Psychotherapy Blog

 

Through the Anger Looking Glass

Posted by John Sommers-Flanagan, PhD on 3/14/13 - 12:33 PM
On this past Sunday’s broadcast of “Weekend Edition” on National Public Radio, the focus was on the 50th anniversary of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. In this book Friedan raged against the status of women in the 1960s. Although millions of people have read this feminist manifesto, it seems very few presently understand how anger in general and Friedan’s anger in particular could be a source of insight, motivation, and personal and social transformation.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
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