Healthy Beginnings

Processing Anger: An Old Wives’ Tale

Anger is like spontaneous combustion...but we can control it.

Anger is like spontaneous combustion…but we can control it.

The clanging of pots and pans has a distinctive sound. Any small child can tell just how upset Mom might be, by how she slams the skillet onto the stove. I recall times when I’d see my mom dash into the kitchen and pull out every pot and pan from the cabinets, slam them onto the counter, then reach for a new box of SOS pads, and finally her yellow latex gloves are pulled on as if she’s about to do surgery. The end result: a year’s worth of grit and grime is scrubbed away from the bottom of each pan.

My grandmother cleaned silver. I remember being with her once when she received a piece of mail that upset her. I didn’t know what it was or why it upset her; I could just see the metaphorical steam pouring from her ears. The next thing I experienced was her pulling me into the dining room, pulling out a chair for me to sit on, placing a towel on the dining room table, opening a drawer to the buffet and pulling out the Silver Chest, the silver polish and the silver cleaning cloths; all within a matter of seconds. I knew not to question the process.

What I didn’t know is that both of these women were teaching me a valuable lesson about processing anger. In fact, the lesson was so subtle that I didn’t know it was a lesson until I found myself in a similar situation.

I had been asked to be a guest speaker for a conference being held in the Napa Valley. I decided that since the conference was on the weekend, it would serve as the perfect getaway for my partner and I. All the arrangements were made and we were good to go–or so I thought. My partner was returning to our home from Southern California and was due home by 2:00 p.m., which would have given us ample time to leave and arrive in time for the 7:00 p.m. welcoming reception. But, 2:00 p.m. came and went; 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. came and went, and 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. came and went. I tried to reach him on his cell phone, but it went directly to voicemail. At 7:00 p.m., I realized that there was no way I could make the reception that evening. I was fuming. I found myself pacing in the kitchen and the next thing I realized I was pulling pots and pans from the cabinets, reaching for the SOS pads and scrubbing away. It was an automatic response. It was as if both my mom and grandma were guiding me to say, let’s work some of that anger out before he gets home.

As I scrubbed I thought, “how am I accountable in this?” I was upset that my partner was late, but then I realized I had not confirmed that he’d be home by 2:00. I just assumed he’d be home at that time; because any time he’d gone to LA before he’d arrive home around 2:00 p.m. I also realized that I had said, “maybe we’ll do a getaway to Napa or Sonoma this weekend,” keeping the fact that it would be to the Sonoma Mission Resort & Spa a surprise. He didn’t even know where we were going, or that I was speaking.

By the time I heard his key in the front door (and cleaned my last sauce pan) my anger had dissipated. I could greet him with open arms and an open mind. Instead of confronting him for being late, I was in a place where I could hear him tell me of his saga of dropping his cell phone (not realizing it) and then driving the car over it; crushing it and spending two hours in the cell phone store trying to get it replaced, which caused him to get stuck in the Friday getaway traffic congestion coming out of LA.

I realized that anger is like spontaneous combustion. It wells up within us and then spews…but we can control it. When it happens, we have to have a plan to harness the energy, to redirect it…to put it to good. The “doing-ness” of the cleaning provided time for discernment. A time to ask ourselves, “what is my accountability in this upset?” It’s therapeutic and it’s freeing! I’m sure that there are many cars that have been washed, gardens tended to and silver polished as a therapeutic process. I once heard one of my Grandmother’s friends say to her, “Edna, your silver looks so beautiful! Is everything ok with you and your husband?”

Rev. Jack Elliott is a Spiritual Life Coaching. Visit his site at You may reach him by email at