisions than satiated ones. How can this be explained?

The regulation of emotions seems to be in the realm of the senses, but it is largely a cognitive process. Our brain processes information from the environment, evaluates what is happening, and then we feel something in relation to it and act accordingly. Behavior that we consider undesirable also helps us to slow down the brain.

Any mental process, whether it is solving a problem, writing an article, or regulating emotions, requires energy. We take this energy from food.

It sounds simple, but in practice we often forget about it.

Last winter, I participated in my colleague’s class on Emotional Eating. The participants had to keep a food diary, and the specialists had to analyze it. It turned out that many women drank a cup of coffee in the morning and buried themselves in work, and could have a full meal in the evening if at all.

When a person is hungry, the level of irritation rises, the strength to control his emotions decreases, therefore it is very important to eat well and eat regularly in order to have better control over yourself. This rule is also true for sleep and rest.

I was not allowed to do this in my childhood – hence the anger

When we work with anger in practice, I ask clients to highlight their “red zones”, the situations that most often cause anger. There is often a situation of being in a rush among them (for example, you need to get dressed as soon as possible and run to the kindergarten / school / work / class). This causes a lot of stress and irritation.

But there is also a separate group of “red zones”. It includes those moments when something in our child’s behavior resonates with our own childhood experience and causes anger. Parents say, “I never did that in my childhood,” “I was not allowed to do this,” “Is it okay to behave this way?”

For example, if parents were not allowed be angry with their parents in their childhood, their kids’ yelling “You are a bad mother, I don’t want you, go away!”, brings up a thought like, “How can you talk like that with your parents?!”. After that, anger and resentment grow. Or a parent was pushed to study at school and only get A’s when he was small, so when his son says: “I don’t want to do my homework, and what do I need this English for, anyway?” he thinks “My son is so lazy! It’s unacceptable!” Then a wave of irritation rolls over.

Why is this happening? The beliefs and rules on which we rely in life are important to us. These are luminous beacons necessary to navigate the ocean of uncertainty, so our psyche is very protective of them. When someone questions the correct location of these beacons, we feel resentment and anxiety.

Now add parental responsibility here and the tension from a phrase like “I won’t do the cleaning,” rises to the mark of our “pedagogical failure,” and we are seized by the feeling of loss of control and a desire to scream.

If you are familiar with these feelings, it can be helpful to analyze which rules are very meaningful to you, and which are not worth the spent emotion and relationship with your child. What values do you definitely want to convey to your child, and what beliefs do not suit you very well, and you just automatically continue to insist on them. A space for full-fledged psychological work can unfold here.

There are many different sides to anger, here I have described only the most common ones. Anger management is a complex skill with several features, but the good news is that it can be trained. It is important to take into account the physiological aspects: eat, sleep, and rest regularly, so that our body has the strength for emotional regulation.

To get away from the strategy of suppressing emotions, you need to develop contact with your feelings and needs, to set up the “signaling system”: to learn to distinguish the shades and intensity of experiences. And, of course, explore your childhood or adult experience, that is similar to your child’s behavior. The tools for working with anger do not permanently deprive us of this feeling; on the contrary, they help us to feel it and cope with it without doing harm to others.

Translated by pravmir.com

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