Nathaniel Smith shares how holding on to the past or obsessing about the future diminishes your ability to experience a full and happy life.
I have visited with many clients through the years in my private counseling practice in Dallas Texas suffering with what I like to call the “HELL NO I WON’T LET GO” syndrome. I have discovered that when people hold onto the past or obsess about the future, they lose the opportunity to experience the present fully. Being stuck in this process perpetuates people’s anger cycles because they are not able to focus and process through what they are feeling in the present. Most people get stuck in this cycle because they have great pain and fear behind their angry feelings about past, or possible future, hurtful events. I have discovered that for most people it is easier to show anger than to honestly face the true driving force behind their outburst. Many things promote anger as the best way to handle pain and fear. I believe one major factor that creates this cycle is a person’s learned defense mechanisms. In this article I will focus on five defense mechanisms that hinder young boys and men from discovering how to communicate and process feelings successfully.
Where do boys and men learn the “HELL NO I WON’T LET GO” syndrome? I have discovered, through my work, that most boys and men are taught to be strong and to not show pain or fear because that means they are less than, or a weak, man. These messages about how to be a man come from many different sources. I have spent years counseling men and the majority identify three major sources for these messages. The first source includes fathers or male caregivers. Many men have expressed that they were told to not cry when sad, hurt, or in pain; and don’t show fear or express feelings. These messages cause men to learn how to stuff their feelings inside. When expressed, these feelings come out in unclear or explosive ways, because they are unsure about what they feel or how to communicate it.
The second source is friends or peer groups that prompted talking about feelings are for women. This group stressed to them to avoid feelings and be hard, because that is being strong. This instills the ideal that logic rules, not feelings. Therefore, men just focus on the solution and forget about their feelings. These messages keep men from learning how to pinpoint, or communicate, what they are feeling. They promote logic over feelings. The third source is media, sports, and movies. I have had discussions with many men about these forms of entertainment and what messages they often promote. Many men tell me that these forms, in some cases, promote wining at all cost; being strong, coming in second means you failed, power and control is the only way to win, and many other types of messages that set men up to use anger and aggression as a primary form of communication.
These messages keep men in a cycle of win/lose, trying to be right, minimizing, blaming, and denial. This cycle keeps us from listening, showing empathy, and ultimately having trusting and respectful relationships. As men, we receive many messages that are not humane and create a cycle that is promoted to future male generations. Men and boys have to stand up, help educate, and model something different; or this cycle will continue to dominate the way we handle relationships.
Defense Mechanisms That Keep You From Letting Go of Anger
When you’re angry, you call on your defense mechanisms to keep pain and fear at bay. However, in reality, most defense mechanisms lock us into negative emotions by preventing us from letting go of unpleasant memories. Through time, you become convinced that defense mechanisms protect you from others, or your emotions. I have found five defense mechanisms that drive anger. They include rumination, fight rehearsal, grudges, isolating, and looking for patterns. I have defined each one below and provided an example.
Rumination is pushing the “rewind button” on old misunderstandings and perceived hurts, or repeating a fight in your mind repeatedly to the point of obsession.
Example: Joe has a fight with his wife. He keeps rehashing the argument in his head for hours afterward. Joe ruminates because he doesn’t want to forget how badly he was hurt or to be caught off guard next time. Joe is afraid to let go.
Fight Rehearsal is fantasizing about a future fight, preparing your argument in advance, visualizing what you will do, or say, and planning your strategy to win.
Example: Kevin and his sister have an argument, but Kevin never really says his piece. Later at home, Kevin furiously visualizes their next fight, plans what he will say, and imagines how he will get his point across. Kevin thinks his angry insistence on “imaginary fight rehearsal” will ensure that he will be heard in the future. However, all it does is keep him from letting go.
Grudges happen when you refuse to forgive, forget, or show compassion or empathy for someone else’s mistakes, perspective, or differences.
Example: Greg’s mother-in-law, Judy, did not attend her daughter’s wedding to Greg because she had an emergency surgery that day. Since then, Judy has been helpful, polite, and welcoming to Greg. However, Greg refuses to forget the perceived slight—he frequently refers to the fact that Judy missed the wedding, reminds his wife about her mom’s absence, and will not forgive Judy for her offense. Though he may imagine that this behavior protects him from future disappointment, Greg’s holding on to a grudge keeps his mother-in-law at arm’s length.
Isolating means walking away from a discussion, giving someone the silent treatment, or guarding yourself against further hurt by withholding emotionally and physically.
Example: Richard, the executor of his dad’s will, reluctantly carried out his duties. His twin brother, Steve, felt excluded from the process. Since then, Steve doesn’t visit Richard on holidays, won’t speak to him at family reunions, and won’t return Richard’s phone calls. Steve is isolating and withholding in an attempt to avoid conflict or future pain at the cost of a relationship with his brother.
Looking for Patterns is looking for similar memories, behaviors, or interactions to hold against someone. You are trying to support your theory that this is not a one-time problem, but a major recurring issue in the relationship.
Example: John forgot Valentine’s Day once, in 1999. Since then, his wife Margaret has labeled John as a forgetful, thoughtless husband. Anytime a holiday is nearing, Margaret starts paying close attention to whether John remembers it, mentions it, or seems excited about it. In addition, Margaret watches John with an eagle eye for other areas where John might be forgetful, such as with grocery lists, taking out the trash, or relaying phone messages. Margaret is “pattern-searching” because she is fearful of being hurt again and wants to be prepared next time. However, it adds a bitter and accusatory tone to the marriage.
Excerpts from the book Taming Your Temper by Nathaniel D. Smith have been included in this writing with permission.
Photo: Matty Hick/Flickr