He glances up at me and continues. “I didn’t hit Jake or anything, but I just sort of lost it. I guess what he did wasn’t such a big deal, but I snapped, started yelling. He stood there staring at me and then started crying. That made me angrier. I told him he was seven years old and to stop being such a baby. Then Marie came in and started yelling at me and that made the whole thing worse. Now we’re screaming at each other while Jake is crying even harder. Then she took Jake and left. I stomped around the house cursing until I finally got hold of myself and then, you know, I feel like an ass.”
“Can you say what made you so angry, Stephen? Can you say what made you lose your temper?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess his disrespecting me. I just told him to put his toys away. He didn’t have to give me a smartass answer.”
“But what happens to you, what do you feel inside when Jake gives you a smartass answer?”
“Inside? I don’t know. It just happens.”
“I don’t know if you’re aware of it, Stephen, but you tend to talk about your temper as “it,” as though it’s something removed from you.”
Stephen stares at me, his eyes narrowed, his jaw clenched, his mouth tightly shut. “You hate me, don’t you? You think I’m a piece of shit?”
Uh oh, I think to myself, lots of land mines: Jake’s anger, a breach in the therapeutic alliance, and, of critical importance, Jake’s question. As far as I know, I don’t hate Stephen. I understand that he himself had an angry, abusive father who made him feel like “a piece of shit” and that, as a result, he has a fragile sense of self that is easily wounded.
On the other hand, I am definitely affected by Jake’s descriptions of his explosive behavior. I, too, had an angry, out-of-control father whom I feared. I stood up to him, but shook inside. Those childhood feelings are also with me in the consulting room.
These thoughts go through my mind in seconds, as I prepare to respond to my patient.
“Well it did. You had this tone, like you were looking down at me, like you saw me as worthless.”
“I’m sorry. That couldn’t have felt good. You probably felt that I was disrespecting you, just as you felt with Jake. And when you feel disrespected you feel like you did as a kid with your father, ‘like a piece of shit,’ and that makes you angry.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right. I hadn’t realized it, but yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” He pauses. “But if you weren’t disrespecting me, why did I feel that way?”
“That a very good question, Stephen, and the answer isn’t so simple. First, I think it’s because your father put you down so much, that it’s easy for you to go back to that place, that place of being a scared little boy and needing to defend yourself against anyone else who might make you feel small or worthless.”
“So are you saying that I go around feeling attacked by people even if they’re not attacking me?”
“I’d say the answer to that is yes and no. Yes, you may sometimes feel attacked even when no one is attacking you. But there may also be times that you’re picking up on other people’s anger. Like when you told Jake to pick up his toys he might well have been angry and you might have heard that anger in his response.”
“And with you?”
“Well, I definitely don’t hate you, Stephen, but sometimes it is hard for me to listen to you describe your going off on Jake. It’s like I want to protect him and perhaps sometimes I do feel angry with you. I wasn’t aware of feeling angry today, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t and since I’m sure you’re exquisitely attuned to other people’s anger you might well have picked up something from me that I wasn’t even aware of.”
Stephen stares at me thoughtfully. “Thank you,” he says. “I appreciate your honesty. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”