Many of us owe a lot to our flawed fathers and mothers but still struggle when we are feeling angry at our parents. A large portion of the men I work with point to their father’s resilience, sacrifice, work ethic, and ability to constantly provide for the family. That’s all great! But if I suggest they might still have some lingering negative feelings toward him they can easily get defensive. They’ll tell me they weren’t abused or abandoned. Still, they wish he could have been….something else. A little more open, maybe. Perhaps a bit more free with his feelings. Maybe he could have admitted when he was anxious. Or even broke down once or twice. Just something to show that he had it in him. And that it’s not a reason for shame if I feel that way.
They wanted their dad to show them that it was ok to do all of that.
There’s a stereotype in therapy that you’re going to learn to hate your parents. The stereotype usually is about the mother, but dad gets his share of bad press too (take this New Yorker cartoon for instance.) Well, contrary to local legend, hating your parents is not a required part of therapy and certainly isn’t the goal!
What we do want, and what will help us out in all our other relationships (siblings, partners, co-workers, friends) is having an honest understanding and a full range of feelings toward the ones who raised us. This includes getting angry at our parents.
From Black & White to Gray
It’s honest and important for a father to admit that there are times that his son or daughter–his bundle of joy, his reason for living–can sometimes be a little s&%t and drive him out of his gourd. And that makes sense. We can’t have intimate relationships without feeling both deep negative and positive things for that person. I don’t trust a couple who say they never argue–or parents who say their children never give them any problems. It’s just not human.
It’s part of growing up. Have you ever talked to a child who gets in a big fight and says they are never-ever-absolutely-not-ever going to talk to Henry again–only to hear the next day that she and Henry spent the whole day together playing and having a great time?
Kids can be very black and white. They hate you. They love you. And they bounce back and forth. But that’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about. Younger children don’t yet have the capacity to have those full relationships because of the splitting that they do.
A hidden message in fairy tales is all about this. You have your evil step-mother and your wonderful birth mother (usually dead). One is perfect, the other is horrible and wicked. Well, all those who feel that fairy tales are terrible because they make the step-parent evil get ready. Spoiler alert: for the child’s mind the “evil step-mother” and the “dead, wonderful birth mother” are the SAME PERSON. These stories are tikd from a child’s perspective and they see people as all good or all bad. I love dad when he brings me food; hate dad when he makes me go to bed.
Folktales to Real Life
If you have a toddler you’ll notice that they love that you play with them, feed they, soothe them. Unfortunately, you do lots of terrible things too. You make them go to bed when they don’t want to. You don’t pick up the ball for the thirty-seventh time, and worst of all, sometimes you leave. Your child is thinking: “This isn’t that awesome daddy. He must have been replaced with some horrible, mean, evil daddy. And I hate this guy!”
It takes a while for a child to fully get that the same person can make you laugh and make you cry. And that when you balance it all out, they’re ok.
We, hopefully, grow out of this. (If we don’t, we may be suffering from something called an attachment disorder or a personality disorder which makes it very hard for us to see people as complex and capable of both loving us while occasionally falling short. You can do it, it’s just a lot of work.) Think if you have a friend who’s awesome, but sometimes they get really anal and it bugs us and sometimes we’ll avoid them, but in the end, they’re important to us. We forgive this about them, we ignore it, we accommodate it, we may even joke about it. Whatever we do, it doesn’t stop us from being their friend. This is the world of gray. And the world of full friendship.
Seeing Our Parents in Full
As we grow up and if we still have our parents around us, we have a chance to shift in our understanding of them. We go from seeing them as all knowing, all powerful beings who live to serve us–and slowly realize they are people who have their own lives apart from us. They have relationships with each other, with our siblings, with their own friends and their own parents. We are hurt by them when they’re selfish (or when they’re just not meeting our needs), we feel proud when they appreciate what we do. We can see them as complex and it doesn’t ruin our relationship with them.
Now accepting them as complex is different. Accepting their limitations while loving them is a challenging, but a very adult way to be. And this is a major stumbling block for clients that I often see in my work.
Once we begin to get close to some deep, long-felt, rarely expressed adult anger at our parents, the client will pull himself back, often because of guilt, and chide themself for feeling this way.
Protecting Too Much
What happens is that the client will feel the need to remind me how he was never hit as a child, or that dad always came home, or didn’t cheat on his mother, etc. I’m not sure if they’re trying to convince me that their father wasn’t an all bad guy, or they’re just so worried that if they unleash some of the anger at the parent that they’ve been holding on to that something bad is going to happen. Sometime when talking about this our language becomes “young”. We’ll say that we don’t want to sound like an “ungrateful, spoiled brat” by being angry at our parents.
This is often a sign to me that their parents weren’t able to handle their anger. Perhaps it was too threatening for the parent. If your parent doesn’t show you that they can handle your anger, then you’re going to struggle with your anger because you’ve never learned how to be angry. At least you never learned how to be angry in a healthy and appropriate way and this can lead to lots of anxiety.
This is so ingrained that the client can’t even express their adult anger at his parent even when he’s not in the room! Some say they’re afraid that they’ll end up hating them if they let out their anger at their parent. But to get through the anxiety and discomfort that this brings up, we need to push through that fear.On the other side is the ability to fully love your father. Not just the generous, reliable guy that he was, but also for the guy he wasn’t–or isn’t. For clients who can work through this, some even find new ways to connect with their dad because they weren’t just avoiding the “evil step” parent and waiting for the Good Father to come back.
Of course, this is all under the understanding that your father was not an abusive person. That’s a whole other kind of anger at parent and falls under Trauma. It needs to be explored, too, but this post is not about that.
Finding Our Way Back from Being Angry at Our Parents
Our parents don’t need our emotional protection–especially when they’re not even in the room. Allowing ourselves to be angry at our parents may be what we need to let go of other underlying sticking points. The need to protect them may even be getting in the way of all of your other relationships as well. But it doesn’t have to and you don’t have to let it.
It does mean that you’re going to need to allow yourself to trust that if you let out your emotions that you can find your way back.
And that’s what we do in counseling. The goal is to free us to have the relationships we want. With our parents and anyone else.
If you find that you’re struggling to connect to others the way you’d like to and want some support in moving through this difficult process, please contact me via email or phone and we’ll set up a 15-minute free consultation to talk about what’s going on and how I can help you. Looking forward to talking.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been providing counseling for men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.