I had a client named Jack, who couldn’t see why he shouldn’t be “hard” on his wife and kids.
It was for their own good. “I’m no harder on them than I am on myself,” he would say. In reality, no good could come of his critical and blaming approach to personal improvement.
During his first session, Jack told me how he often made mean and critical remarks at his wife and kids. How he regretted his out of control rages. How he always apologized afterwards, as if saying “I’m sorry” made their hurt and fear go away. They were not impressed by these apologies. They knew he would repeat the whole scenario all over again.
In listening to the circumstances that provoked Jack’s anger, such as his wife, Jane’s grocery bills, 7 year-old, Jimmy’s disrespect, 5 year-old Jill’s “laziness,” a pattern of vulnerabilities became apparent.
In response, I asked Jack a focusing question:
Therapist: “What do all these anger provoking situations have in common?”
Jack: “Nothing. They’re all different.”
Therapist: “That’s true. Jane spends too much money on food, Jimmy is rude and Jill is irresponsible. But is there a common denominator?”
Jack: “I don’t see any.”
Therapist: “The common denominator of your anger at your wife and kids is that they make mistakes.”
Jack: “I don’t have a problem with that.”
Therapist: “You should have a problem with it because your anger at mistakes is making everyone miserable, even you.”
Jack: “Should I kiss my kids on the cheek for being disrespectful?”
Therapist: “Is there no middle ground between kissing and abusing? Do you see how scornful you are of people who do not live up to your impossible standard of perfection?”
Jack: “They can try, can’t they?”
Therapist: “They have been trying all along; they just can’t succeed. You have set them up for failure. They have become anxious, discouraged and depressed.”
Jack: “What’s wrong with wanting people to be right and not wrong?”
Therapist: “Quite a bit. You learned about right and wrong as a child. You want to avoid mistakes. This is known as perfection. Your perception was accurate, but your comprehension and interpretation were limited by your development. Your understanding is still immature and incomplete.”
Jack: “How can I change?”
Therapist: “That’s a good question. We do not change by making New Year’s Resolutions. We change by taking an appropriate action in the real world.”
Jack: “What can I do when the kids do something wrong?”
Therapist: “It’s not a matter or right or wrong. It’s about accepting them and all people as imperfect. If their imperfect behavior or choices make you angry, you can choose to say, ‘It makes me angry when you do that’.”
Jack did his homework that weekend. He had taken the family out sailing on the lake. It was Jack’s job to pilot the boat while his wife Jane was in charge of the docking. As they were pulling into the slip that evening, Jack was yelling demands and criticizing as usual. Jane hopped onto the pier and began to tie up the boat.
Jack yelled, “You are doing it wrong,” She untied the rope and tried it over. “That’s still no good,” yelled Jack again. Jane, who was used to this by now, sighed and untied the rope again. Jack was about to yell at her again when he caught himself. “It’s not wrong,” he said to himself, “it is different then my way, it’s good enough. Have I been doing this to her all of our relationship? My God, no one deserves to be treated like this.”
Jack apologized to Jane, but this time he meant it. He was sorry about a lot of things. He knew what he had to do. He had to start letting go of things that didn’t make any difference. He was able to remind himself that he is not required to prevent bad things from happening in an imperfect world. He can take life as it comes and do the best he can with it.