I believe that anyone who is a psychotherapist for any length of time also becomes a philosopher. It is not that we rival the Aristotles of the world, but there is a tendency to think more deeply about the human mind, heart, and spirit when you work with hurting people all day.
There is one type of counseling I do that touches me to the core. It is the tendency of many people to struggle with a deep, smoldering anger that eventually affects every relationship throughout the course of their lives, unless they learn the only way I know to eliminate the anger. The worst-case scenario is the tendency to erupt into physical violence against whoever pushes that dangerous red button.
Here’s a typical story of how this often-unrecognized anger gets its start:
Bob was a big man, over six feet tall, burly and outspoken. In his own words, he “don’t take no crap from nobody.” He says he’s in my office because his wife thinks he has “anger issues” and she’s about to leave him if he doesn’t get some help. As I listen to his story, the pieces begin to fall into place. There are no two stories that are exactly the same, but they are close enough for me to recognize the pattern.
Bob tells me that his dad was a hard-working man who spent very little time with his family, often working 12 or more hours every day. When he was home, he was usually sleeping. The kids learned not to bother him, because his hand was hard, heavy, and as quick as a rattlesnake. His mom went about her household duties without saying much. The main communication in the household was between the siblings, and it went on either outdoors or in their bedrooms.
Still, no matter how hard they worked at staying under the radar, Dad seemed to find a reason to haul off and hit hard. He was especially vindictive toward Bob, who was the eldest. Dad often told Bob he wouldn’t amount to anything, but that he, Dad, was there to teach him his place, and to teach him to suck it up and be a man. The bruises could usually be covered with clothing, but the wounds to the soul and spirit weren’t that easy to conceal.
Finally, as Bob grew into his young man’s body and began to add some bulk, he became less afraid of his dad and a lot more angry. The confrontation came when Bob was 16. He was as tall as his dad by then, and he didn’t flinch when dad hauled off and punched him. He looked his dad in the eye and said, “Do YOU feel better?” And that was the last time he was physically hurt. Dad was smart enough to understand that Bob was ready to defy him physically.
The verbal and emotional abuse continued, however, and Bob married young. He and his wife moved far enough away so that there would be no daily contact. As time passed, there was no contact at all.
However, Bob became his father. He never struck his wife, and he wouldn’t even spank his children. But his verbal outbursts exploded all over the household, and terrified his children. Nothing pleased him, and he was especially hard on his oldest son. His wife finally gave him the ultimatum: Get some help or I’m leaving.
Usually I approach this kind of situation gently and carefully, because if the man is offended, it’s not likely he’ll come back. However, I sensed that Bob was a man who would prefer getting right to the point–so I did.
“Bob, you’re an angry man, and you’ve been angry for a long time. I’m not going to waste time with teaching you methods to control your anger. You wouldn’t want to just “control” cancer. You’d want to get rid of it, even if it caused you the pain of surgery. Anger is like that. You can control it for a while, but then it erupts again, causing more damage each time. Would you like to learn how to eliminate this dormant beast that takes very little prodding to bring to life?”
“Well, yeah, sure. And especially if I don’t have to come back here!”
“Well, I can’t promise you that. But I think you’ll be willing to come back for a while if you’ll trust me. I can help you, but it’s not going to be overnight.”
By this time, we were at the end of our session, and Bob agreed to come back in about a week.
Next post: The Cure