by Byron Ricks
I remember when I first became aware of my out-of-control father-anger. One frigid winter morning when I was 15, my mother woke me to go with her to the welfare office on Chicago’s West Side. She’d received a notice that her check was being held due to insufficient information. My mother was mumbling under her breath that all they wanted to know is where my father was, and that she had answered that question many times before. Heck, I was wondering myself where he was. If he had been there, I wouldn’t have been freezing to death on that bus.
When we arrived at the welfare office at 9:45 a.m. for our 10:00 appointment, a woman told us to sit down and wait for our name to be called. After more than an hour, I went up and asked how much longer we’d have to wait. My mother wasn’t feeling too well.
“Sorry about that, but everyone in this room was told to be here at ten o’clock,” the woman said. “Go sit down until you’re called.” I felt that familiar feeling; my anger was rising. My young man’s ego was starting to distort the whole experience and bring on the familiar feeling that the world was against me personally.
As I went back to my chair, I thought: My father is a worthless bum for letting me go through this. What did I do to him to deserve this? It dawned on me that all this was his fault.
Maybe I couldn’t do anything about my father at that moment, but I wasn’t going to be pushed around by a stranger. I jumped up and headed for the counter again. I hadn’t taken five steps before the woman locked eyes with me and her posture stiffened. This time she raised her voice. “Listen here, boy, you are about to get on my last nerve. If you don’t go over there and sit down, you won’t get a welfare check.”
What happened next surprised even me. “Fine!” I said. “You’ve gotten on my last nerve, too. You can take that check and shove it! I don’t need your money.”
I heard my mother gasp from across the room. I knew I’d be in trouble for talking that way, but in the heat of the moment, I stormed out. My mother had no choice but to follow me. That was the day I got angry with my father—or at least admitted it—for the first time.
I believe my story demonstrates how deep-rooted anger can be for boys and men who grow up fatherless. When men are unable to identify their fathers as a major source of their anger, they often suffer from frequent bouts of rage, which is commonly directed at the wrong people. Some men carry this rage around with them daily and turn it on themselves, which causes stress and self-loathing.
If you grew up fatherless, how can you resolve your anger toward a father who was absent—either physically or emotionally? You have to face it head on, and that’s why it is important to identify and understand where the anger comes from so you can monitor it, regulate it, and not hurt people around you.
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Leveraging Your Father-Anger for Healing
For most of us, growing up without fathers in our lives has left deep-seated scars. In the workshops I teach, even the most reserved, buttoned-up businessmen will become emotional when we talk about growing up fatherless. In a recent workshop, one man stood up and told the participants that his absentee father had been dead for more than 20 years, and he was still angry with him. I’ve heard this sentiment echoed over and over again. The good news is if you face your father-anger, you can move beyond a lot of the hurt. Here are some strategies that work:
Identify the side effects of growing up fatherless. I recommend that you talk to your dad, if he’s available. But before you do, write down in advance a list of the side-effects you’ve noticed that resulted from growing up fatherless. These might include low self-esteem, self-destructive habits, poor love relationships, inability to trust authority figures, and so on. I suggest this because it can be clarifying for you before your meeting—or even if you don’t meet with him. You will have a more defined view of who you were and who you’ve become, and you’ll walk into such a meeting with some emotional perspective.
Have a conversation with your dad. If your father is still alive, and if you can find him, you owe it to yourself to try and have a conversation with him. It doesn’t mean lecturing your dad about how growing up without him has hurt you in countless ways. Your conversation could involve asking him questions, bringing up memories, and learning new things about him and your childhood that could shed light on some unresolved feelings. Call him, email him, or even meet him in person, if you are able. If he is elderly or ill, you can still talk to him. It’s as important for him to reconnect with you—and perhaps even hear about how your life was without him—as it is for you to be a grown-up son creating some kind of closure with your dad. Most men find that such a meeting debunks myths they’ve had about their dad, and helps them see him as a normal, flawed human being who has faced many challenges of his own in life. Instead of anger, many men come away feeling something more like sympathy or compassion. And that’s a great step toward forgiving him.
Get your thoughts and feelings out. If your father is deceased or unreachable, you can still tell him how you feel. Write a letter, make a video of yourself talking to “him,” or leave him a “message” that you tape on your answering machine or phone memo recorder. Reading, seeing, or hearing your own words of anger and other feelings will, I guarantee, be a cathartic experience for you. If you want, delete or throw those records away—for good.
Although you had no control over your father’s presence when you were growing up, you do have control over his emotional hold on you now that you’re a man. I am happy to say I am no longer angry with my father. Men have asked me how you I know I am not still angry with him. I tell them that when I think about my father and the things he did or didn’t do, I blame him for nothing and I forgive him for everything. Once you truly forgive your dad, your thoughts will turn to constructive actions and provide an opportunity for you to take a closer look at your life and all the ways you have learned to compensate for not having a father.
Byron Ricks is a certified trainer and seminar leader who has worked with such companies as Samsung, Fannie Mae, Pitney Bowes, and ESPN. His new book is Searching for Dad: Nine Side Effects of Growing up Fatherless and How to Overcome Them (Brown Books). Byron and his wife Florence are proud parents of a son and a daughter. Find out more at www.byronricks.com.
Questions for Reflection & Discussion:
- Do you harbor bitterness or anger toward your father? Is there an event or moment in time that you associate with that anger?
- How long have you harbored that anger or bitterness?
- What side-effects or difficulties have you faced because of your father’s absence, emotional distance, or irresponsibility?
- Are there ways you are a stronger person today because you overcame or worked through those difficulties?
- If you were to have a conversation about this with your dad, what would be your hopes or goals for that conversation? Would you be able to resist verbally attacking him or insulting him?
- Imagine what it must have been like for your dad growing up. What was his father like? What kind of role models did he have to show him what a father should be?