Has your rage been caused by hurt feelings when you were a child?
It’s become increasingly common for therapists to note that underlying your anger are feelings of hurt. In fact the more pronounced your anger, the greater the hurt it conceals. So if the phrase “angry tears” sounds oxymoronic to you, that’s because it is: It’s profoundly descriptive of human experience yet, on the face of it, certainly sounds illogical. Still, it’s likely that at some point in your life you, too, have felt this deeply mixed emotion.
So, think about it. Have you ever had your feelings hurt but, simultaneously, also felt exasperated, just boiling with frustration—maybe even to the extent you could feel your lips quiver? If you can relate to such a characterization, see whether you can recall the provocation. For it’s likely the situation was one you perceived as grossly unfair. And this highly inflamed emotion is the only one that can be understood as, at bottom, “moralistic.” For it’s typically aroused when you believe you’re being treated in a manner that’s biased, unfair, or unethical.
Not surprisingly, children are far more likely to evince this hurtfully angry response than are adults. More viscerally in touch with their feelings—regardless of whether they can actually understand them—they’re less capable of holding them in, or finding a way to successfully camouflage them. And even though they may not have the words, insight, or maturity to adequately explain what they’re feeling, their facial expression—and the irate tears they can’t help shedding—betray their extreme distress.
Let me offer a couple of examples of this emotional phenomenon.T
This client, whom we’ll call Jim, grew up in a family where his two younger sisters’ wants and needs regularly seemed to take priority—and for both—over his own. His mother and father not only reacted more critically, and punitively, toward him but almost automatically sided with one of his sisters whenever he was in conflict with them. And even in instances where his being in the right should have been blatantly obvious. Somehow, as the oldest of the three children (and the single male child) his parents assigned him the role of “responsible party” whenever a verbal battle erupted between them.
Even when Jim, an exceptionally gifted and sensitive child, was quite young (in grade school he was called “the little professor”), he recounted to me his keen sense of right and wrong. And his ideas about what was just and equitable hardly seemed unreasonable, or self-interestedly biased. In fact, although his parents were solidly middle class (his mother had earlier been a psychiatric social worker and his father was a distinguished university professor), it pained me to listen to his examples of how he was routinely discriminated against—almost as though he’d been “selected” as the family scapegoat, or black sheep.
But nothing he shared with me intimated that he deserved to be treated in such an unfavorable way—or that he was just a “bad kid.” (Exactly why he’d been cast in this disadvantageous role would take up way too much space to elaborate on here. So I’ll simply note that it had virtually everything to do with his parents’ unresolved childhood issues.)
As regards his father’s treating him with gross (even brutal) insensitivity, consider this instance. On a lengthy car trip, his family stopped at a roadside café for lunch. It’s possible that Jim, age ten at the time, was tired or out of sorts because, even though he was a small, generally mild-mannered child, he made a flippant remark that clearly antagonized his father. In fact, his father was so annoyed that he told him he was ready to pour Jim’s glass of water over his head. Jim, terribly hurt by this unprecedented threat—yet indignant, too—responded (surprisingly out-of-character) by saying, “You wouldn’t dare!”, whereupon his father stood up, walked over to where Jim was sitting, positioned himself directly above him, and proceeded to empty the entire contents of Jim’s water glass on top of his head—drenching not only his face but his clothing as well.
At no point during this almost unimaginably degrading scenario did his mother attempt to intervene on his behalf. And so Jim, at once bristling with rage and feeling utterly humiliated and alone, got up from the table and—dripping wet not only from the water unceremoniously dumped on him but from his own flood of “outraged tears”—without a word walked out of the restaurant and retreated to the family car.
During this whole time, as he sat sobbing in the car, feeling terrifically upset, wronged, and abandoned, no one in the family ever came out to comfort him. It was maybe 20 minutes later that his family returned to the car—without the slightest morsel of food for him (and he hadn’t even been served before his father’s shamefully belittling act), and without anyone ever saying a word about what had occurred earlier. In fact, it was as though nothing had happened at all.
It’s not hard to grasp how Jim learned from this extraordinarily distressing experience that straightforwardly asserting himself, or freely expressing his feelings, could eventuate in an outcome so emotionally catastrophic that it was best for him to keep his mouth shut, particularly when he was feeling vulnerable. And how also, with so little family understanding, empathy, or support, it would lead him to question whether, ultimately, he deserved others’ respect—even though, rationally, he knew his father’s reaction to him was both unwarranted and excessive. (And I might add here that because Jim was such an undersized, defenseless-looking child, he was also subject to frequent bullying at school, and that—no surprise—his parents left him on his own to deal with his aggressive adversaries).
The second incident of Jim’s angry tears that I’ll relay here focuses on his mother’s seemingly arbitrary discrimination against him—whenever, that is, he had a negative encounter with one of his sisters.
When he was in his early teens, he purchased two tickets to attend a Billy Joel concert, terribly excited to have found a date to join him to hear his favorite pop artist. He left his tickets at the base of the stairwell, so he’d remember to put them on his dresser the next time he went upstairs. But, coincidentally, one of his sisters later “buried” his tickets directly beneath a pile of her own belongings. And when she went to take all her stuff upstairs, Jim’s concert tickets accidentally made the trip with her.
When later, Jim couldn’t find his tickets where he’d left them and recalled that his sister had also put things on the steps to go upstairs, he asked her to go back up to her bedroom and look for them. At first she flat-out refused, but then finally acquiesced, presumably undertaking only a cursory, half-hearted effort to sort through the different items she’d taken up with her. When Jim insisted that she look again, but this time much more carefully, she angrily declined. And when Jim appealed to his mother to make her, she admonished him for “nagging” his sister—since, after all, she’d already completed a search for them. Jim then asked whether he could go into her room and look himself. But this alternative was forbidden by his mother and sister alike.
Fast forward to maybe a month after the concert. Jim had had to cancel his date because his tickets were never recovered and he couldn’t afford to replace them, even though all the while he felt certain they were still somewhere in his sister’s bedroom. And, sure enough, one day his sister approached him, exclaiming: “Hey! look what I found!”—and, of course, it was his coveted concert tickets. But when Jim then insisted she pay him back for them (for clearly it was she who’d misplaced them), she adamantly refused. And so, again, Jim took up the matter with his mother, only to hear her excuse her daughter and tell him that, since he was the oldest, it was he who needed to take responsibility for the mishap.
As objective as I try to be as a therapist, in hearing this story I couldn’t help but experience the strongest ethical disapproval of what he’d just shared. I found myself wishing that I could have stepped into the scene and made myself the advocate, or “champion,” he’d so sorely missed in growing up.
I could hardly have felt more morally exasperated in learning, example after example, of the indignities Jim suffered at the hands of his so-unfeeling parents—not to mention from his sisters (who, much later in life, actually told him how they themselves had felt emotionally deprived by his well-meaning—yet alarmingly insensitive—parents).
But my main point here is to illustrate how sad—and at the same time, infuriated—you can feel when others, whether wittingly or not, gratuitously punish, or otherwise dishonor, you. When, with a lack of compassion I find almost inconceivable, they treat you without the basic respect that I think we all deserve . . . as well as leaving you feeling helpless to do anything about it.
For, more than anything else, this is what constitutes the bitter formula for experiencing not just sorrow but rage, too: the perfect recipe for, well, “angry tears.”
Note 1: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider sending them its link.
[Leon F. Sletzer]