You could see the tension in the creases running down from her the outside of her nose to the corners of her mouth. You could see it in the two parallel lines between her brows. We'd been over this ground before: She yells at the children, totally "losing it," is angry at herself all the more for having done it yet again, and then, because she is in a really bad mood, does it still another time. At 37, you'd think she would have learned. Having taken a parenting course twice, you'd think she'd have learned.
She is one of the many parents who see or phone me for counseling at my office. I am not a psychologist; my degree is actually in Marriage and Family Therapy. Although I specialize in couples and families, I frequently see people alone. We'll call this woman Mindy. (All names and circumstances are made up to protect privacy.)
Mindy hates that she can't seem to get herself under control. She hates that the children "get" to her. She has a list of what she hates. But most of all, she hates herself.
Mindy is like many other parents who yell at their children. They don't want to be like that, but they don't know any other way. When they see the children misbehaving again and again with nothing apparently working, they reach their frustration tolerance levels very quickly and explode. They come from homes with yelling or ignoring so they duplicate what they know. But it goes beyond that: In their homes growing up, because their parents didn't know better themselves, they grew up not liking themselves. Children who are yelled at constantly believe that they must be awful, horrible people for their parents to yell at them like that all the time.
So they grow up not only not knowing how to behave differently, but with a very hostile view of themselves. Now, what do they do? They do the worst possible thing for themselves: They mistreat their children. Not only does it hurt the children. Not only does it not teach the children anything anyway, but it also reinforces the negative perception they already had of themselves as being bad people.
That makes my job much more difficult than it would seem. I can't just teach "parenting skills." Haven't you noticed that parenting skill training frequently doesn't work when you're angry? That's because you're really talking to two different people and only one of them can learn. As I said to Mindy, "You have a yetzer hara [evil inclination] and a yetzer hatov [good inclination]. That is the essence of how G-d created us with free choice. Now, really, it's more complicated than that. Your yetzer hatov is the real You. It's your Soul. And remember, your Soul is part of G-d Himself. When you listen to your yetzer hatov, you are really listening to your own true Self.
"However, to assure that we make voluntary choices, G-d gave us the yetzer hara, too. The yetzer hara is described in the Midrash as the satan, an angel that works for G-d, testing us and challenging us constantly. That's his job. So here's the question for you: When you listen to and follow the yetzer hara, where are You? Where is your Self, your Soul? The real You? The good You? The yetzer hara has taken over your mind, your heart, your body, like a computer virus making your computer run amok. Where did your yetzer hatov go, anyway?
"Obviously, it's not there. Remember, your Soul is pure. G-d breathed a little of Himself into the first human to create life. That's the Soul. It's untarnished. So where are You when the yetzer hara takes over? Your Soul is hiding. The person who is screaming at the kids is a caricature of you, but it's not you. Your yetzer hara is in control and you're just not there."
I could see the lines on Mindy's face relax a little. "So I'm not the bad person I think I am" she said.
"Absolutely not." I replied. "You are good, kind, a person who wants to be a good mother."
The frown deepend again. "Okay," she challenged me, "If I'm really a good person, then how come I keep listening to my yetzer hara? How come I let a week go by without doing the exercise you taught me to feel better about myself? How come I don't use the parenting skills I was taught?"
"Good question!" I replied. "The satan is very tricky. Every time you yell at your kids, the satan has a victory. When you yell, the satan rubs it in that you are bad. Of course you're not bad! But the satan capitalizes on all your bad feelings about yourself growing up. Your new-found pride and joy in yourself is tenuous because of all the years you were made to believe quite the opposite. It only takes one slip for the satan to convince you that you are horrible. And then, of course, you don't deserve to do the healing exercises that we worked on. And if you're bad, you aren't going to use the parenting skills, either.
"But, see, the satan is wrong! None of that is You. You, your Soul, your true Self, runs into hiding when your yetzer hara takes over."
A look dawned on Mindy's face that I hadn't seen before. A slow smile spread over it. She looked me in the eye and said, "I'm certainly not going to let that yetzer hara win!"
And she didn't.