Cooperative Parenting and Divorce Part VII: The Role of Thoughts in Managing Anger

In the last article we explored that emotions come from thoughts, so if we want to change how we’re feeling we need to be very aware of what we’re thinking… and then be willing to challenge it. For example, if another candidate is selected for a job you really wanted you might feel angry. And from the last article we know that anger comes from the thought “not fair!” So you ask yourself, “What’s not fair about that guy getting this job?” You might realize you don’t know much about that guy, and he might be more qualified than you are or maybe he interviewed better, etc. You might end up realizing that “not fair!” is not altogether true, and that what you really feel is disappointed which comes from not getting something you want. Click. That fits.

So it’s clear that emotions come from thoughts, and since we can challenge our thoughts it really pays to understand what we’re thinking when we’re struggling emotionally. But… where do thoughts come from? Are they arbitrary? Why does one person think “Jerk!” and feel offended at being stood up while another thinks, “Oh no! Has something bad happened to them?” and feels worried?

The answer is: filters. Just as in photography, filters color how we see the world. A simple filter might be waking up on the wrong side of the bed, when you’re sick, or pre-coffee. The most sneaky, rigid, and complicated filter is beliefs. Beliefs are a deep type of thought of which we are often not aware, and have to do with who we are (I am not good enough), how the world works (people are out for themselves), and how we fit into it (it’s unacceptable if someone is mad at me or doesn’t like me). And then we have more specific beliefs about people with whom we’ve developed a dynamic. You might have the belief that your spouse is a very helpful person, so when they don’t take out the trash you wonder if they’ve been stressed and you feel compassion for them. You might take out the trash and then approach them with a glass of wine and supportive conversation. If you believe your spouse is selfish you are more likely to see that overflowing garbage as concrete proof that they don’t care about you at all and they just do whatever they want. You feel angry and sad. You sleep in the spare bedroom without saying goodnight, leaving a banana peel on their pillow to drive home your point.

So it looks like this:

Understanding this flowchart is important because we spend a lot of time trying to control events (remind friends about dinner plans) and emotions (telling yourself it’s silly to be so anxious) and we don’t focus as much on interpretation which we actually can control, and which would naturally lead to different emotions.

So let’s examine a typical co-parenting issue with this flowchart.

It’s important to note that the goal of challenging our interpretations is not to try to always land ourselves in a happy place but rather to make sure that our emotions are coming from the most rational place possible. Often when we struggle with one difficult emotion more than others it is due to an irrational thought pattern that comes from unhealthy or inaccurate beliefs.

It can be hard to change your thinking patterns when struggling with an emotion, but the more you practice in retrospect the easier it is to do in the moment. Consider noticing one time during the day when you struggled with anger towards your parenting partner, and explore the interpretation that led to anger, then what your behavior was and what long-term consequences might arise. Then go back and see if you can re-interpret the event more rationally, or more factually, or more compassionately. See how what follows (emotions, behaviors, consequences) is different. Over time you will notice patterns in your thinking and figure out what your beliefs are about the other parent… and if any need some adjustment.