The day I decided to write a book for stepmothers remains vivid in my mind. I was working on a story for a magazine about how challenging it is for childless stepmothers to move in with a man and his children. While researching the story, I interviewed several veteran stepmothers who had been in their stepfamilies twenty years or more.
One stepmom who described herself as a successful, happy stepmother told me about how wonderful her life was and how well everyone got along. “Really?” I wondered. I asked her a few more questions. Perhaps because I was the first person who listened to her challenging stepmom feelings with understanding and without judgment, a flood of anger burst from her heart and the raw pain and chronic stuffed anger of decades came flowing out.
That interview has stuck with me all these years because I have discovered after talking to stepmoms around the globe that anger is a job hazard for stepmothers. Because we often parent from the back seat, play second fiddle to the kids and the ex wife and sometimes the in-laws and ex in-laws, and feel powerless and voiceless in our own homes, it’s no wonder so many of us are pissed off.
Still, just because we have a clear right to be angry in many situations, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. During the last two decades researchers have conducted a multitude of studies which suggest that anger, hostility, and stress have a direct impact on our health. These emotions can lead to heart disease, inflammation, and even life-threatening diseases such as cancer. And that’s only one side of the story. Anger and hostility also does damage to our overall sense of happiness, well-being, and quality of life. It can lead to alcohol and substance abuse and overeating. It destroys intimacy and marriages.
I could have told the researchers that anger harms our bodies. In the early days of my stepfamily life I often allowed myself to fall into the whirlpool of negative thoughts. For instance, if I was angry because no one spoke to me during dinner, I would furiously clean dishes feeling like the hired help while everyone else sat companionably at the table. The more I allowed my thoughts to churn through my anger, the angrier I became. My heart rate sped up, my breathing became ragged and by the end of the night I had a horrible headache.
So what can you do about angry and hostile feelings?
View anger as a sign.
If you’re angry, you’re angry. You don’t have to explain it or feel badly about it. Anger is a feeling that you can use as a signal that something is not right. It is often a mask for other emotions. You can use your anger to begin exploring your deeper feelings. Ask yourself questions such as: Are my feelings hurt? Do I feel betrayed or taken advantage of? Do I feel like I am losing myself because I have no voice in this house? Do I feel left out?
Find your own patterns.
Take a moment to think about your life. When do you get angry? Can you identify what happens to set you off? Pay attention to the language you use to describe what is happening. Oftentimes we stepmothers are angry because we feel such a lack of control over our own lives and that is a proven stress producer. “All of our clinical and animal research confirms that the perception of not having any control is always stressful,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College and president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.
Change your perceptions.
As Dr. Rosch pointed out it’s the perception of not having control that is so stressful. So how can you change your perceptions? One stepmother I talked with consciously switched from feeling angry at her three teenaged stepchildren for making her life hell to feeling compassion by choosing to turn on her empathy about their situation. She shut her eyes and envisioned them as wounded soldiers in a field hospital. She cast herself in the role of nurse and healer to these kids who were clearly so deeply pained about their parents’ divorce that they made her the target of their anger even though she’d never done anything wrong. She carried that mental image with her so that every time one of the kids directed hostility at her, she responded with a calm demeanor that eventually broke through the kids’ pain so they could create positive relationships.
Calm your body before you speak.
Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good thing to vent anger because by yelling at your spouse you are focusing on the anger while in an emotional state and instead of feeling better you can actually increase your feelings of anger. Experiment with calming your body before you let the negative words rip. Do whatever you need to—take ten deep breaths, go for a run, take a hot shower, tell a joke—then return to discuss your feelings when you’re feeling calm.
Learn communication skills.
Take advantage of the many resources available to learn strong communication skills. The tools you learn can help you with every relationship you have. I highly recommend picking up Harriet Lerner’s classic book The Dance of Anger and any of John Gottman’s books for married couples. In the early days of my marriage, I had to learn how to use softer start-ups and “I” language. Clearly saying something like, “You are such an idiot for marrying that woman!” is not an effective way to start a conversation. Instead, stay firmly in your own feelings. “I am feeling jealous today that you had children with someone else.”
Arm yourself with positive emotions.
Another army of scientists have spent the last few decades researching how positive emotions affect our health and well-being. And the results are impressive. By cultivating positive emotions you can dramatically improve your social relationships and physical and mental health. Armed with positivity you are more resilient when bad things happen, you’re a better problem-solver, and you’re more equipped to deal with the ups and downs of stepfamily life. This is why I am constantly telling stepmothers to have fun! Lighten up! Enjoy yourself! This simple advice is backed by serious research so plan something fun right now.
In the end, as more and more research shows, anger can actually kill you if you live with it long enough. By choosing to learn new ways to cope with your feelings so you aren’t a victim of your negative emotions you can head off the long-term affects of chronic anger.
Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepfamily coach and educator, the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins), host of the popular Stepmom Circles Podcast and co-creator of The Stepfamily Letter Project. This article originally appeared in Stepmom Magazine.