Vulnerability Hangover

I gave a talk to our staff on ‘Anger Management’ yesterday and I found it much more stressful than I thought I would. Perhaps because this is an issue that is quite personal for me. Part of the reason that I went into Psychology in the first place was that I struggled with relationships and ‘Anger’ is all about relationships.

Here is the start of the talk:

By way of introduction, I have to tell this story. A couple of weeks ago I was walking my two-year old daughter in the park. She was being impossible, she wouldn’t walk, she wouldn’t be carried. So I picked her up and carried her on my neck. She’s fighting and trying to claw my eyes out. So I snap. Put her down and give her a couple of firm smacks on her bottom. Then I look up to see who has witnessed this embarrassing incident of child abuse. Inevitably of course it’s a fellow staff member. One of my colleagues is walking towards me with her husband. I try to shrink into the shadow of a tree. And then the next day I asked this colleague (who is a lovely person, warm, very together, not judgmental) if it looked as bad as I thought it did. She said she was focused on her conversation with her husband and so she hadn’t actually noticed!

From there I was able to share some interesting research on anger and attachment before discussing anger in relationships, the Fear -> Anger -> Aggression cycle and some case material. I finished up with some anger management tips. I thought it was a pretty good talk and the feedback was positive. But going into the talk I was definitely feeling more stressed than usual. I have been fighting a cold over the past few days and was really worried about losing my voice. I managed to get through the talk without losing my voice but then I was croaking for much of the day. Today it’s a little better but I’m still battling.
It doesn’t help of course that Leah has been sick this past week and L was sick yesterday and today.

But after my talk yesterday I felt a bit ‘spacey’ for the rest of the day. I suppose part of this was that I was running over the internal tape of my talk to see if I had embarrassed myself. Had I offended anyone? Made a fool of myself? Did I reveal too much personal information? For example, I confessed that early in my teaching career I was ashamed to admit that I had been aggressive towards a Grade 8 pupil. The boy was seriously ‘pushing my buttons’ and I asked him to wait after class. Then when he carried on being cheeky, I grabbed him by his tie and spoke to him sharply. I knew I had crossed the line immediately that it happened. And I was cross with myself for losing it like that.

So today I’m still wondering about sharing that incident with the staff. I’m sure they probably took it in the spirit that it was meant and that they don’t think worse of me as a result. If anything, it probably opens up a space for them to reflect on their own ways of expressing anger.

But, as Brene Brown commented after one of her popular TED talks on Shame, I want to go into my house and stay there for a while until I’ve recovered. Brene Brown calls it a vulnerability hangover. Unfortunately I have lots of things to attend to here instead.

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9 Responses to Vulnerability Hangover

  1. litlove says:

    I read the most interesting thing about anger in Stephen Grosz’s book, The Examined Life. He was seeing a boy in therapy who spat in his face every session and it was really getting to him. Talking it over with his supervisor, she suggested that he felt angry because he believed his patient could do better, was actually capable of better behaviour. The next time he saw the boy, and the boy spat at him, he showed his anger and it worked just right. It was what they had both been waiting for – the anger said to them that the child was capable of change, in other words, he was not as broken and hopeless as they both feared.

    I’ve thought about that a lot since reading it. My mother used to get so angry with me as a child because she obviously believed that I was capable of perfect behaviour and she used her anger to get it. It both was and wasn’t true of course, I was a child and she often asked for adult responses from me, which I learned at a certain cost. The real question, when your daughter acts up, is whether she is capable of being better, and thinking about that may help you judge the situation. I tend to think of anger as the feeling of internal outrage that one should be subjected to something distressing or hurtful or unjust, and that it’s personal, directed. With kids, you’re just the nearest 24/7 complaint’s bureau. It can feel really personal, but it isn’t.

    But whatever you do, don’t feel bad. Every single parent in the world gets wound up by their children (they have nothing better to do) and we all hit the nuclear button some days. I’ve done it enough times myself! It’s really important to forgive yourself for being angry (and I suspect the spacyness after the talk was in some part the aroused guilt from worrying that you can’t do better). You know this better than I do – the more you treat yourself with compassion, the less you’ll need a gut response to deal with any situation. In the meantime, the knowledge that you have about this topic will be of great help to others.

    • Pete says:

      Thanks Litlove. I was also really interested in that story by Stephen Grosz. I remember thinking how hard it must have been for him to endure that spitting every session. But as you say it was helpful for him to acknowledge his anger and that shifted something in the therapy.

      Thanks for the reassurance re parenting. I know that I tend to be hard on myself for my mistakes and I do try and practice compassion there but it’s difficult. As you know, the pressure tends to build up during term-time and it doesn’t help that it’s cold and flu season here.

