The woman was telling her husband about how she “loses” it with her nine year-old son, John. He pushes all her buttons at the worst times, she explained, like in the morning when she is pressed to get out the door and he refuses to get dressed or turn off the TV, whines and is altogether oppositional. She tries and tries to reason with him but, at one point, she begins to feel like he is making zero effort, feels taunted and flustered and then-finally- “loses it” on him. She begins to scream and threaten him with consequences. Once she even hit him.
At this point, the woman began to sob. She told her husband how ashamed she was of being unable to control her emotional reactions and how guilty she felt for hurting their son. She knew it was both useless and wrong to yell at him in these situations but she felt helpless to do otherwise.
Her husband, who until then had been listening empathically to his wife, cleared his throat and started to speak:
“Dear, you really just need to learn how to control your temper. Step out of the situation, relax and tell yourself to calm down so you can deal with John more rationally. I know you can do it. You really just need to learn anger management. Here, dry up those tears.”
He handed her a kleenex and then went on to explain to her a step-by-step plan for how she should deal with their son. His wife looked over at me, her face hardened and her lips pursed angrily.
“Is there something you want to say with that look?” I asked her, “Something you are asking me to say?”
“I know he means well,” she said, “But I am really hating him right now.”
When someone is expressing their feelings to us, one of the first things we all need to learn is how not to do anything and just listen, or mirror back. All too often we feel the urge to respond, explain, justify, advise or apologize, i.e. offer the person something that hasn’t been asked for. This has a tendency to frustrate the person who may feel like they have not been heard, or that they are being goaded into doing something they are not ready to do. It is more often met with resistance or anger rather than gratitude.
The motivation to do something about a problem is an organic process; it usually arises naturally when just given space.
So give it space.