What kind of a person will our child grow up to be?
We saw a live Ninjago performance at our recent visit to Legoland Malaysia. The story was about the ninjas rescuing a dragon from the forces of darkness so it will be a dragon of light and do good instead of a dragon of darkness and wreck havoc.
The thing is, it’s the same dragon with the same power. But what it would use its power for will depend on what it has been trained to do.
Was it reared with love, kindness and encouragement? Or was it reared with darkness, hatred and resentment?
Obviously the environment will shape the type of dragon it would become.
It reminds me of the Cherokee story of the fight between the 2 wolves inside us, except in this version, the fight between light and darkness is internal.
You see, inside each and every one of us resides an “evil” wolf and a “good” wolf. The wolf that wins the fight is the one we feed.
If we feed our wolves with anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and/or ego, the evil wolf will win.
But if we feed our wolves with joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith, the good wolf will win.
While our environment plays a role in shaping who we are, it is we who determine what we allow into our system.
As parents, we not only control the environment which our children grow up in, we also serve as their teachers and guides. Subsequently, when our children grow up, we become the inner voices they hear when they process their thoughts. Are they capable enough? Are they good enough? Are they loving towards others? Are they showing empathy to those who have been mean to them? Are they kind? Are they resilient? What would they do when they encounter difficulties? Their answers to these questions depend on what we teach them and what we say to them.
Recently, A had a difficult time with another child and was repeatedly reduced to tears. I could take the easy way out and reduce interaction between that child and A. I could paint A as a victim and the other child a target for negative labels. But I see a higher purpose in their interaction. I helped A see how she could be a teacher to that child, to help that child learn gentleness and generosity. And at the same time, I felt it would help A build her resilience so she wouldn’t be so easily affected by what others say or do. Amazingly, she agreed to be a teacher. In fact she said, “I can stand up for myself because I am resilient. And I still love XYZ and I will be a teacher to help him be nicer.”
That really warmed my heart bcos she sees herself as a learner (in self-defence) and a teacher (in guiding the other child). When she grows up seeing adversities as opportunities to learn and teach, nothing will fazz her. Her blueprint in dealing with adversities and “difficult” people will be a positive one.
We, as parents, help our children build their blueprints: blueprint in dealing with setbacks, blueprint in dealing with difficult people, blueprint in dealing with abundance, etc etc. Our children carry these blueprints with them unconsciously.
Many people live with negative blueprints without even realising their thoughts were “imprinted” from young. For those of us fortunate enough, we realise the existence of our negative blueprints and do our utmost best to undo them and create a new set of positive blueprints.
Hence it is very important that we remind our children they are capable (even when they make mistakes), that they are good enough based on the knowledge and skills they have at that moment. We show them how to empathise, love and be kind to others. We encourage them to get on their feet when they fall and help them see obstacles and challenges as opportunities for growth and development.
Which wolf our kids will feed subsequently when they grow up really then depends on what we say to them and what we teach them when they are young. Whether they will grow up to be dragons of light or dragons of darkness too will depend on the environment we provide for them.
While it may seem a scary thought with overwhelming responsibility, we can choose to see it in another way.
In order to build an environment of light for our children and be the voice that will feed their “good” wolf, we too will end up feeding our good wolf and become dragons of light. Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?
We may not be able to motivate ourselves to become better, but for the sake of our children, we will be able to do it. That’s why our children are our best teachers.
It’s personal only if we decide to make it personal.
It has been a rather crazy week this week. I had had a super full load of work to get done, plus a talk to prepare for. Unfortunately, my little 6-year-old came down with the flu on Sunday. She had been a real trooper, resting, sleeping and leaving me practically very much alone for a few days to do my work because she knew I was busy.
But by Wednesday, her love tank was empty. She wouldn’t let me go. She was only content when she was in my arms. When I attempted to reach for my phone or laptop to do some work while craddling her, she would grab hold of my wandering hand and place it firmly against her face.
And so I savoured the moments and focused my 100% attention on her until she fell in a deep sleep and I was able to snap this photo.
Soon after, she stirred and pulled my hand back to her and we stayed in that position for a few hours.
