Scenario: James watched as his son, a talented goalie, let in a goal that lost the game. Exasperated he let out a cry of disgust. As James and his son walked away from the hockey rink, James berated him for not trying hard enough. His discouraged son emphatically tried to convince him that he had tried as hard as he could – to no avail. Both felt badly.
Underlying the anger there is another feeling – a vulnerable feeling – that acts like an engine fueling the anger and driving the behavior. Any vulnerable feeling can fuel anger. Some people get angry when they feel hurt. Some people get angry when they feel threatened. Anyone can get angry when they feel out of control. Some people get angry when they feel pressured. Most people get irritable when they are hungry or tired. There are many vulnerable feelings: abandoned, put down, shamed, embarrassed, exposed, challenged, disappointed, hopeless, controlled, rejected, blocked, misunderstood, and more. In James’ case, underneath his anger was disappointed. When his son did well he felt proud and important, almost as if he’d achieved it himself. He enjoyed the compliments from coaches and other parents. When his son did not do well he felt like a failure. He hated feeling like a failure so he shifted into anger and got on his son’s case. Vulnerable feelings can range from slight to extreme. No one likes to feel vulnerable so most people behave in ways that attempt to avoid or deflect from the feeling. They may get busy talking about something else, they may focus on a task, they may worry about aches or pains they have or they may get angry. Why get angry? When people shift into anger they stop feeling the vulnerable feeling. It does not go away; it just goes into the background. Feeling angry is better than feeling humiliated, rejected or some other vulnerable feeling. When people feel angry they feel powerful, not vulnerable. With anger it may be possible to change what is going on.
Anger has a purpose.
When people get angry it helps them make happen what they want to happen or to prevent or stop happening what they do not want to happen. James needed his son to do well so that he felt good about himself. He got angry at his son to pressure him into trying harder. Most children feel uncomfortable when their parents are angry so they try to do whatever it is that will stop the anger, whether it is good for them or not. They become more focused on what their parents are feeling than on the activity. That makes it harder for them to do well. What could James do to achieve his goals? First of all, James needs to be aware that he feels disappointed. He probably shifts into anger so quickly that he does not even realize it. Secondly, he needs to realize that his disappointed is about himself, not his son; he is trying to get his needs met vicariously through his son’s efforts and abilities.
Once he is aware, he can
1) do things in his own life to achieve a sense of accomplishment and importance.
2) give his son positive feedback about what he is doing well so his son stays focused on the sport. Then his son is more likely to enjoy the activity and perform at his best.
Result? Both feel good – his son feel good about himself, James feels good about himself and his parenting. When parents figure out the engine (vulnerable feeling) driving their anger, they have more choices. They may continue to handle situations in the same way or they may find more effective ways, without getting angry, that are positive for everyone concerned.
Explore the feelings underlying your anger. What did you feel just before you got angry?
What is the purpose of your anger? Is there a better way to achieve it than getting angry?
With care and concern,
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