I Can’t Get Angry at my Mother

The Flying Boy Letters: Responses and Replies 30 Years Later

Letter # 12

September 11, 1990

Norwalk, Connecticut

Dear John:

I just finished your book, The Flying Boy, and since I am one, I thought you might be able to provide to me advice regarding a specific issue I’ve been confronting—and one you’ve confronted.

First of all, I found your book immensely thought-provoking and enlightening. I share many of the traits you discovered. I’m 41, never married, no male friends, etc., and yet I’m well-liked, professionally successful, and handsome. I’ve been working in therapy for years on these and other issues, with some success, but not enough.

Recently I’ve been focusing on my relationship with my mother, which seems similar to your relationship with yours, but I’m stuck. My therapist is encouraging me to feel and express my anger at my mother. She was very dissatisfied with my father, who was lazy, selfish, distant, etc. My mother enlisted me in her campaign against my father, and I joined wholeheartedly. I saw my mother as victimized, the “good parent,” whose life was made miserable by the bad parent, and so I did whatever I could to compensate for my father’s inadequacies. This amounted to never wanting anything, never making any demands on my mother, being as “good” as I possibly could be—in short, doing whatever I could to please her.

The problem is, I now feel as if I’m not entitled to anything. I’m always trying to please the women in my life, and while I generally succeed at that, I don’t feel comfortable and satisfied, and so I leave them.

But here’s the specific problem I need help with. How do I feel angry at my mother? I can’t seem to do it. I bought her act hook, line, and sinker, and whenever I think of her, I feel sad and sorry for her. To feel angry at her seems heartless and ungrateful. After all, she always told me how she sacrificed for me for me and how hard she worked for me. I understand what I should be angry at her for; I believe I have a right to be angry at her—but I can’t seem to feel it. When I try to, I feel bad and I imagine her mournful face looking so hurt by my anger. She died of cancer when I was 16, and that makes it even harder.

My therapist believes it is crucial that I feel and express my anger at my mother and I agree. But right now, I simply can’t.

Any advice?

Thanks for your book, and I hope things are going well for you.

Sincerely,

I Can’t Get Angry at My Mother

Dear I Can’t Get Angry at My Mother,

Man, do I get you, and as they say now, “I feel you, Bro.” But really, I do. I was able to feel my anger and rage at my father about the time you wrote this letter. I knew he verbally, emotionally, and psychologically abused me. But Mom – she was a saint – or so we all thought back then.

It would be years after The Flying Boy came out before I, like you, felt I had to take my mom off the cross and off the pedestal, and even she knew this at the time, saying one day on my then-farm in Asheville: “When are you going to work on me the way you did your father? I know you must have some anger at me.”

Man! Was she right. Like you, I saw her as a victim who sacrificed so much to stay with Dad, and I sacrificed so much to be her surrogate husband, counselor and confidant as we proceeded to alienate Dad, and to a degree, demonized him for his alcoholism and being a poor husband and parent.

When kids replace childhood with adult behaviors as early as you did, and I did, we grow up too fast and stay children and childlike too long. Like you said, you feel “not entitled to anything and you [and so did I] always try to please women,” hence the name I gave them, “Flying Boys.”

By the way, I got this title from reading and article on Robert Bly, the recognized father of the Men’s Movement back in 1981. In it, he told a story probably from Grimm Brothers about a woman who took her boys out in the woods so she could have them all to herself. Eventually the “boys” knew they had to leave their mother and so she turned them into swans.  As I read, I knew I was a swan boy, and so I came up with the name Flying Boys.

So yes, I did my “mother work,” but the anger was so buried in me, and so deep that my therapist at the time had to use extreme measures—dynamite—to blast me open, using a jackhammer to break me out of denial, and then a chisel and hammer to chip away the residual rage that had been in me for decades of feeling sorry for her and realizing I had a right to finally feel both grief and anger.

You say your therapist is encouraging you to feel and express your pent-up rage at a woman who you loved and lost to cancer when you were sixteen, but when you try, you “imagine her mournful face looking hurt by my anger.” As I’m sure you intellectually know, your mother was a complex person with both good and bad aspects or traits, but you say you simply can’t, and you’re requesting help. This is what I did and this is how I’m grateful to say I’ve helped more than a few men get to this undesirable feeling.

You see, what I came up with is that at 38 to 40 years old I had to work on my Ghost Mother—this is the mother at 19 when she birthed her son (My God, a 19-year-old!). She was still a baby raising a baby, but it is that young, green mother I had to get angry with. It was the twenty- and twenty-five-year old that turned me into a premature adult. It was this woman that I had to get angry at – not the then-60-year-old mother who existed at the time to whom I was expressing my anger. My anger was for the young woman who allowed my father’s abuse to occur towards me and who smothered me herself – not for the aging woman living in Florida.

