For many recent sessions at my psychotherapist rooms we have been working on anger. Anger at what happened to me whilst I was abused whilst a victim of a padophile ring for fourteen years in Ireland organised by my parents and a man called Mick Wafer. I find it impossible to be angry at my parents because I suffer from Stockholm Syndrome which prevents me from blaming my abusers. I still love my parents and miss them. However, I am beginning to learn to become angry with Mick Wafer and his part in the whole affair.
His role, in particular, was bringing children from the local Industrial School, Cara for the paedophile ring and he used to make me watch the men abuse the children. If I looked away he would hit me on the back of the head with a closed fist until I returned my gaze. He derived vicarious pleasure from making me watch the children suffer. It was disgusting and cruel. So cruel. All I could do would be to hold the childrens’ gaze and hope it offered them some comfort. I could do little to comfort them. He was a man with no feeling or soul.
At today’s session during EMDR I burst into a fit of rage, railing at the therapist, transferring all my anger at Mick towards her. I spat words of anger, enmity, animosity and acrimony at her. Everything I had ever wanted to say to Mick I said to her. He was sitting right in front of me as far as I was concerned. It was true transference. Transference is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual redirects emotions and feelings, often unconsciously, from one person to another. This process may occur in therapy, when a person receiving treatment applies feelings toward—or expectations of—another person onto the therapist and then begins to interact with the therapist as if the therapist were the other individual. Often, the patterns seen in transference will be representative of a relationship from childhood.
My therapist is expert is dealing with transference so handled the situation with her usual calm manner not engaging with my anger but listening actively making me feel engaged with. When the EMDR finished I felt listened to and as though I had vented a lot of anger which I had kept pented up inside of me. I had only been able to do this under EMDR. I am unable to do this any other way. Not yet anyway. It’s a slow road but one I am travelling along with a willing and expert partner.
I want my anger dealt with properly for it not to turn into a negative emotion and for it to become destructive. I want to harness it and make it a good emotion that helps me to strive to do good in the world.
Anger is an emotional state that has a bad rap. There’s far more written about anger control than about how anger, when nurtured and examined, can transform. As most mental health professionals already know, anger is an emotion, not a behavior. And emotions are acceptable and desirable. When anger fuels aggressive or destructive behavior is when it becomes problematic.
But since everyone knows about and talks about the destructive capability of anger—let’s talk about the constructive side of this emotion instead. Hardly anyone articulates anger’s positive qualities as clearly as the feminists. Feminist therapists consider “encouraging anger expression” as a meaningful process goal in psychotherapy for at least five reasons:
- Girls and women are typically discouraged from expressing anger directly. Experiencing and expressing anger without repressive cultural consequences can be an exhilarating freedom for females. Similarly, experiencing anger, but not letting it become aggression is a new and productive process for males.
- Anger illuminates. There’s nothing quite like the rush of anger as a signal that something is not quite right. Examined anger can stimulate insight.
- Alfred Adler suggested that the purpose of insight in psychotherapy was to enhance motivation. Anger is helpful for both identifying psychotherapy goals AND for mobilizing client motivation.
- During psychotherapy anger may occur in-session towards the psychotherapist. Skillful therapists accept this anger without defensiveness and then collaboratively explore the meaning of their in-session anger.
- Anger is a natural emotional response to oppression and abuse. If clients consistently suppress anger, it inhibits them from experiencing their full range of humanity.
For feminists, one goal of nurturing and exploring client anger is to facilitate feminist consciousness. Feminist consciousness involves females (and males) developing greater awareness of equality and balance in relationships. However, using anger to stimulate insight and motivation is useful in all forms of therapy, not just feminist therapy.
But working with (and not against) anger in psychotherapy is complex. The problem is that anger pulls so strongly for a behavioral response. Reactive anger is destructive. Clients want to let it out. Experiencing and expressing anger feels so intoxicatingly right. Clients want to punch walls. They want to formulate piercing insults. They want to counterattack. Unexamined anger is reactive and vengeful.
Imagine a male client. He’s uncomfortable with how his romantic partner has been treating him. You help him explore these feelings and identify the source; he recognizes that his partner has been treating him disrespectfully. But good psychotherapy doesn’t settle for simple answers. His new insight without further exploration could stimulate retaliatory impulses. Good psychotherapy stays with the process and examines aggressive outcomes. It helps clients explore alternatives. Could he be overreacting? Perhaps the anger is triggering an old wound and it’s not just the partner’s behavior that’s triggering the anger?
Relationships are nearly always a complex mix of past, present, and future impulses and transactions. When anger is respected as a signal and clients take ownership of their anger, good things can happen. It can be used to help clients become more skilled at identifying and articulating their underlying sadness, hurt, and disappointment. Clients can emerge from psychotherapy with not only new insights, but increased responsibility for their behavior and more refined skills for communicating feelings and thoughts without blaming anger, but in a way that serves as an invitation for greater intimacy and deeper partnership.
None of this would be possible without the clarifying stimulation of anger and a collaborative psychotherapist who’s able to help clients face, embrace, and understand the many layers of meaning underneath your anger. And it’s about time we learned a lesson from the feminists and started giving anger the respect it deserves.