I've spent the last few years working hard on connecting more deeply with my father, motivated by a few reasons: For one, I felt I was missing something in my own sense of self; a connection to my own masculinity that would normally comes from a boy's father. I also found myself feeling a profound sense of grief and loss towards my father, which seemed particularly odd given that he's still very much alive and kicking. And then other men I've talked to whose father's had died have often told me how much they regret not connecting on a deeper level and getting the chance to ask questions they'd long for an answer to, while he was still alive.
Frankly, it hasn't been an easy process. My experience of my father is that he talks about his experiences in excruciating detail that is totally devoid of emotional content. This often leaves me switching off and ending up feeling isolated, lonely and depressed in his presence. He says things that just aren't very interesting and appears to show no regard for whether his listener finds the conversation engaging or not. When he tells me about visiting a relative or going to a concert, I'm likely to hear more about the parking and travel arrangements than whether he enjoyed the actual event itself. No wonder my mother gets so infuriated with him so easily.
Recently I took my father out to dinner as his father's day gift. It was one in a long line of “dinners with Dad” that have been pivotal in my attempts at getting to know my father on a deeper level. On the day in question, I was feeling quite depressed and really wasn't looking forward to having to deal with my father; but I'd promised to meet up with him and didn't really want to renege on my word.
I was already in a rotten mood when I picked my father up from my parent's place. Just feeling hopeless and flat. Dad was his usual talkative self and didn't appear to notice that anything was wrong with me. It would probably have been better if I'd told him how I felt instead of expecting him to pick it up himself, but I just couldn't even be bothered doing that. On the way to the sports club where we usually go for dinner, he talked and talked in the car non-stop while I sank even deeper into despondency. “There's not going to be any heartfelt connection tonight”, I thought.
Over dinner Dad started telling me a story that he'd already told me before. “Have I told you about X?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes Dad, you told me that in the car on the way here.”, I replied despondently. Despite my answer, he continued to tell me the story a second time.
“Dad! Did you hear what I just said?”, I interjected angrily, “How do you think I feel when I tell you that you've told me that story before, and you just go on telling it again?” I was needing respect from my father, and as far as I felt he wasn't showing it. I was sick of listening to him rabbit on while I sank deeper into depression without him even noticing.
I noticed my father become visibly agitated. He never acknowledges that he's angry; to do so would be to express a feeling, something he avoids at all costs. But it's pretty clear when he's cranky as he starts shuffling and adjusting his clothes. “I feel like you're trying to control my mind!”, he says angrily. Never mind the technicality that “you're trying to control my mind” is a thought, not a feeling; he's clearly going into that paranoid defensive space that my parents get into when they launch headlong into an argument.
“Control your mind? I'm just trying to get you to talk about something that might be interesting to me, and you told me that story an hour ago. Did I seem interested the first time around?”, I pleaded angrily.
“No”, he replied crankily.
“Well why are you telling it to me again then?”
“I feel like we just don't understand each other”, he said in a mixture of angry man and wounded child, adding “I don't even know my own son!” in a tone that implied that somehow he was the victim of this terrible travesty.
Now I was absolutely livid. The implication that our lack of connection and understanding was somehow my fault totally enraged me. Now my paranoia was showing: “Dad! I have tried so hard to get to know you and give you the opportunity to get to know me. I've taken you out to dinner regularly for years, I visit your sisters and spend time asking them about you to learn things that you won't tell me, I ask them about your mother and father, I visit your relatives to try and learn why you are the way you are. And then you imply that I haven't bothered to try and understand you or give you the chance to get to know me?”, I shouted back.
All my vain and misguided attempts to connect with this man flashed through my mind as my anger escalated. I thought of the copy of Steve Biddulph's awesome book Manhood which I had meticulously highlighted for him so he could learn what parts had affected me in order to get to know me better. I don't think he even read it. I thought about all the dinners we've had where I've had to push through his defenses to get him to open up. I thought about all the therapy I've had and the tears I've shed over my lack of connection with this man.
