Cynthia called me and described a family in crisis. Her husband was miserable, their marriage was falling apart, and her children were in various states of anger, rebellion, and withdrawal. After listening to her complaints for a while–and after it became evident that she could have continued her blaming without end–I began to help her identify her own role in the family tragedy. By far the most powerful influence in her family was her anger, which was screaming "I don't love you" to everyone. It was killing them–emotionally, spiritually, and even physically.
That first conversation was difficult, but Cynthia began to listen. She acknowledged that she was angry almost continuously, after which her husband withdrew from her, the children acted out more, and she felt more miserable. I have seen people face the challenges of cancer, natural disasters, poverty, physical assault, and more, but for most people nothing is more difficult than admitting that they are wrong. All our lives we have been criticized and experienced a withdrawal of approval when we've made mistakes. This is intolerably painful, so admitting our mistakes and flaws is nearly impossible for most of us.
For several subsequent conversations, Cynthia struggled with accepting responsibility for the conditions in her family, and at one point she decided that the pain of growth was just too much. So she gave in to the temporary satisfaction that comes from blaming and anger. That is the great danger of Getting and Protecting Behaviors, that they all provide a temporary fulfillment that is easily confused with happiness, especially if we've never known the genuine happiness that comes only from Real Love.
Cynthia finally quit calling me, choosing instead to continue in her old patterns, hoping that old behaviors would magically yield different results–the very definition of insanity. I decided to try one last time to get through to her, to help her see what she was doing to herself and her family. So I sent her the following:
"On June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub of her home. She had many justifications for what she did, all of which seemed reasonable to her at the time. Only later did she realize in agony the horror she had committed.
"Similarly, Cynthia, you feel justified in the anger you feel toward your husband, your children, and a great many others. So you punish all these people, hoping to find some relief from the pain that has dominated your life. In your defense, this temporary relief is all you've ever known, so you don't recognize that your anger keeps you a prisoner and emotionally drowns your husband and children, just as surely as Andrea Yates physically drowned her offspring in a tub.
"Because this way of living is all you've ever known, you defend it vigorously. The thought of admitting that your entire way of living might be wrong is intolerable to you. So you go to your friends and tell them a version of events that's entirely one-sided, incomplete, and twisted by your pain. Your friends want your acceptance, so they agree with you and support your distorted perspective. Although you enjoy their agreement, it can only build ever higher the walls of the hell where you live.
"What can you do? You can recognize that your way of living has never produced happiness for you or anyone else. You can admit that you are constantly in pain, and that nobody sees clearly while they're suffering.
"I feel enormous compassion for your suffering, which is the only reason I have spoken to you directly about your anger and the self-deception surrounding it. I know that you will find this difficult to hear–that you may even hate me for speaking in this way–so imagine how much I care for you, that I would speak the truth despite your intense reaction. I love you enough to tell you what you need to hear, rather than what you want to hear."
To be sure, it is painful and frightening to face the enormity of our mistakes and flaws, but we should be much more afraid of not facing the truth, the consequence of which is a lifetime of pain, not to mention our drowning the people we claim to care about.
Eliminate Your Anger
Learn how to eliminate your anger, confusion, and conflict with your children.