I HATE MY FEELINGS . . . THEY MAKE ME LOSE IT
“You don’t want to hear what I have to say today.” Sandy, the mother of a five year old Ashley, stared at the carpet, refusing to look at me.
“Why would that be?” I encouraged at the beginning of her therapy hour.
“Because. . . I was a bad mother last night.”
“Do you want to share with me what happened?”
Sandy shifted position uneasily. “No, it makes me hate myself, but I’ll tell you. I guess you could say I ‘lost it.’ Ashley wouldn’t settle down last night and go to sleep. She kept bouncing out of bed after I’d tucked her in. I was patient for the first three times, but then something just took over me and I wasn’t myself. I pushed her down on the bed too hard and spanked her three times on her pajama bottom. Then, I got up and slammed the door too hard and . . . to top it all off, I threw a dish in the kitchen so hard it broke!. My husband woke up and was scared of me and mad.”
“It sounds like you were really patient for a long time before you lost control? Do you think you hit her hard enough to bruise her.”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. It was just a slap, but I never want to hit a kid.. I was . . .so tired. I didn’t have much sleep this week because I had to stay up late to finish a project for work.”
“Parenting is the hardest job on the planet, isn’t it? No one has done it perfectly yet. Sometimes it’s more than we can handle.”
“Well, I realized I’d done wrong so I went right back to my kid and told her, ‘Moms get mad sometimes, it’s not your fault. I’m really sorry. I did wrong to spank you. I hope I didn’t hurt you. It won’t happen again.”
“Wow, you did a rapid and excellent job with that response! What did she do?”
“She rubbed my arm softly and then went to sleep quickly.”
“Sounds like she understood.”
“Yeah, but I still feel terrible. I told her it won’t happen again, but I can’t promise that. What can I do so I don’t spank her? I don’t believe in physical punishment. That’s my question.”
“There are four actions that you can do in the future. The first is always to trust your negative feelings because they’re yelling loudly that something important is wrong. In that way, they are your best friends. Have a conversation within yourself, by yourself, reading your feelings any way you want. You can have a fantasy about what you might want to do, even an ugly one. Fantasies are free and private; they don’t hurt anybody.”
“I felt like I was capable of doing anything bad just to make her be perfectly still.”
“See, you’re already owning your fantasy and learning how badly you needed your daughter to cooperate. Good for you.”
Now you can move on to the second action. Once you figure out what you feel, then try to translate your emotions into reasonable constructive language that’s honest and clear. A negative feeling may direct you to ask someone for help, or set limits, or say ‘no’ to a request. If it takes a while to figure out what you’re thinking, it’s always all right to ask for a time-out for yourself. Get away from the source of your frustration until you regain control.”
“It was strange, because the feeling was so strong that it almost took over me.” Sandy was sitting up straight and looking at me directly, very intently.
“When it feels that strong, there’s a very important question to ask yourself.”
“What’s that?” Sandy looked like she could hardly wait for my answer.
“We’re now looking at the third action you can take. You have to ask yourself, ‘Does this moment remind me of anything that has happened to me before that also made me unhappy or angry?’
“Ohhhhh.. . . now I’m beginning to get it . . . It did remind me of something that happened before! When I was a kid, I used to be afraid to fall asleep at night, just like my daughter, because. . .wow! . . my parents would take drugs and have fights. Oh my God! . . They’d break dishes, just like I did! whoa!. . . Back then, I was afraid one of them would be dead or injured in the morning. I wanted to stay up to protect them, but I also hated them for fighting . . . . just like I hated my dear daughter for a minute, when I really love her so much.”
“Once again . . . Good for you to be able to reach back into your life story and discover those feelings. No wonder you spanked her!”
“Perhaps you decided to hide your own feelings as a child so they would not make your parents more upset? Perhaps they’ve been stored inside you all this time.”
“That’s it! So much anger just came crashing out of me last night.”
“Then, lets go back to action two and look at what you need to say, in constructive language, to your husband and your daughter.”
“I guess I need to tell my husband what happened in the past. I could tell him that it would help if he could give me a hug instead of being scared and angry. I could tell my daughter that I need to be able to sleep at night so that I can be a patient Mom all day. She can help me by staying in bed. Maybe I need to be firmer with her about that.” Sandy looked relieved and thoughtful.
“Now you’re understanding your feelings clearly. You can take action on them constructively. I believe your husband and daughter will understand. Your feelings are there to guide you, not to make you feel crazy. Now you’ll have a better idea as to what to do with them in the future.
“You’re not going to report me to the Department of Child and Family Services?”
“No, there’s no need for me to do that. First of all, I know you to be a good and loving parent. You did not physically injure your daughter, and you made amends to her right away to repair any psychological damage. Then you took the fourth action we can take when we ‘lose it.’ You came to talk with someone, in this case me, about what happened in a responsible way, to understand your feelings, so it’s less likely to happen again. You may want to talk with me further about your parents’ substance abuse and fights whenever you wish to release more of those piled up feelings in small manageable pieces.”
“I get it . . . I feel better now. I was afraid to come and tell you today.”
“You have my respect for doing so.”
Dorothea McArthur is a Diplomate Clinical Psychologist practicing in Los Angeles. She is President of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. She can be reached at 323-663-2340. Her email is DMcA@ucla.edu.
Copyright 2019 by Dorothea McArthur