A lot is written about male anger. While men perpetrate by far the preponderance of serious domestic abuse and violence, women and mothers can be abusive in the home. In recent weeks I have found myself working with a number of mother’s that struggle with controlling their anger. In some cases this is very distressing for the children. In most of the cases I am dealing with, it is also distressing for the mothers themselves who cover up their sense of inadequacy or helplessness with anger or rage. It got me thinking on the different kinds of anger experienced by mothers who have a problem with their own frustration and rage. Most mothers find ways of coping and managing. All mothers get angry. But some anger is a symptom of a deep inadequacy, of a sense of really being overwhelmed by the tasks of mothering. For some mothers, the maternal instinct is not natural and they are unable to identify with, and even resent, the easy earth-mothering they see in their friends.
Angry mothers often feel inadequate as parents. This creates an on-going tension and irritability at feeling unable to cope with the demands of small children who, as we know, can be a handful. Associated with this inadequacy is helplessness – an inner sense of feeling out of control and unable to soothe or resolve the daily distresses of their children. These kinds of women are often very needy, if not demanding themselves, and react more like siblings than parents to their children. The anger explodes from a resentment that they have to put their child’s needs before their own. For women who may, for example, be used to just doing their own thing or getting their own way, it can be a culture shock to suddenly be surrounded by the needy cries and demands of children.
The following kinds of maternal anger or rage may reveal some of the subtleties of maternal frustration:
All mothers feel overwhelmed at times. All mothers get angry. Some mothers know, however, that their anger borders on a resentment toward their children that bubbles up from feeling overwhelmed or inadequate. If you feel like this, do talk to someone. Seek some counselling or parenting support. You are not alone with these feelings. For many, the task of parenting is overwhelming – particularly if you have little or no support.
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you have ever had the hair on the back of the neck prickle while observing athletic excellence, or been moved beyond words while viewing a scene of spectacular beauty, you possess a unique sensitivity to both beauty and excellence. This sensitivity exists in most people to greater or lesser degrees but it is important to consider it as a personal virtue.
This strength is defined as the ability to find, recognize, and take pleasure in the existence of goodness in the physical and social worlds. The psychology of personal strengths suggests that we benefit from appreciating three main types of “goodness”:
1. Natural or man-made beauty (e.g., the stars at night, music)
2. Skill or talent (e.g., hurling)
3. Virtue or moral goodness (e.g., an anonymous good deed)
Awe is the emotion that most frequently accompanies this strength. Its manifestations include wide eyes, goose bumps, tears, or even a lump in the throat. When we exercise this strength, we feel uplifted. Viewing an artistic masterpiece or reading about a heroic, selfless act in the newspaper does not make us feel small in comparison. Rather, it instils within us a sense of awe and connection to something larger than ourselves. Appreciation of beauty and excellence is a virtue of transcendence.
People can savour a simple meal prepared at home as well as an elegantly presented meal at an expensive restaurant. Whether one is evaluating a dining experience, a painting or a companion, there is abundant truth in the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While many will make superficial judgments that inaccurately assess value, the “beholder” whose strength is an appreciation of beauty and excellence will find deeper qualities that others miss.
Self-styled arbiters of what is beautiful and good often err in their appraisals. Noting this tendency, Leo Tolstoy observed, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Apparently some things have not changed since Tolstoy’s era. Ours is a culture of media hype that extols pretty faces and toned bodies and subjects us to ongoing appraisals that may be far from accurate. We need not accept another’s assessment of what is beautiful or excellent.
Also, it is not necessary to learn associated jargon in order to make our own judgments when savouring wine or appreciating art. Indeed, someone who is deeply affected by an instance of beauty or excellence is unlikely to find adequate words to describe it.
Awe has received little attention in psychology but it has a long tradition in religion and philosophy. Philosophers suggest that awe is the normal response to an encounter with the divine. If we feel a Divine presence within ourselves, or if we believe that we see it reflected in nature or in the selfless act of another person, awe is the natural response.
Certainly some people are able to appreciate beauty and excellence and experience awe and wonder apart from any religious perspective, but openness to spiritual encounters may foster that experience. One function of the music and ritual of religious observance may be to facilitate the experience of awe.
People have varying capacities to have peak experiences: Within any culture there are individuals who have personal, transcendent, experiences easily and often, and who accept them and make use of them; and on the other hand, those who never had them or who repress them and who, therefore, cannot make use of them for personal fulfilment. There is little doubt that most of us would prefer inclusion in the former category rather than the latter.