      One thing I’ve learned about parenting a 2-year old is not to expect more sophisticated emotional responses from her. She’s not able to blend emotions for example. If she’s angry, then she’s angry. Although she is learning to turn it down (hopefully). 🙂

  2. Grad says:

    I read this post with great interest because a life-long friend recently became so angry with me over something so minor (at least to me) that she wrote me the most awful e-mails filled with what appeared to be 40 years of pent up fury. Then she “de-friended” me on Facebook and Goodreads and cut off all communication. I wrote about it on my blog on May 13, so I won’t go into it here again. I am not trained, as you are, but it seems to me that expressing anger (appropriately, of course) is a healthy thing. But I could be wrong. As for the situations you described, we’ve all been there. I have three children, each born 23 months apart from the one in front of them. I do believe I found myself in the same position as you did. And although my children do not remember me ever hitting them, I am sure I must have given each of them a tap on the behind at some point. I do remember talking to their pediatrician one time stating I thought I was a bad mother because one of them cried so long and loud as a baby, every day, beginning at 5:00 p.m. and going on until 9:00 p.m. and all I felt after an hour or two of that was anger, not nurturing. He smiled and said, “Well, crying is noise, after all. And noise is noise. No one expects you to enjoy noise.” Just his non-judgment was enough to make the next crying session easier for me. I knew could feel irritated with my baby and also know it was normal to feel irritated. I wasn’t an uncaring mother. I was being quite normal. That alone gave me the patience I needed to get through those months of apparent colic. That baby was my daughter and she is now a beautiful, loving 29 year old woman who thinks I am the best person in the world, just as Leah will think you and your wife are the best people who ever walked the planet. I am also relieved to hear that a psychologist has the same feelings of anger as the rest of us from time to time. Oh…and kids can sure push those buttons, can’t they.

    • Pete says:

      Hi Grad, thanks for the reassurance. It’s always good to hear from more experienced parents about how normal these struggles are. As for your former friend getting angry with you like that, I think she’s definitely lost perspective about the true meaning and value of friendship.

      As for anger …. ‘eish’ is a good South African word that describes what we often can’t find words for. I find as knowledgeable as I am about anger, it still catches me off-guard sometimes. I think I need to research something more life-affirming such as empathy and love next. 🙂

  3. I jumped right over to your blog because I recognized Dr. Brown’s catch phrase. (Those catchy titles work!) I think you did all the good sharing. Just because we feel the vulnerability hangover doesn’t mean we over shared. It can often mean we shared something meaningful and helpful.

    I know as a workshop attendee I very much appreciate when a presenter shares their own flaws. We’ve all got them. I’m no exception, especially on the anger front. I came from a family with a lot of loud, sharp, and sometimes cruel expressions of anger. After years of preaching and therapizing with a lot of angry parents in trouble for actual and verified child abuse, I eventually put the anger management tools to work on myself and can say they have been tremendously helpful. Took awhile, but I’m a different person today, in my home, especially. Three teens in the house means plenty of opportunity for relapse but I find I’m no longer brooding for hours after an angry moment and no longer generally making myself hard to live with.

    By the way, hang in there with the Terrific Two’s. I can remember a parking lot incident I’m not proud of. It involved a stubborn 2 yr old who would NOT let me buckle him into his car seat. Flailing and spitting and sweating (both of us) I was a little too rough getting him to sit still and did the same sheepish look-around “who saw that?” Thankfully this was a Walmart parking lot and if you know anything about Walmart shoppers from the web you will know what I did was mild compared to the typical parenting examples I see everyday in the aisles. And nobody was around to see. So I was spared judgemental scrutiny. And there were more examples at home of course… but I stopped being down on myself. Kids are tough especially when the kicking and flailing is heading straight into freshly painted walls. I believe in the “good enough parenting” method. My kids are all well adjusted. My stubborn car-seated son is independent, working two jobs, graduating from high school with honors and readying to attend a major university. And he even seems to like me 🙂

    • Pete says:

      Hey shrink on the couch! Nice to hear from you. I can well believe that about Walmart and parenting moments. We now have a Walmart here but I haven’t ventured there yet (especially not with a 2-year old). And thank God and Winnicott for ‘good enough parenting’ 🙂

  4. DoctorDi says:

    Wow, Pete. You’ll be pleased to know we’re still living in a parallel parenting universe! I haven’t given Master J the smack on the bottom myself yet, but he’s certainly asked for it enough times and I know it might happen one day. Things do. Sometimes they happen. And I bet that like Grad, your colleagues probably really appreciated the story you shared. It’s very human, very relatable, and very much the perfect way to illustrate your point and open the workshop. It does take guts to make any parenting admission in that forum, though, so well done you, and I bet most people breathed a sigh of relief knowing you weren’t planning to lecture them from on high. Nope, you’re in touch with your humanity and your failings, and I think that makes you a far better professional. Sending love to your family from mine. xxxx

    • Pete says:

      Hey Di, great to hear from you. Like Grad, I’ve missed your voice and your updates. The Anger talk is thankfully a distant memory and now I’ve just given a Sex-Ed talk to one hundred and fifty 15-year old boys (and their teachers). It went OK but I had to de-stress with an overdose of sugar which was exactly not the way to go! Lots of love to you and your family. xx

      • doctordi says:

        Thanks, Pete. It’s lovely to be missed. And now the Sex-Ed talk with the squirming mass of 15-year-old boys must also be a distant memory! Can’t get over how quickly time is passing.

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