Do Your Behaviors Define Who You Are? … Not really.
When I was a camp counselor, various stories were told at the end of mealtime. These stories were meant to stimulate conversations for later, when the kids and their counselor returned to their cabins for the night.
The following story was so powerful that I’ve never forgotten it:
There Once Was a Girl With a Very Bad Temper
So the girl’s father wanted to teach her a lesson. He thought long about WHAT he wanted her to learn (as all good parents will do). Finally, he decided.
He gave her a bag of nails and told her, “Every time you lose your temper I want you to hammer a nail into the wood fence.”
On the first day the girl had driven 25 nails into the fence. “This is kind of fun”, she told her father. “”But by the time I’m done hammering, I can’t even remember why I was so mad!”
Over the next few weeks, as she began to control her temper, the number of nails she hammered into the fence gradually dwindled.
Finally, the day came when the girl didn’t lose her temper at all. She was so proud of herself; she couldn’t wait to tell her father!
Pleased, her father said, Now pull out one nail for each day that you hold your temper“.
The days passed and the girl was finally able to go back to her father and tell him that she had pulled out all the nails.
Then, gently, the father took his daughter by the hand and led her to the fence.
The little girl listened carefully as her father continued to speak:
“When you say things in anger, you leave scars, just like these in the fence.
Even if you say you’re sorry, the wound is still there”.
~ * ~
Later, I came to realize why it had special meaning for me. My anger was used as a defense mechanism to protect me from an insensitive, critical, and abandoning parent. I learned, without conscious thought, that anger was safer than tears. It became so automatic that I didn’t even notice the damage I was causing.
But like so many of our childhood coping skills, I couldn’t even turn it off in circumstances that didn’t involve my family. I came across as mad when I was probably sad or scared instead.
So when I heard this fable, I woke up. I had to become aware of anger’s purpose for me. I learned that my defenses were not who I was – they were survival/coping skills. I had to decide that I didn’t want to be that way anymore. After all, I was no longer a child and realistically I didn’t need my mother to survive. So I learned, instead, to cope with the underlying feelings. I taught myself that being sad, confused, or scared, was “okay“.