Brothers up in arms“I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow”.
The opening verse of A Poison Tree by William Blake.
I’d like to talk about a client – whose way of thinking, when we first met a couple of months ago, really opened my eyes to a different world. A world of bitterness. A world of anger. A world far too many are finding themselves living, or should I say, trapped in.
He arrived at my door after we had shared a few emails and phone calls; something about his situation intrigued me. All he would tell me before we met face-to-face was that his doctor was worried about the effect of continual stress. It wasn’t until we met in person, and he began to relax, that he opened up about his situation.
It was much more than stress. Here was a man, being eaten up from the inside by something far more serious.
“A quarrel over some money and property left to us by our late father” he told me, “it was an argument that went on for hours, an entire afternoon”.
The client (who has graciously allowed me to tell his story) had spent the better part of ten years estranged from his two brothers.
I’d only just met him, but already I could see the anguish, a palpable sense of tiredness, in his eyes; he was suffering day in and day out, not just from this estrangement, but the lingering resentment he still felt towards his kin.
“Tensions were running high after father passed away. There was a feeling that he had been the glue that held we three sons together, and when this money quarrel arrived in our lives it was like we all lost ourselves – what was left of the family fell right apart”.
Just a mention of his two brothers, seemed to change something about him. He had walked in a confident, charming man, with a sense of humour and a somewhat booming voice. But, once the subject of his brothers had been broached, he seemed to shrink before me; his voice as timid as that of a mouse, and his big, bold smile having fallen off his face. It was as though the sadness I’d seen deep in his eyes when we had first met had suddenly escaped, and overtaken his entire being.
“I won’t go into the details” he said, “but I myself felt that one of my brothers was trying to make claims on some sentimental items I was supposed to rightfully inherit. My other brother took his side. I spent that day, the worst of my life, letting my anger get the better of me, as did my brothers.”
I had many questions. But experience shows that listening is the best tool in these kinds of situations. Here was a man who did not have a family of his own beyond his brothers, and who lived his life through his work. I only learned later that I was the first person he had ever talked to about this family trauma.
“Suddenly” he continued, “it was like an avalanche. I couldn’t stop myself from dredging up every disagreement, every point of contention we had ever had between us; in our anger, as a trio, we said many things to one another that still feel unforgivable. I felt like the bond we had as brothers was shattered, and so I left my late father’s house the next day and have since never spoken to them. It’s been nearly ten years Russell, and I the pain of that day has never once ceased”.
He went on to tell me how he had – instead of reaching out to his brothers to rebuild that bond – allowed himself to stew for years in feelings of anger. Grieving over the ‘loss’ of his family in one fell swoop. Bitterness had consumed his life, and in response he had crafted himself a metaphorical mask to wear at work, or with his friends; one of ‘over-confidence’, that used a keen sense of humour to cover the misery he felt beneath. He had bottled up his emotions so tightly that when the ten-year anniversary of the squabble was approaching, he began obsessively reexamining the conflict. Had he really been the true victim? Or should he not have let himself get so carried away with his anger, given all that he had lost?
It didn’t really matter in the end. The result, the place where he now found himself, was the same regardless. The worst part of his estrangement, he told me in our third session, was the loneliness.
“I decided to come to you Russell” he told me during his second visit “because I learned from an employee that one of my brothers had actually been attending a meeting with another company, based in the offices the floor below, a few weeks past. He had heard it from one of their executives, who had seen the likeness and recognized the family name”.
This revelation had brought him to tears, instantaneously, right there in the middle of his own office.
“It was just so embarrassing, but I couldn’t stop myself. Employees were all sympathetic, but they had no idea why I was so upset. Nobody knew about the falling out between us brothers. Most didn’t know I even had brothers”.
The knowledge that his brother had recently been so near had finally unleashed all of the bitterness he had kept, pressurised, within himself for a decade. He realised just how much he had begrudged, and yet equally missed them. Most of all, however, he wept for all those wasted years.
Squabbles like this amongst family and friends are all too common. Sometimes we can say things loaded with cruelty to our loved ones, which we deeply regret later, for reasons that seem entirely justified at the time. Sometimes we are the victim of malice, and we have to deal with the ramifications of once cherished relationships falling to pieces. In other cases, it’s a little of both. Whatever the context, the long-term effects are massive upon the lives of those suffering from seemingly inexorable feelings of bitterness, hatred, resentment and regret. Anxiety. Low mood. Loneliness. These issues can arise when this happens, making it even harder for the sufferer to confront the core of the issue.
Forgiveness. This does not mean you excuse or justify what another person may have done to you, rather it is the acceptance of that person, despite what they have done, and it’s the only way to dissolve the bitterness. Carrying these heavy feelings of pain and regret for ten years had done nothing but isolate him from those he cared about.
He was resistant to the notion of contacting his brothers. Ultimately, it was in our final session that he let me know that he’d had a sudden change of heart. I was overjoyed.
“I didn’t want to hit the ‘official’ ten-year mark” he told me with a smile, “And as it turns out, they didn’t either!”.
I was thrilled that the life coaching process had allowed him to engage with the issue on a deeper level, giving him the chance to explore rather than just react to those all-consuming feelings. He had finally seen his estrangement for what it was; not a justified reaction to what had happened, but instead a constrictive cage he had built around himself. He had let himself become a prisoner of his own anger, his own pride that past decade. But, as it turned out, he was also the one with the keys to release himself.
“I called them both, separately, one evening.” he said. “It took me a while to find their numbers, but it was worth it. To hear their voices was like an instant antidote to how I’d felt before – I couldn’t believe the warmth suddenly running through me. It was a strange experience, and I’m not ashamed to admit that there were more tears from all three of us!”
I couldn’t stop myself from mirroring his smile. This is the reason I do this. Results.
“We all met at a cousin’s house two days ago. It was the most lifting, incredible moment. We forgave each other, and everything that had been said or done…
…And now, we’re brothers again”.
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