earLet me tell you about a client I was seeing. Now he and his wife  had been married for 12 years and my client,  George would go into uncontrollable rages over nothing at all. His wife, Nancy, was afraid of his anger. She was afraid to talk to him for fear of setting off an eruption. She experienced anxiety most of the time when he was home, and sometimes even when we was not. In counseling, I asked George “What made you so angry last week when Nancy asked you to help with the housework?” George, replied “It was the way she said it.”

(Therapist) “What way was that?”

(George) “Telling me what to do, not giving me a choice. It sounded like an order, do it now or else. I hate that.”

(T)“Who does that remind you of?”

(G)“My father. She sounds just like him when she gets like that.”

(T)“What did you father do when you didn’t do what he wanted?”

(G) “He’d yell and threaten to punish me if I didn’t do it fast enough or if I didn’t do it right.”

(T) “What did right mean to you?”

(G)“It meant his way or else.”

(T) “Did you know what his way was?”

(G) “I thought I did, but he’d always find something wrong.”

(T) “What is it called when there isn’t anything wrong at all?”

(G) “That never happened.”

(T) “It’s called perfection and no human is perfect. It wasn’t fair that you were required to be perfect. And as a child, you couldn’t figure out what was a mistake and what wasn’t. If you can’t tell what is a mistake how can you correct it? You couldn’t read his mind. He set you up to be criticized and punished. Did you ever feel like, no matter what I do it isn’t good enough to get his approval?”

(G) “I still feel that way with Nancy.”

(T) “Your emotional memory doesn’t know the difference. It feels the same way. Your heart doesn’t have eyes and cannot tell someone from the past from someone in the present. It wasn’t fair that you father blamed you for not meeting his unrealistic expectation, but it isn’t fair to lash out at Nancy either. That is what you father did you, it never made you feel better and it’s making her feel the pain now, that you felt then.”

(G) “I never thought of it that way before.”

(T) “Do you think you can catch yourself living in the past and choose to live in the present?”

(G) “I never knew I had a choice.”

(T) “Your father is an imperfect human who took out his painful self-contempt by dumping criticism on you. That wasn’t fair. How can anyone criticize a person, a child for being imperfect, as if it were the child’s fault. No human is perfect, nor can you be expected to be. It wasn’t fair, You couldn’t win. It was only a matter of time before you got yelled at and punished. Did this unfairness make you angry?”

(G) “Yes”

(T) “Who are you angry at?”

(G) “At him for yelling and blaming me. I only wanted to please him and make him happy, but I never could.”

(T) “You took his behavior personally. He made you feel like a failure as a son and a human. who else are you angry at?”

(G) “I’m angry at me for being such a screw-up. I kept trying and I was never good enough to please him. But why would I keep trying if I knew I would fail? . I must be an idiot.”

(T) “You are ignoring your efforts. Your blaming yourself for outcomes which you cannot control. When did you get over it?”

(G) “Get over it, I’m still living it right now!”

(T) “You have a choice if you want to keep holding on to this angry at past circumstances or not. You can get ride of it by writing, writing him a letter. Its not for him, but its to him. This pent up emotion has already began to leak out into your marriage and it will kill your happiness. Nancy wants to know why you can’t cooperate with her and help around the house. She is afraid to ask you for anything.”

(G) “I don’t blame her. I didn’t even know she was scared of me. I don’t want that. I just get too wrapped up in myself to consider her feelings.”

(T) “Well you learned it. No one ever considered your feelings. Feelings were not valued in your family. Neither was cooperation. Your father didn’t try to cooperate. He sought submission. He taught you how to lash out and seek submission to achieve his own definition of perfection. This is an example of negative control.”

(G) “When Nancy tells me to do something, all those old feelings come back to me. I feel like I’m being forced, like I have no choice. I feel like a victim, like I’m gonna get punished for not doing it the right way.”

(T) “You feel controlled by her.”

(G) “I am controlled by her.”

(T) “Feeling out of control is painful. And you want to relieve this pain as fast as you can.”

(G) “Wouldn’t you?”

(T) “Is your way working? Does it give you relief, or are you left in more pain from the layer of guilt from acting ways that are even more out of control.”

(G) “I never thought of it that way. I do feel more out of control, but I don’t know what else to do.”

(T) “Can you choose to ask Nancy if you really do have to do it right now or could you being in a few minutes when you are ready?”

(G)“That’s hard for me.”

(T) “What is the hardest thing about it?”

(G) “Its like I’m asking permission.”

(T) “Do you have the right to ask for what you want?”


(T) “On what basis?”

(G) “I don’t know.”

(T) “As an equal member of the human race. Not superior or inferior, better or worse. You, and Nancy, and your father are unconditionally loveable and worthwhile despite your mistakes and imperfections. You don’t have to prove your worth or defend yourself from others judgments. You get to be the judge and you determine how good is good enough to feel like a success.”

(G) “I never though about it like that. I’m always trying to do everything by myself, but no matter how hard I tried I never could.”

(T) “It must be very frustrating and discouraging. You can outgrow this learning from your childhood by pushing your comfort zone and asking Nancy for what you want. It’s not begging. It is a request for cooperation between two equal ember of the human race.”

(G) “What if I don’t get what I’m asking for?”

(T) “Will it make you angry?”

(G) “Yes”

(T) “Will you take it personally?”

(G) “Yes. I’ll feel like an idiot, like I should have known better.”

(T) “You won’t be an idiot. Do you define your self-worth in terms of Nancy’s approval? You cannot always please everyone. You cannot read their minds. You don’t really know what pleases them. You have enough trouble figuring out what pleases you. That is not control. That is not preventing disaster. This is a power struggle over who is better, who can make whom submit to who. You can catch yourself about to react to Nancy in the old way, out of fear of being punished for failing and displeasing. Instead you can choose to live in the present. You can listen to what she s saying, not what you feel like she is saying. She is not your father. She is your imperfect wife in the present. She is not superior, you are not inferior, your are both equal members of the human race.”

(G)“How do I remember that?”

(T) “By pushing your comfort zone and asking Nancy for her cooperation, as one adult to another. You can say, ‘Nancy is it alright if I do the dishes after the kids go to bed. I don’t get to see them that much these days.’ Can you do that?”

(G) “I don’t know.”

(T) “There is one way to find out and that is to push your comfort zone and take the risk when the opportunity arises. Who is in control of your choice?

(G) “I guess it is up to me.”

(T) “If you don’t who will. Its up to you, your all you got control over.”

Father punishing son image available from Shutterstock.