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

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.

Boundaries

WE HAVE TO WATCH OUT WHERE WE’RE GOING: Boundary Errors and Boundary Violations

First, a boundary is “This is how close you can come to me:” physically, spiritually, in conversations about love or money, etc.

A “boundary error” is when someone, whether friend or foe, has crossed over into my space, my yard, my soul, or my pasture because they didn’t notice the “No Trespassing” sign or signal. As the poet William Stafford says, “The signals we give should be clear. The darkness around us is deep.” Or, as Robert Frost less dramatically put it, “Good fences make good neighbors.” A boundary error is simply a mistake, made, more or less, innocently. When informed, the perpetrators can see or hear their errors and can apologize and vow to be respectful in the future.

On the other hand is the “boundary violation.” This is committed when a person has been informed and warned, often numerous times, what your particular boundaries are in a certain situation, but keeps pushing and pressing in on the boundaries you have communicated. This is when the person will not respect those boundaries and, to some lesser or greater degree, knows that it irritates you, frustrates you, or makes you angry. This person might justify and rationalize their unwanted behavior and say that they are just “teasing,” “playing,” or “kidding” while telling you to “lighten up.” In truth, the above behaviors are just passive-aggressive pebbles in your shoe as you walk through the relationship. Or, worse violations feel like boulders on your head or stabs to the heart.

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What to do and what to say depends on who it is and in what context you feel those errors or violations are committed. Generally, boundary errors get committed once and are willingly corrected. Boundary violators get two warnings, and on the third time you may have to start rethinking your relationship to the violator, whether a boss, friend, family, lover, or spouse.

The really sad thing is that many people don’t know what boundaries are, don’t have very good boundaries themselves, and often confuse boundaries with walls. Where good boundaries exist, walls are not necessary. Boundaries—done appropriately—increase intimacy and communication, and reduce conflict and confrontations.

Here are a few common examples. People think that it is okay to talk about other peoples’ bodies. I have a beautiful friend who gets told by complete strangers, “You’re too thin!” or, “Are you eating enough?” Pregnant women get their bellies touched by complete strangers. Babies get pinched on the cheek. One friend had to stop a woman he’d never even seen before from putting a sock back on his very young son.

The real remedy? Ask before touching. Get information. Don’t assume—you know what that does. Tell folks your boundaries and tell them when they’ve committed errors so they won’t turn into violations, and get really acquainted with your own boundaries.

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Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 5

Read Part 1-4 first

“I keep pursuing Faith, if for no other reason than because it is the place in our life that keeps reminding us of the necessity of Love—Not the romantic love of the poets, but the practical love.”

Krista Tippet—Speaking of Faith

I can’t tell you all that I have hoped for here on this mountain this year. Somewhere along the way, perhaps walking my three animal companions through the woods on a winter afternoon I began filling the hole in my soul with Faith. I’ve learned a few important things perhaps six but still remember this one and that is by letting go of hoping and holding the hands of faith and resting in the palm of process it will cure some of the sores of Despair.

Now here is my personal dilemma—more often than not I reside restlessly between hope and faith. I’m caught between a spiritual rock and a psychological hard place. For me, many days it feels like I’m asking myself to turn loose of a lifeline (oh we think this will be a best-seller, Oh surely you and your former wife will get back together, etc. ect.) tied to the back of the ship I just fell overboard. I want to reach out to hope and let it  drag me back on deck. I hope the lifeline will be a woman who might turn and give my gray beard a second look or that God might throw one glance my way.

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Faith whispers in my all but deaf ear, “you’ll get a best-seller once your ego doesn’t need one for artificial adulation that you still crave. You’re  less vain self won’t care because you have faith and just keep writing like you tell all your students for the pure joy in it. As for hoping for more money which you spend an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about you’ll finally understand the mysterious words of your friend’s poem, “animals give up all their money each year,” and you’ll remember the sparrows and the lilies of the fields. As for a woman coming into your life, perhaps not a lover, but one of the best friends you’ve ever had came your way without one ounce of effort on your part.”

Faith is something I am incapable acquiring like stocks or bonds or books from Amazon. Faith is accessed and generated from the inside out. Faith is an act of Grace where I let the wind blow, the sea be still or turbulent all the while accepting people, things, situations, comings and yes goings and even myself just as I am and allows me to “Know” not believe that I don’t have:

“to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting…” says Mary Oliver

But my fear’s screaming voice is so loud a deaf man could hear it say, “Don’t listen to this shallow, sensitive voice of Faith’s she is a deranged bear wandering in the woods of philosophy and theology and does not serve your best interests like I do. Listen to your “Happiness” psychologist, mindful of your New Age body worker/guru. They will shed light on this whole matter and get you the gifts your body and soul craves.

Fear will talk your ear off and the little faith we have right out of us especially if something doesn’t work out the way it should—a marriage, a promotion, an inheritance. I have listened to this voice so much during my life. I was afraid to leave my family, afraid to leave my hometown, afraid to leave the steady job in a retail clothing store in a windowless mall, afraid I won’t make enough money to pay my bills if I follow my passions, my purpose and yes even my pain. I was afraid then to go to college, afraid I couldn’t get my doctorate, afraid I could and end up a sterile professor longing after the youth of new students each year to round out my dull routine of a life. I was afraid that my wife would leave, afraid I’d never be with another woman again, afraid I couldn’t get it up again if I—afraid I’d get sick and become a burden to someone, afraid I’d actually die before I knew real faith and afraid that I’ll keep forgetting that “perfect love casts out fear.”