So what I’m saying is yes, your mother died, but it is the ghost mother that still haunts. It is the Ghost that has to be fully exercised and exorcised out of our bodies and our brains, so we can finally grow up, see her as a flawed human, and finally let her go.

Begin by imagining that you are taking the fact that she did the best she could, putting it in a box, and put that box in the closet. I’ve taught for a long time that all parents pretty much do the best they can with what they have. This sentiment still exists—it’s still true, and you still can have those feelings—but putting it aside right now will help you get to work. Then, if you have pictures of your mother when she was young, take those pictures and post them around your rooms and talk to that woman, because that’s the woman you’re still carrying around with you, and the Ghost Mother around whom you need to express your anger. With these two techniques, hopefully your anger will begin to surface. It may be helpful to remind yourself as often as necessary that your mother, who did the best she could, is not being hurt by your expression of appropriate anger. When the anger does come, express it, and keep expressing it until you feel you are done. When you feel done, then you take that box out of the closet, open it up, and now you’ve got “she did the best she could,” but you’ve also gotten angry at her, and then you put those two together. When you are able to express your anger, and combine the woman who faulted you with the understanding of all the ways that she did right by you, you will have a stronger, more complete, and more authentic relationship with this woman who was all too briefly alive during your lifetime.

Another possibility is finding somebody who does psychodrama therapy, and having this person pretend to be your mother so you can express the things that you wish to tell your mother. Role playing and dramatization can sometimes bring forth formerly unexpressed emotions. Remember, you are not hurting your mother; you are healing yourself.

Now for the men like me whose old mother is still alive at 86, this woman and I finally found a friendship that is functional and even fun. So if we let go of our ghosts, feeling everything that has been repressed in our bodies and souls, there is a great possibility of talking and interacting adult-to-adult.

So now you’re an aging man like me and I bet you finally got to your rightful, righteous rage and anger, and I hope you got all the benefits that come with that.

Take care and thank you for writing,

JOHN

Grieving: The Doorway to Healing and to Maturity

This is the time of year when a lot of grief may rise to the surface, and a season that should not be about money.

In that regard, when I first started my counseling career over 30 years ago, I did so with the objective to just help folks. Even though I have kept that objective in mind, there are many who could not afford my long-time standard rate of $150 for a 50-minute session, and therefore, it limited the number of people I could reach and help.

So, beginning today and going through January 2, 2017, for the first time ever, I am offering my phone sessions for a “pay-what-you-can rate.” If you, or a friend, or a family member, would like a session with me, just pay what you can, even if that means nothing.

Let’s see if together, we can make this season a little more, if not enjoyable, then at least, bearable.

During my 30 years of counseling and working with men and women, I have been asked so many times: “How do you grieve?” or “How do you begin grieving?”

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Here are the five things necessary to do deep grief work around any change, transition, death, loss, break up, or divorce:

  1. One needs an awareness that grief is the proper response to all loss and change and that it is a doorway into our maturity.
  2. We need to devote as much time as it takes, letting no one tell us to move on or out faster than we are ready because, as we know, time is the great healer.
  3. In order to do deep grief work, one must ritualize the process. These rituals move the pain and the sorrow up and out faster than a catch-as-catch-can approach to grief can ever achieve.
  4. We need a community of supportive people as we go through these transitions and losses because grief is not to be done entirely alone but in a community.
  5. Having navigated our way through the treacherous waters and shed our tears, we need to employ our community and have a celebration that says we came out on the other side.

Also, one of the seven stages of grief is anger, and the coming holidays can be a time when people feel angry about all kinds of different things. Additionally, it is a season when a lot of folks get depressed, anxious, family histories surface, and loneliness prevails. directory-466935

Loneliness can be a precursor to alcoholism, drug addiction, physical illness, and depression. One of the hardest things, especially for men, is to admit to anyone that they are lonely. If you find yourself in this psychological and emotional state, be sure to reach out and tell someone and not suffer silently by yourself.

If you would like to learn more about grief work, or how anger expressed appropriately equals energy, intimacy, and serenity, or if you are in need of help with other issues, please take me up on my offer of a phone or Skype session for the “pay-what-you-can rate.”

Also, please know that I am doing this as much for me, as I am for anyone who feels the need to make an appointment.

Additionally, beginning January, 2017, I will be opening a full-time counseling and coaching practice in Austin, Texas, but we can do some of this work over the phone or via Skype.

So if anyone out there is hurting and needs some help, remember I want to help you whether you can afford to pay my full fee, a part thereof, or nothing at all.

