Hurt and fury may make strange bedfellows—but they can still be a “couple.”
Posted Apr 29, 2015
Many therapists note that hurt feelings often reside underneath anger. In fact, the more pronounced your anger, the greater the hurt it conceals. So if the phrase “angry tears” sounds oxymoronic to you, that’s because it is. However, it's also profoundly descriptive of human experience.
Even though it certainly sounds illogical, you've most likely felt this deeply mixed emotion at some point in your life, too. So, think about it. Have you ever had your feelings hurt, yet simultaneously felt like you were boiling with frustration—maybe even to the extent that you could feel your lips quiver?
If you can relate to that, see whether you can recall what provoked it. You likely perceived the situation as grossly unfair. And, as I’ve written in many of my Psychology Today posts on anger, this highly inflamed emotion is the only one that can be understood as “moralistic,” for it’s typically aroused when you believe you’re being treated in a manner that’s biased, unfair, or unethical.
Unsurprisingly, children are far more likely to evince this hurtfully angry response than are adults. Since children are more viscerally in touch with their feelings—regardless of whether they can actually understand them—they’re less capable of holding them in, or finding a way to successfully camouflage them. And even though they may not have the words, insight, or maturity to adequately explain what they’re feeling, their facial expression—and the irate tears they can’t help shedding—betray their extreme distress.
Let me offer a couple of examples of this emotional phenomenon, both taken from the same therapy client. This client, whom we’ll call Jim, grew up in a family where his two younger sisters’ wants and needs—as well as those of both parents—seemed to take priority over his own. His mother and father not only reacted more critically and punitively toward him, but they almost automatically sided with one of his sisters whenever he was in conflict with them. This occurred even in instances where it should have been blatantly obvious that Jim was in the right. Somehow, as the oldest of the three children (and the only male child), his parents assigned him the role of “responsible party” whenever a verbal battle erupted between them.
Jim was an exceptionally gifted and sensitive child, and was called “the little professor” when he was in grade school. He recounted that he had a keen sense of right and wrong starting when he was quite young. His ideas about what was just and equitable hardly seemed unreasonable or biased, either. In fact, although his parents were solidly middle class (his mother had earlier been a psychiatric social worker and his father was a distinguished university professor), it pained me to listen to his examples of how he was routinely discriminated against—almost as though he’d been “selected” as the family scapegoat, or black sheep.
Also, nothing he shared with me intimated that he deserved to be treated in such an unfavorable way—or that he was just a “bad kid.” (Exactly why he’d been cast in this disadvantageous role would take up way too much space to elaborate on here. So I’ll simply note that it had virtually everything to do with his parents’ unresolved childhood issues.)
When it came to his father’s grossly insensitive (and even brutal) treatment of him, consider this instance. On a lengthy car trip, his family stopped at a roadside café for lunch. It’s possible that Jim, age 10 at the time, was tired or out of sorts because, even though he was a small, generally mild-mannered child, he made a flippant remark that clearly antagonized his father. In fact, his father was so annoyed that he told him he was ready to pour Jim’s glass of water over his head.
Jim, terribly hurt by this unprecedented threat—yet indignant, too—responded (surprisingly out-of-character) by saying, “You wouldn’t dare!” His father then stood up, walked over to where Jim was sitting, positioned himself directly above him, and proceeded to empty the entire contents of Jim’s water glass on top of his head—drenching not only his face but his clothing as well.
At no point during this almost unimaginably degrading scenario did his mother attempt to intervene on his behalf. And so Jim, at once bristling with rage and feeling utterly humiliated and alone, got up from the table and—dripping wet not only from the water unceremoniously dumped on him but from his own flood of “outraged tears”—without a word walked out of the restaurant and retreated to the family car.
The whole time, as he sat sobbing in the car, feeling terrifically upset, wronged, and abandoned, no one in the family ever came out to comfort him. His family returned to the car maybe 20 minutes later. They didn't bring the slightest morsel of food for him (and he hadn’t even been served before his father’s shamefully belittling act). Not only that, but none of them said a word about what had occurred earlier. It was as though nothing had happened at all.
It’s not surprising that Jim learned from this extraordinarily distressing experience that asserting himself, or freely expressing his feelings, could result in an outcome so emotionally catastrophic that it was best for him to keep his mouth shut—particularly when he was feeling vulnerable. It's also no wonder that, with so little family understanding, empathy, or support, he would ultimately question whether he deserved others’ respect—even though, rationally, he knew his father’s reaction to him was both unwarranted and excessive.
(I might add here that because Jim was such an undersized, defenseless-looking child, he was also subject to frequent bullying at school, and that—no surprise—his parents left him on his own to deal with his aggressive adversaries.)
The second incident of Jim’s angry tears that I’ll relay here focuses on his mother’s seemingly arbitrary discrimination against him—whenever, that is, he had a negative encounter with one of his sisters.
When he was in his early teens, he purchased two tickets to attend a Billy Joel concert, and was terribly excited to have found a date to join him to hear his favorite pop artist. He left his tickets at the base of the stairwell, so he’d remember to put them on his dresser the next time he went upstairs. But, coincidentally, one of his sisters later “buried” his tickets directly beneath a pile of her own belongings. When she went to take all her stuff upstairs, Jim’s concert tickets accidentally made the trip with her.
Later, when Jim couldn’t find his tickets, he recalled that his sister had also put things on the steps to go upstairs. He then asked her to go back up to her bedroom and look for his tickets. At first, she flat-out refused, but then finally acquiesced, presumably undertaking only a cursory, half-hearted effort to sort through the different items she’d taken up with her. When Jim insisted that she look again, but this time much more carefully, she angrily declined. Then, when Jim appealed to his mother to make her, she admonished him for “nagging” his sister—since, after all, she’d already completed a search for them. Jim then asked whether he could go into her room and look himself. But this alternative was forbidden by his mother and sister.
Fast forward to maybe a month after the concert. Jim had had to cancel his date because his tickets were never recovered and he couldn’t afford to replace them, even though all the while he felt certain they were still somewhere in his sister’s bedroom.
Sure enough, one day his sister approached him, exclaiming: “Hey! look what I found!”—and produced his coveted concert tickets. When Jim then insisted she pay him back for them (for clearly she was the one who’d misplaced them), she adamantly refused. Again, Jim took up the matter with his mother, only to hear her excuse her daughter and tell him that, since he was the oldest, it was he who needed to take responsibility for the mishap.
As objective as I try to be as a therapist, upon hearing this story I couldn’t help but experience the strongest ethical disapproval of what he’d just shared. I found myself wishing that I could have stepped into the scene and made myself the advocate, or “champion,” he’d so sorely missed in growing up. (And in this regard, readers might be interested in looking at an earlier post of mine called, “Why We All Need a Fairy Godmother.”)
I could hardly have felt more morally exasperated in learning, example after example, of the indignities Jim suffered at the hands of his so-unfeeling parents—not to mention from his sisters (who, much later in life, actually told him how they themselves had felt emotionally deprived by his well-meaning—yet alarmingly insensitive—parents).
But my main point here is to illustrate how sad—and at the same time, infuriated—you can feel when others, whether intentionally or not, gratuitously punish, or otherwise dishonor, you. When, with a lack of compassion I find almost inconceivable, they treat you without the basic respect that I think we all deserve—and leave you feeling helpless to do anything about it.
More than anything else, this constitutes the bitter formula for experiencing not just sorrow, but rage, too: the perfect recipe for “angry tears.”
© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.