By Shayne Hughes
As a man, I found the video of Ray Rice hitting his wife deeply troubling. The fact that they were apparently screaming at each other, and she spit in his face right before he hit her, doesn’t excuse his violence. I’m supportive of the tougher suspension given to Rice, and to the NFL’s overdue increase in consequences for domestic abuse.
And all of us, men and women, need to examine how we fall prey to the cycle of powerlessness and rage that overwhelmed Rice that night.
Although I have never hit my wife or children, I am all too familiar with anger. I was a raging, reckless teenager before I was a stressed out, over-achieving husband and father. At its core, rage is a visceral reaction to powerlessness and vulnerability. When I feel incompetent, unloved, a failure, alienated, criticized or just plain inadequate – and I don’t face it – I lash out. I have no idea what Ray and Janay were arguing about that night, but it undoubtedly cloaked vulnerable feelings they were unable to admit to themselves or each other. As they defended themselves with anger and blame, they said things that increased the pain and vulnerability of the other in unbearable ways. Like a runaway nuclear reaction.
(Almost) all of us struggle to let ourselves experience and share these feelings. Those of you that have anger problems know that irresistible wave of anger that blows everything up. But I’m also talking to those of us that numb. Alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, withdrawal – all the tricks of the trade to avoid the acute, vulnerable pain of feeling hurt or inadequate. Same problem, different strategy.
Just yesterday I spoke with a female client who had ended a romantic relationship. The man often criticized her for wanting to “process” interactions, claiming she was emotionally needy. He rarely had issues to discuss. His solution involved staying up late drinking whiskey and scribbling in his journal. She was the problem.
So make no mistake – we all have varying amounts of Ray Rice in us. It doesn’t condone him, but it also shouldn’t make him a pariah. He is a symptom of our cultural difficulty to embody true manhood: standing undefended in moments of inadequacy or hurt, and leading with empathy, learning, and co-responsibility. It is the only path I know of that can transform our hurt into healing.
So, try this “Ray Rice” self-reflection and see what happens:
- What’s your vulnerability avoidance reaction? Do you blow up or shutdown? List the behaviors you fall into when you’re triggered/threatened.
- What experience of weakness feels most intolerable to you? Do you hate feeling weak? Inadequate? Unwanted? Take some recent examples and search for the fears and feelings that cause shame. These are your “hot buttons”. Push yourself to actually feel the sensations. I get a burning fire in my sternum. This is what your rage or numbing protects you from.
- Share these feelings out loud with your partner or a friend. That’s right, time to man up! Anger is a sign of weakness. Authenticity in moments of vulnerability is transformative strength. The goal is not to control your anger, but to release the emotions underneath it. Create a context in your relationships where you, your partner, and your entourage can identify and say what is really going on. If you get it out early, it won’t build up in ways you’ll later regret.