By Friday, she was well enough to go to school. She had been looking forward to seeing her classmates and teachers and it was a happy occasion as we headed towards school.
My husband had started the “tradition” of bringing iced water for her when picking her up from school because it’s hot in the afternoons. But on Friday, I did not bring any iced water when I went to pick her up as she was still having a cough.
When she realised there was no cold water, she stomped the whole way back. And when she reached home, she threw herself on the sofa and cried as if the world had let her down. She practically had a meltdown.
I had 3 options.
One was to be angry and upset that she was ungrateful, that I too had walked in the hot sun to go pick her up AND bring her home. (Guess how I knew of this option?)
Two was to ignore her and leave her alone (give her a time out).
Three was to show her love and compassion.
Truth be told, I felt anger bubbling. I felt she was ungrateful. I feared she was becoming self-entitled. And boy was I tempted to leave her and go get a glass of cold water for myself!
But in the end, I took my 2 deep breaths and I chose love and compassion.
I bent over her and asked if she wanted me to cuddle her. She put her arms around my neck, all the while still crying. I took that as a “yes” and I craddled her.
After a while, she started kicking and writhing in frustration. So I asked if she would like me to put her down. She hugged me tighter and I took that as a “no”. So I just held her while she kicked and writhed and cried. After 25 minutes, she finally calmed down. I told her a joke, she laughed and that was the end of it.
She had let all her “angries” and stress out. I didn’t take any of it personally. We both emerged fr the “ordeal” happy and deeply connected.
After we had lunch, I explained why I couldn’t give her cold water and I got a hug in return. I asked her if she knew why I didn’t bring iced water when I went to pick her up and she said she knew.
You see, I knew she had understood. But I also knew she did not have the ability or muscle to not feel or act disappointed. Plus she had just recovered from flu and must have been exhausted being in school after a long MC. She had no reserves left for any self-control. Had I chosen to get angry at her, it would have been akin to getting angry at an 8-month-old baby for not walking.
She throwing a tantrum was not an attack on me. She just couldn’t control her emotions. I do not need to take it personally, and I’m glad I stopped myself, re-wired my brain and refused to go any further down the rabbit hole of anger.
I’m not a saint who doesn’t get angry. I’m just a regular human with normal instinctive emotions. I get angry a whole lot bcos of my imprint as a child that scoring 97 or 99 out of 100 is a punishable offence. I have tremendous fear of being not-good-enough. I fear being a lousy parent. And so, yes, I correspondingly have a lot of anger.
I mean, if I were a good parent, my kids should all be behaving well, doing well, listening well, controlling themselves well. So if they act out, it must mean I have failed. My first instinct is, “oh dear, I have failed. How can I help other parents if my children are still giving me problems?”
And if you have read Part 2 of my Dealing with Anger series, you know that it will very quickly be translated by the mind into, “How dare you not do what I have taught you so many times?” which if left alone will become an explosion of anger.
But as mentioned in Part 3, I have learned to take my precious 2 breaths. And those 2 breaths have on many, many occasions given me space and time to re-wire my brain to move away from anger, face my fear and tell it to go away because I AM AN AWESOME PARENT. It’s a conscious decision every day, to re-wire my brain. Sometimes I fail, but over the years, I have had more successes than failures. My brain synapse to anger is weakening.
May you also find courage to face your tiger, face your fear and tell it to go home.
In Part 3, we will look at the “HOW”. How do we control and deal with our anger?
What We Can Do
1) Identify the Fear
In Part 2 of Dealing with Anger, I mentioned that ANGER is the mask for FEAR.
Whenever we get angry, it’s because a fear is triggered. And instead of feeling paralysed by the fear, we put on our ANGRY mask so we can “fight” the threat. In other words, instead of dealing with the fear, we attack whatever it is that exposes that fear.
What we see on the surface is ANGER (shouting, hitting etc). But beneath that surface is a whole range of other emotions that is almost always backed by fear.
For example, most of us instinctively get angry when someone points out our mistakes. But what do we actually feel? Most probably it was embarrassment. However, the underlying emotion is actually our fear of “losing face”.