If you or someone you know would like to schedule a session, please call me at 678-494-1296, or email my assistant, Kathy McClelland, at jleeassistant@aol.com.

Take care of yourself during this holiday season, and please:

  • call me if you would like a phone, Skype, or in-person session,
  • tell your friends and/or colleagues about my new full-time counseling and coaching practice in Austin, Texas and;
  • don’t forget the 2-day Intensives in Austin, Texas or Mentone, Alabama.

Thank you, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

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Announcement – I will be offering 2-Day Intensive Sessions in Austin, Texas beginning September 1, 2016

I’m pleased to announce that after a break from offering my 2-day Intensives in Austin, Texas, I am now making those available again starting September 1, 2016 at the Austin Men’s Center, thanks to Director Bill Bruzy.

As most of you know Austin is not only charming and beautiful, it is a convenient location for clients especially from the Midwest, Southwest, and West Coast.

I will continue to offer the Intensives at my Mentone Cottage in the mountains of Northeast Alabama.

I hope you will pass the word along to clients or friends who would like to engage in my nontraditional approach to coaching, counseling, and teaching.

Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 3

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Emerson

Coming here to this cottage in the woods I assigned myself what I know now to be an impossible task and that was to learn how to be alone again and in so doing engage in the task of being happy. I needed to know that in this rural setting with no lovers, wives, little money, but dump truck loads of peace and quiet I could I acquire this illusory thing called happiness that everyone including me has been so desperately searching for most of our lives.

It turns out that once again the philosopher Kierkegaard would have a useful insight, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.” “But Herr K” I whined, “the United States’ Constitution says, as does the internet, formerly Madison Avenue everyman has the right to pursue happiness—it is a guaranteed if I get the right job, right education, right spouse, right kids, right house in the right neighborhood I should be happy right?”

So happiness is “If this—Then”. If I don’t get the “right” everything then I’m not going to be happy. This is the cracked foundation on which our “happiness” home is built. It may take years or even decades or a divorce or a death for us to realize this house of straw could be blown over by the big bad wolf of bad luck, bad timing, and bad choices.

Yet it is in this house that we try to “make” our wives, children, husbands or parents happy. What happens when happiness is not achieved or acquired, caught, trapped and claimed as one’s birthright? Most of us feel like we’ve done something wrong, missed the proverbial boat and maybe even fallen out of God’s graces.

Outer circumstances, objectionable people, wars, bankruptcy, poverty, alcoholism seem to be the unhappiness rain that falls on both the just and the unjust. Happiness is more like a mirage in the desert that looks like a place we can eventually get to, claim as our own and drink it’s eternal, flowing waters—our own personal, emotional, spiritual and financial oasis.

“Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out into the woods nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Let me be clear here I am no Thoreau. I have wifi, laptop, desktop, ipad, iphone, and a satellite tv with a million channels. However what I’ve found now that I’ve lived here a year is that when I’m calm enough to remember to take full deep breaths and stand on my studio’s deck and look at the gentle pastures, slopes and hills and I see the horses in the pasture across the road buck at the first sign of cool fall air I experience joy. When I’m quiet and not missing somebody or something and the geese fly right over my house every year about this time headed south I feel a deep and abiding sense of peace and joy. When these honking angels decide to light on the still, small pond beside my studio I think this joy could last ten thousand years in this one eternal moment.

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Joy is something, as alone, lonely, sad, as I am almost every day is experienced a dozen to a hundred times a day. While happiness seems like a permanent commodity I should have bought off the internet and that I’ve paid for emotionally, educationally and financially it always seems to be just beyond the grasp of these too short arms.

Happiness is pursued while joy is received. All these elegant trees on my property and the neighbors’ stand waiting for the joy of their beauty to reach my eyes and then my heart. Some times when the wind is strong enough they wave at me to get my divided attention. The pines especially today are insistent on saying hello. It seems like joy is enhanced in direction proportion to how I reduce my expectancy and search for happiness. Joy can be experienced only in the precious moment. It can give birth to ecstasy, enthusiasm, and even momentary enlightenment. For us to be happy something has to happen to make us so. While joy is quixotic, mercurial, temporary it is available anytime night or day.

Happiness then says something must change and you’ll have me. Joy says you can have me anytime you want; I’m at your beck and call. Anytime you want to see that hawk that just flew over your head, that look in your own eye when you see your children that comes from within, anytime you access that ability you have to stop wanting, wanting things to be different than they are, wanting yourself to be different than you are, wanting happiness, you can experience the joy that is in you, and around you twenty-four seven whether you’re in the woods or in a high rise.