“I'm really angry with you right now Dad!”, I said. I'd never felt or expressed it so clearly before.
How dare he imply that he's the victim here. The dialogue in my head was a lot more hostile: “I'm not going to let you treat me like this any more, you fucker! From now on you'll show me and my feelings some respect goddam it! I'm sick of this bullshit!”
I was enraged and felt like tearing the bistro apart and smashing everything in sight. I felt a rage in my ribcage that I'd never felt around my father before. My heart pounded like something out of Alien about to explode from my chest in a combination of overwhelming anger mixed with fear.
As a child I'd seen the damage that my father did when he flew into his angry rages, and I promised myself that I would never be like him. I pushed my anger way, way down and internalized it instead, causing untold damage to my psyche in the process. I didn't know that there was a constructive way of expressing it that my father never practiced. He was supposed to model emotional mastery for me, not the other way around; but now it's me teaching him.
“I'm just really furious with you!”, I said.
I was so angry, I can't even remember the next thing my father said. All I can remember is thinking that if my goal was to connect with my father, tearing him to pieces might not be the most effective strategy for doing so. I've been studying Nonviolent Communication lately and I figured if ever there was ever a time I needed to use it, this was it. So I decided to give him some empathy instead, saying: “Sounds like you're really angry Dad”
He got even angrier. Clearly he'd taken it as a criticism. This is the pattern in my family of origin: we never acknowledge each other's feelings because we're so ashamed of our own, so any acknowledgment of how we feel sounds like a criticism. When someone gives us empathy we react defensively. I was so angry myself that I can't even remember what he said, only my reply: “I'm not criticizing you Dad, I'm just identifying how you're feeling!”
It's hard to give empathy when I'm emotionally triggered and when I'm not getting any empathic understanding myself. To help show Dad that I wasn't criticizing him I attempted to quote word-for-word what he'd just said to me 15 seconds before. I was so angry that my mind went completely blank. That's probably a good thing; most of my parent's arguments quickly degenerated into who-said-what-when and this was a great lesson for me in how inaccurate our memory is when we're in a state of rage. Who cares what someone said in the past? That just turns into a pointless argument about making other people wrong. What is important for connection is what we both feel and what we need right now in the present.
Although he got more angry for a moment, the empathy did the trick. We both soon calmed down and switched venues to a nearby coffee shop where my father started opening up. We ended up talking about the dysfunctional patterns of communication that run through our family going back at least 5 generations that we're aware of; probably more. He talked about his frustration with his own father, who had been extremely aloof, and his sisters who tended to talk at him rather than with him. We talked about the cousins who talk meaningless crap while their families go through untold mental and emotional suffering because nobody is really listening to them. We talked about the children who have suffered as a result, perpetuating the problem in the next generation. I feel their pain as a result of the lack of empathic connection that runs through the whole family. By the end of the conversation I think my father was starting to see what I could see, and that he was part of the problem.
I don't expect any radical changes from my father. Next time we meet, he'll probably start off by talking crap again. That's his defense mechanism. He's been using it for most of his life to protect himself against a world that he figures isn't interested in feelings that he's out of touch with anyway. He stopped sharing them long ago, or maybe never even learned to do so in the first place. I suspect he lacks the emotional literacy to even know how he feels, and teaching him is hard work. But at least on this night we had a breakthrough.
I've decided not to follow my father's example of avoiding sharing my feelings, because I really value connection, confidence and freedom. I was really struck by how enlivened I felt when I actually allowed myself to feel angry with my father. I used to be so afraid of his anger that I buried mine so deeply it would never even surface; especially not around him. But anger is a primal force that motivates us to stand up for what's important to us: Getting angry snapped me out of feeling depressed instantly. When experts say that depression is anger turned inwards, they're not kidding. Express the anger outwards in a constructive way, and we come alive. It can even lead to greater connection with other people. That's the valuable lesson I learned from getting angry with my father.
For more on connecting with your father and expressing anger, see Steps 7 & 16 in Confident Man.