Or if someone cuts us off in traffic, we feel indignant that the other driver is being rude and we honk angrily at him. But our underlying emotion could be our fear of being late. It could even be due to our kiasuism (fear of losing) to other driver.
Or if, instead of us, a colleague gets promoted. Some of us may feel jealous. We may complain about unfairness or even resign in anger. But actually what is triggered is our subconscious fear that our contribution is not being recognised by our bosses.
Of if our child throws a tantrum. Out of frustration, we yell, shout or hit the child. But if we analyse it further, it could be our fear of not knowing how to help our child. I know some parents fear becoming the parent they vowed never to be. I was one of them. It took me a long time to overcome that fear. I’ll share how I overcome that in a moment.
The point is whenever we get angry, there actually lies a host of emotions (frustration, jealousy, embarrassment etc) beneath that ANGER. And if we dig further, those emotions always stem from fear.
How does knowing that help us?
Every time we feel angry, even if we have already exploded, we need to take the time to reflect and identify the emotion that triggered that anger. More importantly, we must identify the fear that is triggered. After a while, we will discover certain fears keep surfacing.
2) Identify the Fear Pattern
What are the fears that keep surfacing? Is it the fear of “losing face”? Why are we afraid of losing face? Is it because we are worried people will think/know we have FAILED to do it right?
Or is it kiasuism, our fear of losing? Why are we afraid to lose? Is it because we don’t want to appear lousier than others? Because that would mean we have FAILED to win?
Or is it the fear of becoming someone whom we have vowed never to become? Why is it fearful to become that person? Is it because we know that person is flawed and if we are becoming like them, it means we too are flawed, that we have FAILED at being better?
Or is it fear of the unknown, fear of change? Why is change or the unknown so fearful? Is it because we don’t know how to respond or deal with it, that we will FAIL to adapt?
We need to keep asking questions and drill as deeply as possible to uncover our hidden fears.
Most of the time, we will realise our root fear is the fear of failure. And that comes from our fear of being NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
3) Question the Validity of the Fear
The fear of failure is deeply entrenched in our psyche, especially in our culture. We were brought up in a society where failure, or making mistakes, is frowned upon and not seen as an essential step towards learning. Some of us were brought up where we were not given second chances, or were very harshly punished for our mistakes.
I used to beat myself up badly every time I messed up. I would feel guilty, and with each loss in my temper, I would feel more inadequate then ever. Not only did I feel I wasn’t GOOD ENOUGH, I actually felt I was worse than the parent I did not want to become. Why? Because, compared to my parent, I had done so much reading and studying about becoming a good parent. Yet I had failed to do what I wanted to do. I was convinced I was a lousy, terrible, unworthy parent to my children.
Until one day, I had an epiphany.
I used to have a parent who would punish me when I messed up. Not only did I get a tongue lashing, I would get a physical lashing as well. Even if I had scored 97 marks in my Math test, I would receive 3 lashings for not scoring 100. And if I scored 99, then it would be 1 very hard lashing, because I was SO CLOSE yet not achieve 100. I remember scoring 77 marks once. Those were dark days… I was brought up to fear failure, to fear mistakes.
What led to my epiphany was I realised I hadn’t been scolded nor received lashings for more than 30 years. Yet that blueprint of being whipped and lashed had been so ingrained in me that I had became my greatest punisher. I realised I was the one who had made my life extremely difficult especially when my journey was rough. I had become my harshest critic to prevent failing or making mistakes. But my harshness sunk me to greater depths of despair whenever I failed and each “sinking” was harder to climb out of. How could I ever be the parent I want to be if I were so lousy?
So I went on a quest to learn how to overcome the conditioning that failure needs to be “beaten” out of me, that I am never good enough, even if I am at 99%.
And this is what I learned on my quest.
We need to really question the validity of our fear of failure. Past failures do not mean future failures, otherwise none of us would have ever learned to walk, ride a bike, swim, or do almost anything. How many of us learned to do anything the very first time we did them? Most of us had failed repeatedly before we succeeded in doing anything well. Yet, because we had persevered, each failure helped us learn where we went wrong and we became better.
