By John M. Dyckman, PhD
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 46 seconds.
An athletically built young man in his mid-20s, neatly attired in a business suit, consulted me to deal with “rage issues,” “depression,” and a desire to get to the “root” of his relationship with his mother. He told me that he had been raised by a single mother who was alternately extremely dependent upon him, and then physically and emotionally absent. They had suffered poverty when he was a child, and he was determined to continue to rise financially in the world as an adult.
Recently, his last two therapists, both women, had dismissed him because he had refused to enter a drug rehabilitation program as a condition of therapy. He thought that he might be a “borderline alcoholic” because of his daily use of alcohol, marijuana, and opioid pills, which left him “faded,” but still able to work in a high-pressure, high-stakes business environment.
In our first session, he proudly discussed his history of street brawling, though he had had no run-ins with the police. He was involved in a highly volatile relationship with his girlfriend. They had frequent arguments in which they exchanged hurtful insults and the arguments often rapidly escalated to mutual battery. He was concerned that several months earlier, in the midst of one of these altercations, he had put his hands on his girlfriend’s throat. He was quite right to be concerned, as it does not take much force, even “accidental” pressure, to damage the human wind-pipe.
He was unwilling to consider my suggestion that he attend a male-oriented violence program. Recalling that he had just been fired by his former therapists; I did not make this a condition for continuing treatment with me. Instead, we spent the rest of the session devising a safety plan for both him and his partner.
He came in for a second session, but said he didn’t want to deal with any of “that feelings shit.” I asked him to tell me about his week, and especially about any interchanges he had had with his girlfriend. He described her anger at him and told of her provocative insults questioning his manhood. I asked what he was aware of at the time, and he told me that it was none of my “fucking business.” He then turned bright red, the veins bulging at his neck, clenched his fists and began to rise from his chair.
My conscious mind was aware of a precipitous increase in my own adrenal function, heart rate, and blood pressure. It had been many years since I had retired from martial arts training, but I quickly found myself calculating how close I could let him get to my chair before I would need to launch a kick to his knees.
Happily, my unconscious mind worked faster than either of us. Without any conscious evaluation or plan, I found myself simply pointing at his chair and saying in a calm but intense voice: “I am not afraid of you, but I am afraid for you!” The result surprised us both: He halted in mid-air, began to sob, and then sat back down, crying for several minutes. When he was able to speak, he talked about the pain of being discounted and emotionally extorted, both by his mother and by his girlfriend.
I still do not know what might have happened had I been paralyzed into silence or if I had had to stall him while I devised a creative strategy. I think it helped that I had experience in calming myself before karate competitions — where the other guy really is intent on doing you physical harm, but I don’t think my martial arts training was the deciding factor in my actions. Instead, I believe that years of therapeutic practice has been engrained in my unconscious mind, accompanied with the precept that the worst action comes out of pain. Therefore, my comment emerged spontaneously. I acknowledged him as a man in pain, potentially doing more harm to himself than to anyone else. This I could say with complete authenticity and in total spontaneity.
We worked together for several more years, and he was able to make substantial and satisfying changes in his career, relationships, self-esteem, and ability to equilibrate his own emotional state. He never directly mentioned the anger incident again, but he also never again attempted to coerce me into the silence that he had himself suffered for so long.
Dr. Dyckman, the author of “Scapegoats at Work,” practices in Albany, CA.
He is an Associate of the Milton H. Erickson Institute of the Bay Area.