• Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

Why a Grump?

Elliot was a regular grouch on this particular morning. Pretty different from his usual pleasant demeanor. During breakfast, he made jokes and sarcastic remarks to his wife; first about her mother, then about her best friend, and then about the outfit she was wearing. He snapped at his kids about the mess they left last night and how loud they were at the table this morning Then he complained that someone left the Cheerios box on the counter instead of putting it away.

Elliot felt like he was just teasing and being edgy with the family, though it was seriously unpleasant. Although his gripes with the kids seemed legitimate for the most part, they were blown out of proportion. He pretty much ruined breakfast for everyone.

Carla, his wife, didn’t protest. She tolerated the grumpiness, as did their daughter and one of their two sons. However, their younger son stood his ground. Three cheers for the bold boy who was absolutely right in calling his grumpy dad a grump.


The problem this day was that Elliot was not emotionally alert. Earlier that morning, Carla told him something that hurt his feelings. She had made plans for the weekend that excluded him. He felt a strong pang of hurt and resentment. However, he brushed off his feelings by thinking that his wife had a every right to do as she pleased. He didn’t say anything about the weekend plans.

But he still felt upset, without fully realizing it. Ideally, he would have been aware of this and started a conversation.

The problem is that when people carry around unresolved upset feelings without realizing it, as Elliot did, they often act out these feelings in indirect and confusing ways. That’s what was happening in this case. It was Elliot’s upset and unresolved feelings that ruined the morning for everyone.

When people act out their feelings as Elliot did, they release pent-up hurt and resentment but create even more problems for themselves. Soon they feel guilty about what they have done.

Most of us occasionally make this mistake of tuning out our feelings and then sometimes acting them out. One way we can minimize the likelihood of this happening is to watch for times that grumpiness and humor have a hostile edge to them. This signifies that something is wrong. It usually means it’s time to ask ourselves probing questions, such as: What’s really going on here? What’s really bothering me?

If we don’t ask ourselves these questions, sometimes there’s a final line of defense: a righteously annoyed family member (or friend) who asks them for us.

In Elliot’s family, it was his youngest son, who said: “Dad, will you please figure out what’s bothering you? Something’s wrong and you’ve been a big-time grump. It’s not fair. Get your act together.”

Elliot needed to pay more attention to what he was feeling. As his son indicated, he needed to deal with the real issue instead of creating new problem


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For 8 years, Robert Schwebel Ph.D. wrote a weekly psychology column for the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star. This article is one of many.

Copyright © 2020 Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

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