A Dialogue On Anger Between a Black Man and the Stress Doc
I am a black man with a college degree, a couple of certifications and a loving wife and two kids. For years I have associated my anger with either strength, or my ability to cope with stress. I believed (wrongly) that if there was anything wrong with me, I could fix it simply by adjusting my outlook on the situation. For the past two years, I have consistently yelled, threatened and cussed at my two children for what I perceive as serious indiscretions. The truth is, after a couple of hours and some deep reflection, the reasons I gave for being so destructively angry were bogus. You see, I am always bothered by the "fact" that being black in this country is to be a second class citizen. Now I know this isn't true, but I am on a one man crusade to prove that blacks are as good as anyone else or perhaps better. My mother told me that a black man must be twice as good as any white man or else he could forget being happy and successful. I push my children to be better than I, on practically every level.
Just recently, my oldest daughter came home with her grades for the second semester. She had achieved all A's, that is what she is supposed to do. But, instead of being supportive and happy for her, I pushed her to get all honors courses, telling her that that is the only way to assure that she would be recognized for her talents and intellect. "You can never give a white man an excuse or the ability to say that you are less than he is if you are twice the man he is." Those are my mother's words, I will never forget them, and those words are her legacy to me and will pass them down to my children.
I can see that my feelings, be they correct or not, are hurting my daughter. I get into heated arguments with my wife over how to teach and raise the kids, preferring, many times without justification, to opt for my way and discard or totally put down anything that she has to say. I find that I treat her this way more often than not, on almost any subject. This is wrong! My most important job is to be a great father and a terrific husband and I am failing in both departments.
In addition, I find it hard to sleep at night. Most times, after getting into bed at 11:00pm, I will not fall asleep until 4:00am, if then. I practice meditation to relieve my stress, and I consciously try to recognize when I am angry and about to explode. My technique for avoiding anger is to be a listener and not raise my voice; I try very hard to not to interject my feelings into the conversation, rather letting the other person tell me what's on their minds. In this role, I play the teacher, not the overbearing father.
Yea, I know, my overbearing father may have had a lot to do with my own problems. I'm not going to blame him, that's for rich white folks looking to place their anger on someone else. I don't need a twelve step program. My reason for writing to you is this: I think you are right about constructive vs. destructive anger or, purposeful vs. spontaneous anger. [Ed. Note. The writer is referring to my article, The Four Faces of Anger; email for a copy.] I have extrapolated from your examples a better way for me to handle my own anger, that is, to be constructive and purposeful. I will add what I learned from you to what I know of myself and let you know what the deal is later on. You may expect a letter from me in two or three weeks. In the mean time, if you have any insight, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you for your time, doc.
Thank you so much for your very thoughtful, honest and poignant note. I must admit I felt some affirmation in the fact that you would write me. So thank you again.
I'm going to just throw out some ideas. Don't know if I'm on target or off. Here goes:
I don't think the real problem stems from an overbearing father. Sure he may have been somewhat of a role model; and we do internalize both the strengths and vulnerabilities of the significant others in our lives. And in this case, by vulnerabilities I will include the self-esteem and feelings of shame most of us carry around, if we are honest.
Which gets me to what I suspect is a major source of your tension/frustration: your mother's admonition as quoted above. I know this is not so uncommon, that is, having to be twice as good. In fact, I was talking anonymously about your note to an African-American male friend (who is 35). What I fear is that this internalized voice will always have a person feeling not quite good enough, ironically. Maybe sometimes they can rest easy that they have developed uncommon strength with this mother test, but I believe, lurking, is that sense of having to keep proving yourself, over and over. And, of course, I suspect your mom carries around her own struggles with overt or covert sense of not feeling good enough. And certainly, racism can contribute to this dis-ease. But I also think, eventually, it becomes something that we elaborate for ourselves. And worse, we begin to pass these injunctions on to the next generation. And I think you sense this may be happening.
So how can you break the cycle? It really means getting your mom's critical injunction out of your head as much as humanly possible. And it's not easy. But I think this is what becoming a real adult involves: truly grappling with and evolving our own value system based on life experience, new learning, sometimes reaching out for an objective (and hopefully trustworthy) third party perspective. Of course, one danger in my sharing this could be: "Oh this stress doc guy wants me to compromise my values; not fulfill my potential; to slack off."
But that's not my intent: As you know I believe in healthy aggression; being one's fullest self as possible, from utilizing our strengths to accepting our vulnerabilities. (and then decide if we want to work on them.) But I think your mom's voice has you unbalanced, never quite being able to appreciate your strengths and vulnerabilities in a self-accepting kind of way. And that you don't have to be some perfect specimen.
And while you may think counseling is for the white/rich, I've worked with enough folks of all classes and colors to know that a good listener (as you mention) who is not afraid to hear our real feelings, and maybe can share some feelings/ideas, provide a different perspective...well reaching out to such an individual can be a real gift we give ourselves. I think if you can find a good black male counselor, even for 4-6 sessions, you would be giving yourself a real gift. Consider calling your states chapter of the Natl. Assn of Social Workers (NASW) for a referral.
I will also send along some other anger articles, let you know about my anger book, and place you on my free newsletter list, sending other startup stuff.
Anyway, two requests: 1) might I anonymously quote the last paragraph of your letter as a testimonial: "My reason for writing to you is this: I think you are right about constructive vs. destructive anger or, purposeful vs. spontaneous anger. I have extrapolated from your examples a better way for me to handle my own anger, that is, to be constructive and purposeful. I will add what I learned from you to what I know of myself and let you know what the deal is later on."
And please do write again. I would appreciate any feedback on these comments above. And would like to hear how the self-reflection/behavior modification process goes.
And second, might I anonymously reprint your letter and perhaps my above thoughts, though I may write a more in-depth reponse.
So... to hard work, some self-acceptance and good support.
In response to your 1/20 letter, by all means, do reprint any part of my letter as you wish. If I can contribute to helping anyone else, that will be a contribution to helping me.
As for your advice: I have often thought that my mother was perhaps a little pushy, but I know that she meant well. She passed on to the other side in 1984, when I was just a young man. My dad passed in 2002 at the age of 82. I was raised by two World War II generation parents and I have nothing but respect for those great people. I too am 35 years old, (as the individual you shared the letter with) and have entered a kind of strange adulthood; one where many of us still cling to our teens and twenties. I don't live in the past and I don't brood over a mythical childhood.
I do think that you are right again about easing up on my quest, at least ease up on my kids. As for the third party perspective, I will give it a try. (God, I hate sounding like a talkshow guest, i.e. Maury Povich type)
Thanks again Doc.
I wanted to keep you up to date. I have been using your methods plus my own common sense to control my anger. I am happy to report that it is working out just fine. My wife notices a big difference in how I deal with problems. I even have clients asking me If I have gone on vacation.
I am still convinced that my mother was right, but I channel it differently. I put all my energy in becoming the best financial manager I can. I deal with everyone equitably regardless of color (not like I didn't before), but now with a constructive and purposeful objective. I know I still have a ways to go, but I feel as though I am on the right track.