Psychotherapists who work with depressed and angry people encounter the same emotions and self-images in nearly all of their clients – and most of those emotions can be traced to the messages that kids are given about themselves in childhood. It is clear that depressed and angry people have not just gone through a disappointing experience or two. Rather, they have been given some very specific messages about themselves by adults who have influence over them.
Below is a list of the elements associated with anger and unhappiness in adulthood, taken from C. Peter Bankart’s book Freeing the Angry Mind (New Harbinger Publications). The childhood messages associated with anger and unhappiness in adulthood are:
- Perfectionism. We’re not talking about encouraging someone with statements such as “always do your best” or “any job worth doing is worth doing well.” Instead, we are talking about being raised in the Church of Unattainable Perfection, where an angry-young-person-in-training must believe that, deep down, nothing he or she has ever done or ever will do is good enough. It’s not that perfectionism is bad – we all want our surgeons and airline pilots to be perfect all the time – but most of us don’t routinely beat ourselves up over every imperfection. Believing we can never make a mistake doesn’t allow us room for growth, improvement and optimism.
- Unrelenting self-criticism. It is not enough that you are imperfect. You also must hold yourself accountable for your imperfections by incessantly criticizing and loathing yourself. This in turn destroys your self-esteem; it may include a dislike or rejection of one’s own physical body or important features on one’s body.
- Self-blaming rumination. You must go to your room and think about how deeply flawed you are. This means you should never just let things go. Brood about how incomplete, unsuccessful, unworthy and disappointing you are as a human being. This kind of rumination is the linchpin of anger.
- No self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is a trap. The only legitimate approval, recognition, acknowledgment and acceptance come from other people.
- Not having problem-solving skills. Don’t distract your-self with thoughts about how things can be done better next time or what lessons you can learn. It’s better to feel helpless, out of control and that bad things just happen to you.
- Not having constructive outlets for self-expression. A lack of such outlets – art, dance, building things, repairing things, growing things, journal writing and so on – forces you to focus more on your mistakes and imperfections.
- Not having deep emotional connections with others. Not having people to confide in (a therapist, teacher, coach, minister or parent) forces you to keep it all inside, where it likely will implode sooner or later. Not having friendly and compassionate people to talk with prevents you from introspecting and from expressing sadness, despair, longing, attachment and connection – so you’re more likely to feel all alone in the world. And if you’re in an intimate relationship, making that relationship exclusively about sex and not allowing emotional depth between the two of you will isolate you even further.
If you are a depressed, angry adult who grew up with some of these influences, Bankart recommends that you adopt three simple new resolutions:
- Become more aware of your emotional response to frustration and disappointment.
- Become more aware of other people’s distress.
- See beyond the present by asking yourself whether this issue still will be important 10 years from now.