It’s almost a cliche in therapeutic circles these days to say, “Anger is a secondary emotion”. We all know that anger seems preeminent, but actually acts as a proxy for more unstable emotions like sadness, embarrassment, shame, frustration, and defensiveness. Acting on this dictum, however, is a whole other challenge.
A couple of days ago, The Wife and I were arguing about something. She asked me to do something, and I pushed back, hard. It was right at the end of dinner, and our 3-year old daughter was still sitting at the table working on her last few bites, so her mother and I were literally talking over her head, going back and forth and getting nowhere except toward the land of indignance.
And then it happened.
She rose up between us, sitting up on her knees, and turned to me. Catching my eye, and with her palms facing me at shoulder height, she quietly but firmly said, “Slow down, Daddy.” I looked at her, slightly confused and just a little perturbed. She repeated herself, pushing her palms toward me and repeating, “Slow down”. “Slow down, Daddy.”
Incredulous, I stopped for a few seconds to decide what to do. And though I was clearly willing to ride roughshod over my wife, I just couldn’t do the same with my porcelain daughter. So I did what we always ask her to do in moments of stress: I took a deep breath. I blinked and thanked my daughter and apologized to her (but not to my wife, sadly). Then I gathered my thoughts and tried to express myself to my wife. This was difficult, however, because I was overwhelmed with sadness, and kept interrupting myself with tears. I apologized to her, and asked for her forgiveness, and received her understanding. I had been acting out of anger because I was hurt and embarrassed and defensive.
I just needed a little child to show me that.