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Don’t Kick the Cat!

By: Dr. Jim Goldstein

Don't Kick the Cat!I read a disturbing statistic the other day in the news. The article stated that reported incidents of domestic violence were up 300% in the areas around the Gulf of Mexico where workers had lost their jobs. The job losses were attributed to the oil leak and the moratorium on new drilling. I can imagine how frustrating and demoralizing it would be for men and women who are used to working on the water every day to be stuck without a job, helpless to correct the situation and waiting for public assistance or compensation from BP to provide the money they need to pay their bills.

I get this image of formerly productive citizens reduced to sitting at home in the middle of the day, watching the news on television with nothing to do but wait. Meanwhile, the oil leak continues unabated, destroying much of the Gulf of Mexico and many people’s livelihoods.

What most psychologists know is that there is an inverse relationship between acting out and expressing ones feelings. Acting out is a term that is used to describe aggressive behavior—physical and verbal abuse, vandalism, reckless driving, cruelty towards animals, etc. that takes place when people are unable to deal with their feelings. Instead of noticing how they feel and expressing those uncomfortable feelings, they tend to act on them.

You may have heard of the expression “kick the cat.” It refers to a chain of inappropriate behaviors exemplified by the following scenario: The boss is upset and frustrated about something. Perhaps he made a mistake and feels guilty about it. Instead of acknowledging this, he finds fault with a subordinate and chews this person out in front of her peers. She comes home in a horrible mood and castigates her child for leaving his bicycle in the driveway. The boy takes his hurt and anger out on his little brother by hitting him and the brother, having no one below him to blame or attack, kicks the cat. All of these behaviors could be considered acting out.

We usually associate acting out with adolescents but it happens with adults all the time. The increase in domestic violence in the Gulf is understandable but not acceptable.

The answer is to show people how to access their feelings (something many adults have forgotten) and to encourage them to do so. A good way for this to happen is in facilitated groups in a culture of mutual support. When people can talk about what it feels like to be in the situation they are in, their need to act on those feelings diminishes and they are restored to their higher selves. If they can talk about the feelings that are underneath the anger (fear, anxiety, shame, helplessness, etc.) a good deal of the anger and the need to act out diminishes.

Accessing ones feelings is not just something that would help the people in the Gulf. It helps every relationship and allows us to move through difficult times without damaging ourselves or the people we care about. In committed relationships, allowing yourself to feel your feelings and talk about them opens a pathway to forgiveness and intimacy.

Let me know your experience with acting out. I’d love to hear your comments.


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