So instead of saying we are not good enough, or that failure is bad, a strong mantra or affirmation we can use is this:
“I am doing the best I can given the circumstances I am in with the knowledge and skills I have.”
“Failure and learning from past mistakes are necessary for growth and success.”
That way, we don’t beat ourselves up when we have yet to reach success. We will have the strength to pick ourselves up, learn, and have another go until we get it right.
These mantras have helped me so much in managing my “failures”, in helping me pick myself up and learn to be better. They have empowered me to feel I CAN be better and they did not sink me into the depths of despair.
It sounds simple, but actually takes a lot of courage and resilience to press on and not get buried by mistakes. When the going got tough, and it frequently did and still does, I just thought about Thomas Edison. When asked how he felt failing 10,000 times before he invented the lightbulb, he replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
The key here is to know we can do it and keep working on finding a solution without beating ourselves up.
BUT some parents tell me, “I can’t control my explosions! Even before I can analyse my fear, my anger has already gripped me and I have exploded. So how?”
When we feel that familiar gush of anger flooding into our system, the very first step is to take a deep breath. It takes conscious effort and determination to not let the anger control us. The wonder of taking that ONE deep breath is that most people will find their brains less foggy and they can think better after that one deep breath . It is through this first step that anger can be controlled.
Unfortunately, that is one of the hardest thing to do. I have encountered so many parents who say that once they are gripped by anger, they would lash out instinctively. They only remember they need to take a deep breath after their anger is spent. Why?
Usually when an EVENT happens, we have a THOUGHT or interpretation about it. That THOUGHT triggers us feel a particular EMOTION which leads to a certain BEHAVIOUR. For example, the child hits his sibling. Automatically, our brain interprets that event with the thought that the child is being naughty which makes our blood boil (anger) and we yell at or hit the child
The thing is, whenever we allow a thought to be triggered by a particular set of events and we respond with a particular emotion which leads to certain behaviour, our brain triggers a connection from the event to the interpretation (thought) to the corresponding emotion and finally to the behaviour. The more we react to the same event by pulling up the same thought followed by the same emotion and reinforcing it with the same behaviour, the thicker and stronger the synapse (or pathway) from the event to the final behaviour becomes.
It gets to the extent that the pathway becomes “instinctive”. In other words, the final behaviour becomes instinctive whenever the interpretation or thought appears as a result of certain events. The link (arrow) from EVENT to BEHAVIOUR as well as from THOUGHT to BEHAVIOUR is now very strong and thick.
That is why some parents cannot even stop to breathe once the trigger is activated. That is why for many parents who have “anger management” issues, they cannot even remember to breathe once they feel angry.
Does that mean there is no cure once we have anger management issues? Thank goodness that is not the case. There is a cure. Otherwise I would still be having anger management issues.
I used to be an explosive mom. Despite knowing and doing my best to practice loving guidance, I had on many occasions yelled at my two older children when they were young. And even though it was rare, I have also been guilty of spanking them.
That was years ago before I learned about anger and why I exploded. With that knowledge and a lot of hard work (and mistakes), I overcame that “instinct” to yell at them and was also able to stop myself from raising my hands to their bottoms.
I have 3 children. My older two are 10 and 8 years older than my youngest child. They have often commented that their youngest sibling has a very different mom. Even though they have not been yelled at or hit for years, the trauma of how I had “disciplined” them with violence still remained.
That is why I strongly advocate for peaceful, loving discipline. Our children remember how we treat them, even if they may have forgiven us.
Visualise It Now
So how did I overcome my anger? It was through visualising what I would do when the “event” occurs.
Let us do a few simple exercises now.
Take two deep breaths slowly (BEHAVIOUR 1). Now visualise yourself calming down and creating the THOUGHT that your child needs your help. Then bring up the feeling of compassion and imagine yourself talking gently and lovingly with your child. You can even think of the “script” you would say to the child when you are calm (BEHAVIOUR 2).
Keep replaying that visualisation over and over again.
Why would that help? It helps because our brain cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imaginary. It will still form synapses. Hence, when we visualise or imagine something, our brains will still trigger the connections. In other words, we can actually “rewire” our brains just by thinking!