Efforts to cultivate this strength in children often fail because the focus is on the object of beauty rather than the experience of appreciation. Anyone who can recall a time when a stressful school assignment sapped the joy out of a great novel or work of art can appreciate this point. Parents and teachers need to encourage the development of this strength in children by exposing them to as many different examples of excellence or beauty as possible and then standing back and letting beauty take its own course.
If you are interested in developing your own ability to appreciate beauty and excellence in the world (and more frequently experience awe), consider doing things that fosters this disposition. Consider this: Wherever you are right now as you read this, stop for a moment and look around you. The chances are that things that remind you of your thing-to-do in life surround you. Equally, however, you are surrounded by beauty. This may lie in the littlest of things. A plant by the table. The clouds reflected in the window. A piece of artwork by your child. Your own hands. Your child’s coat draped over the chair, the light catching its colour.
Savouring simple beauty and evoking momentary feelings of awe is an active disposition and not just a passive experience. Don’t wait for the beauty of your life to keep announcing itself. Seek it out, like a child on a beach looking for sea-shells.
“The world breaks everyone and afterwards some are strong in the broken places” wrote Hemingway. He is referring poetically to the fact that adversity and trauma do not break everyone. Many people grow and develop not despite adversity but because of it. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” I show the German philosopher Nietzsche put it. Or you may be familiar with Leonard Cohen’s line from “There is a crack in everything…that is how the light gets in.” Each of these people is describing the woundedness of life and how our brokenness is the essence of our humanity. The challenge of life is not to avoid adversity at all costs, but to be equal to it when it places its hand on your shoulder.
Psychological research is now supporting the intuition of these poets - that adversity makes us stronger, more robust, and fulfilled people. The erasure of adversity from life makes people weaker.
We need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps some forms of trauma to reach our highest potential. If you are honest with yourself you will realise that the experiences in life that have made you a stronger and more compassionate person are experiences you would not have wished upon yourself. If you have come through a bereavement and have re-discovered your old self, doubtless your humanity has been softened, your empathy for other people has changed, and your appreciation for life in deeper. Life may not be easier, but you will find yourself to be a better parent, a better lover, a better person because of what you have been through.
So our concept and understanding of how to live a meaningful life must integrate the inevitability and necessity of adversity as a pre-requisite to growth. Wisdom in life grows from the soil of suffering and it is achieved by overcoming it.
Naïve happiness is built on the avoidance and denial of the woundedness and brokenness of one’s life and one’s self. Perpetually seeking good feelings, and wanting to be happy all the time, is bound to fail because it actually is avoidant of life in the round. Is it not a relief sometimes to meet someone who when you ask them how they are they do not just say “Fine” but are occasionally able to admit with an element of cheerful acceptance that they are finding things a tad difficult!
If you live a somewhat stressful, worrisome, and at times hard life then this is it.
The challenge is to be able to experience that as not a reflection of your inadequacy but as a reflection of the texture of all of life. If you feel inadequate then you punish yourself for not being able to cope. If you are open to the texture of life than you don’t punish yourself for being inadequate. No, you roll with the waves. What a Grateful Acceptance of all of Life.
Now we must not be naïve about this either. We cannot romanticise adversity or suffering or trivialise it by saying, like mother used to say, “It’s good for you!” No one wants suffering, pain, loss, illness, death, etc. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of genuine trauma that involves a shocking confrontation with death or some overwhelming experience such as rape or battering, is awful and damaging. However, even the most awful of experiences (see Brain Keenan’s an Evil Cradling) do not destroy the person. There is an inner resilience that has great potential to overcome, though often battered, bruised, and wounded.
My point is that adversity does not imply despair. And much adversity causes growth! Great Character is really about what you do with your pain.
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the unique point of view from which we come to see and experience the world.
The research on adversity shows that there are times in life when adversity will be essentail to the formation of character. Major adversity is unlikely to have benefits for children although the effects of once off traumas on children are less damaging than people would tend to think. Research would suggest that adversity is best handled earlier in adult life.
No one chooses adversity and no one feels that having it would make him or her any better. Yet, paradoxically, in terms of the developing fabric of human resilience and well-being it is essential to our ability to live a meaningful life. People who go through life with a silver spoon grow shallow and weak.
There will be a moment in your own life when you have the opportunity to sing your Aria. In Puccini’s La Boheme Rodolpho sings to Mimi about his life – so full of passion, loneliness, love, adversity, and sweetness it is that it cannot fail to move the heart. Wonderful opera is like this, finding exquisite beauty in the midst of heartbreak and tragedy and at these moments the lead gets to sing the Aria. At this moment, the tender beauty of life is revealed to the audience. And this is life. You need to be middle-aged or over to truly appreciate opera because by this stage you have suffered and also known the sweetness of life. You know what is beautiful because of what has been tragic.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.