Let me tell you about Sam, whose father was a bully and a tyrant. Sam is loyally following in his father’s footsteps. Sam followed his father’s iron-fisted example because it seemed to be a short cut to success. It saved a lot of time that he felt would otherwise be wasted in explaining, justifying, reasoning and rationalizing.
Sam is motivated to act to avoid making life harder then it needs to be. He sees nothing wrong with expecting perfection. He uses verbal criticism and sarcasm to achieve this high-sounding ideal from those whom he can intimidate into submission.
Sam’s desire for perfection is self-destructive. He is not solving problems according to the demands of reality, he is making it up as he goes along. He is operating out of his fathers example, not adult judgment. Like his father before him, he prides himself on being tough, unsentimental and unemotional.
It is ironic that many people who are antagonistic see themselves as good hearted and helpful. They convinced their actions will be appreciated and valued. The antagonizer doesn’t understand why their critical comments are met with such hostility. As a result, they feel “victimized” by others lack of gratitude. Victims are sensitive to persecution.
It is even more ironic that, after years of abusing people, he should think of himself as protecting others from abuse, Sam comes to feel like the “victim” of these ingrates. Their ingratitude makes him angry. Sam’s anger is based on a constellation of expectations that make him vulnerable to volcanic eruptions. Here are some underlying beliefs that contribute to explosive anger:
1. “You are unfair to me. If I am ‘good’ to you then I expect you to be good to me in return. That’s fair.”
2. “Unfairness makes me angry because it is wrong. People shouldn’t be wrong, they should be right, like me.”
3. “Wrong-doers are inferior. It is my right to stand in morally superior judgment upon them.”
4. “Wrongness needs to be punished. It is my self-imposed responsibility to punish wrong-doers for their own good, so they will not do it again, especially to me.”
5. “They have failed to live up to my expectations of perfectly fair reciprocity. They have disappointed me. Disappointment is painful to me, so I am entitled to inflict the equivalent degree of pain upon them in the name of fairness as I have defined it.”
6. “I am the victim of their wrong-doing. Victimization makes me angry. I am entitled to victimize them as they have victimized me.”
Sam is not consciously aware that he has these expectations. He acquired them in childhood. They worked for his father and he sees no need to review or question them now. The whole idea of self-examination is too painful and too scary to be accepted.
We can teach people how to disengage emotionally from this antagonism. Then they will be free to do the unexpected. Instead of defending themselves against him, they can agree that he feels the way he feels. They can calm him down by saying, “It’s awful when that happens, isn’t it?” or “I don’t blame you for feeling that way,” or “That must be painful.”
We can even learn to validate his anger. “I am sorry that you are so angry.” This is not rationalizing, defending or submitting, it is empathizing. We can say, “I’m sorry that you are feeling victimized by all of this, but could it be you are perceiving victimization where no victimization was intended? I don’t blame you for being angry.”
These are the last things he expects us to say. We can be creative and find even more ways to take his side in spite of his abusive antagonism. We can ask, “What can we do to make it better?” No matter his answer, we can respond by saying, “I never thought of it that way.”
It takes courage to say these things for the first time. It’s scary. If it weren’t scary, we wouldn’t need courage. Our reward will be a degree of relief from the pain he has been causing us.
Angry man image available from Shutterstock.