The more we visualise ourselves doing this, the stronger the pathway (arrow).
If you can, keep repeating this visualisation several times a day. However, I shall be brutally honest here. After doing the exercise now (assuming that you have done it), most parents will most likely repeat this visualisation only when they explode the next time and feel guilty. They will remember they WERE SUPPOSED to take 2 deep breaths.
Instead of feeling guilty that you did not take 2 deep breaths but had exploded, just do your visualisation. Imagine yourself taking 2 deep breaths, creating the thought that your child needs help and you feeling compassion for him.
Then go through the script where you will speak gently and lovingly to him. Keep doing this EVERY TIME you explode. Do not give in to the guilt and replay how you have exploded. Otherwise you are reinforcing the synapse of you responding to events or behaviour of your child with anger. Stop the video of your mistake. Create a new video of you taking 2 deep breaths, calming down etc. Trust me, it works. It takes time and effort because we are rewiring our brain, but it works.
How do you know you have mastered “Taking 2 Breaths”?
When you feel irritated or frustrated, but not angry yet, you will find yourself taking the 2 deep breaths, feeling calmer and being better able to speak gently and lovingly.
You may also notice your explosions getting fewer in frequency and lesser in intensity. Your synapse below is ready.
When that happens, you are ready for Step 2.
What is Step 2?
Step 2 requires you to rewire events that make you feel your child is being naughty or intentionally making you upset.
Think about something your child does that typically causes you to explode. Imagine that she has done that. Now visualise yourself taking two deep breaths and calming down.
Keep doing this visualisation while practicing you taking 2 deep breaths, thinking and believing that your child needs help and you speaking gently and lovingly to her. Keep doing this until it becomes your default behaviour.
Once you can get from whatever triggers you (big or small) to taking your 2 deep breaths, the rest of loving guidance will follow.
What? There is still Step 3?
Well, I never said changing our habitual instinctive behaviour is easy, did I? It takes effort and we need to cover different scenarios because right now the more easily triggered we are by anger, the more “roads” we have in our brains that lead to “Rome”. So we need to “destroy” those traditional paths and recreate new roads that lead to paradise.
So what is Step 3?
It is catching ourselves having the thought that our children are naughty. Whenever we have that thought, catch it and visualise ourselves taking 2 deep breaths. We want to create a strong pathway for this negative thought and link it to us taking 2 deep breaths.
When we find ourselves successfully catching ourselves referring to or thinking that our children are naughty and following that thought with 2 deep breaths, we would have succeeded in creating and strengthening these new pathways in our brain and weakening our old paths.
I have a few parents who confessed they would still scold and spank after they take their 2 deep breaths. The reason that happens is because their visualisation practice laid out in first part of the exercise (visualising taking deep breaths followed by the thought that their child needs help, followed by the feeling of compassion which leads them to be able to speak gently and lovingly) was not strong enough.
This manner of rewiring our brain applies not only to anger management. It applies to all aspects, including getting rid of procrastination, overcoming fear, etc. The more vivid we can visualise what we would like happen, the faster and thicker the connection will grow and the sooner we will be able to exhibit the desired behaviour.
That is why our thoughts have power. When we keep replying old “videos” in our heads, feeling the same shame and guilt for our angry explosions, we are actually strengthening those undesirable explosions!
Instead of feeling shame, guilt and regret, play a different video, one where we do the right thing and say the right thing. Just keep replaying that video. It would be more productive in helping us change our behaviour.
I hope you have enjoyed the 3-part series of Dealing with Anger. We have looked at WHAT anger is, WHY we choose to react with anger, and HOW we can deal with anger. In my next post, I will share a little more about why teaching and disciplining with love is more productive and effective than teaching and disciplining with fear.
If you have found this blog helpful to you, do share it with your friends! Thank you.
In Part 1 of Dealing with Anger, we explored the “WHAT” aspect of Dealing with ANGER. That is important because before we can deal with ANGER, or anything for that matter, we need to first understand what it is, so we can overcome it effectively.
In Part 2, we will look at the “WHY” aspect. Why do we get angry? Why do we choose ANGER over whatever it is covering up?
Why is there ANGER in the First Place?
In the previous part, we have seen that ANGER exists to protect us. But how does our body or brain know we need protection? It is because ANGER is the response we have to things that fall outside our OB markers. And things fall outside our OB markers because we deem them bad, dangerous etc. They are things that could threaten our well being.
Some people may say they get angry at things that are wrong, not when they are in danger.
Well, why would we consider anything wrong? It’s when those things, behaviour, etc break certain rules or decorum. And what happens when rules or social sensibilities are broken? If EVERYONE follows suit and decides to do the wrong thing, there will be disorder and suffering. All hell can break loose, and our well being will be threatened.
Hence, if we decode ANGER a little deeper, we will realise that ANGER is actually triggered by FEAR. ANGER is a mask for FEAR.
The question is, why does FEAR need a mask in the first place?
What Happens When We Are Gripped By FEAR?
When we are gripped by fear, most of us feel our hearts suddenly turning cold. We feel blood draining from our faces and our limbs, especially our legs turning to jelly or lead. Our minds suddenly go blank and we don’t know what we do. Instinctively, most of us feel like crouching into a fetal position and staying there.
Why Does Our Body React That Way To FEAR?
Interestingly, like ANGER, FEAR also triggers a rush of adrenaline into our bodies. But unlike ANGER which leads to quickening of our breaths and gushing of blood to our face and head, FEAR leads to blood being drained from all our extremities back into our core (or trunk). That’s why we feel our hearts turn cold, our limbs feel heavy and we freeze up. Yet, instinctively, we know we need to survive if we were attacked. Hence, we feel the urge to curl up like a fetus so we can protect our core.
Anger and Fear: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Both ANGER and FEAR trigger the release of adrenaline.
Unlike ANGER which prepares us to act against the danger, FEAR makes us freeze so we appear invisible to the danger. Both emotions are necessary for our survival.
Unfortunately, our society sees inaction, or freezing, as cowardly. So we, humans, begin to associate FEAR as “useless”. As a result, we tend to convert FEAR to ANGER since the latter makes us appear stronger and gives the sense that we are doing something about the danger.
Therefore, ANGER is the “proactive” twin of FEAR. FEAR makes us shut down. ANGER makes us act against (be it run or fight) whatever it is that we fear. They are two sides of the same coin.
How Does It Apply To Parenting?
Now, imagine our children have been constantly distracted by their electronic devices. We know they can do well in school if they put in the effort but they just don’t seem to care. And their results show they have done badly.
In this case, most parents will explode in anger. Some may scold their kids and some may add caning or hitting to the punishment. Why?
The reason is simple. We fear that our children will end up doing low-paying menial work instead of high-paying jobs. In other words, we fear for their future. But, as we know, FEAR is useless, non-productive. Freezing and not doing anything is not an option. Hence, most parents will naturally and instinctively turn that FEAR into ANGER so they have an emotion that will help them DO something. That’s why parents will yell and hit their children. They think they are doing it out of love to help their children amend their ways. But actually, they are releasing the FEAR that has gripped their heart by exhibiting ANGER.
When something happens, our mind interprets it and depending on our interpretation, an emotion arises which leads to a behaviour.But if the first emotion is deemed ineffective, gradually, our minds do not even register them (faded in the diagram below) and register only the resulting emotion. That’s when we feel as if we went straight from seeing our child distracted by his device to the thought her future is DOOMED to feeling ANGER and acting angry.
What other FEARS do we have that we have masked with ANGER?
Most of the anger we have against our children boils down to our fear for their future. Some of it could be due to our fear of losing our own sanity or our fear of “losing face”. And our greatest fear is actually not death, but the fear that we are NOT GOOD ENOUGH. That’s why people are very easily triggered when they feel they “lose face”.
Now we understand what ANGER is, what it masks and why we turn to ANGER when what we actually feel is FEAR. In the third part of the Dealing with Anger, we shall look at what are some of the strategies we can use to control anger.
Till then, continue analysing why you get angry and get to the root fear that triggered the anger. Awareness is the first step. Once you can identify a pattern in the fear, it will be easier to address it. But that’d be a separate post. ;P
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