Anger and Powerlessness in the Era of COVID: Changing the Narrative By Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D. on 1/4/22 - 12:42 PM

Anger seems ubiquitous in our society, a pandemic, perhaps, if not an epidemic. Our clients come to us angry about a great many things, and have a right to be angry about many, if not most of them. Furthermore, while anger is usually thought of as a dangerous, uncomfortable, or even “negative” emotion, it can actually be very healthy—an emotion that alerts them to the fact that they might be in danger—that things are not okay. That a boundary has been crossed. That they are not safe or someone else isn’t. Anger can provide our clients with important information—that action needs to be taken to make things right or to create safety.

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That said, just like any emotion, while the initial feeling of anger might be justified, our clients’ understanding of the feeling, and the narrative that accompanies it, might not be. In other words, feelings are never wrong, but interpretations or narratives about them (and what to do about it) often are.

To give a simple and common example, a patient of mine, Jonathan, has struggled mightily with road rage. If he was driving and another driver made a dangerous move in front of him and nearly caused an accident—or even simply made a move he considered to be “inconsiderate” of him—he often felt a surge of adrenaline, experienced initially as fear and then as anger. Here his anger was telling him—in some cases rightfully—that the person made a dangerous choice that was not safe for him.

However, as we slowed down and analyzed his reactions and looked into the narratives he created around these incidents, we learned that there were layers of interpretations. The first was obvious and caused anger from feeling unsafe: that the other driver was being unsafe or not considering other drivers. But Jonathan was also creating a second narrative with that anger: he was interpreting the other driver’s behavior to mean that they didn’t care about him or, worse, that they were recklessly disregarding his safety on purpose. It is this second narrative that would cause him to become even angrier and lash out at the driver in some way that would lead to intimidation or unsafe behavior by him or both parties.

In our work together, Jonathan became able to suspend his second narrative and hold the possibility that it could have simply been that the person wasn’t paying as close attention as they should have at that moment—something that happens to almost all of us. Or that they were rushing to the hospital because of a medical emergency and paying less attention to safety in the interest of speed. Or perhaps something flew into their eye, and they were temporarily blinded. Or maybe even that people’s definition of consideration was different than his, and that was okay. In time, he was able to understand that he didn’t actually have the information that would allow him to attribute motive or intent to the other driver.

Allowing his anger to create that second narrative might have made him feel good or righteous at that moment, but ultimately it wasn’t based on fact and, more importantly, it frequently led to less safety rather than more. Most often, the reason he created that second level of the narrative was because of rage’s closest companion: powerlessness.

When hurt, our clients’ safety has typically been threatened, or a boundary has been crossed. It is not just anger that they feel, it is powerlessness. They feel out of control. Someone, or some group, has made a choice or choices that had an effect on them (or people they cared about, or the planet), and they hadn’t been consulted. The choice was made without them.

This points to an experience that is deeply uncomfortable and yet an undeniable fact of life: our clients don’t always get to choose how things go, even when it is painful for them. They come to recognize that to a degree, powerlessness is part of life.

This fact of the human experience is so difficult to accept. And it’s especially difficult to accept for clients who were traumatized as children—they were taught that powerlessness brings victimization and pain, so they feel terrified of being powerless again. This was certainly true in the case of Jonathan, who was severely abused as a child. Experiences of powerlessness would trigger that childhood trauma, and he would respond with rage and actions that instantly created a feeling—for a moment at least—that he could feel safe through feeling powerful, even if it was at the expense of the comfort of others (or ultimately even his and their safety).

But even among those who were treated well as children, our clients would all so much rather feel in control of their lives. Make no mistake—they should feel empowered to do all that they can and make the best of the life that they have. But the hard truth is that their power is limited. For some more than for others, but no amount of money or status will create immunity from powerlessness. If it rains when we are out for a walk, we will all get wet. Anyone could get cancer. Bullets won’t bounce off any of our flesh. If the global climate catastrophe in front of us continues, none of us will survive.

And so it is with COVID. Our clients feel deeply powerless when faced with the virus that is circulating the globe and wiping out millions of people in its wake. They come to understand, slowly in some cases, that they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on everyone else in order to create safety for themselves—in essence, as individuals they are powerless to stop it. This profound powerlessness is deeply uncomfortable and, along with the anger that naturally comes from feeling unsafe, many of our clients have coped with that by creating a second level of narrative to try to regain a sense of power.

Helen is an elderly patient in her late seventies whose husband of over fifty years had a kidney transplant several years ago due to a genetic disorder that caused kidney failure. Because of the transplant, he is on daily, lifetime immunosuppressants so his body doesn’t reject the kidney. Unfortunately, these immunosuppressants also make it impossible for his body to effectively fight off illness or respond to a vaccine in a way that would create immunity from COVID-19. Given his age and compromised immune system, he would in all likelihood die from COVID were he to contract it.

Helen and her husband are still full of energy, creative, and sharp of mind. They want to visit their children and grandchildren, travel, volunteer, and spend time with their friends. Instead, they are forced to be extra cautious and conservative in their actions and activities, reducing their world to one that is much smaller and less fulfilling than they would like. They feel trapped at home. When Helen reads on the news that people in her community are choosing not to get vaccinated because it’s their “right” or “COVID isn’t as bad as the hype” or “the government can’t tell them what to do,” she is deeply enraged. She talks bitterly about how they are “selfish” or “uneducated” and that perhaps dying from COVID as a result of their actions “is what they deserve.”

Helen is feeling enraged at the people who aren’t getting vaccinated or wearing masks. Some would argue justifiably so—their actions are denying her and her husband safety and dramatically affecting their lives. However, by attributing a lack of empathy, lack of intelligence, or malicious intent to those people, Helen is adding a second narrative to counteract her feelings of powerlessness about the situation.

Thus, whether our clients are calling the unvaccinated “stupid” or they are protesting mandatory vaccines or mask mandates, purchasing medicines not advised by the medical community, or grasping on to conspiracy ideology in order to feel more empowered by having “insider” information, these actions, amongst so many others, are ways in which Helen and others in similar or related circumstances are reacting to an experience of powerlessness and anger.


Anger and powerlessness are understandable under the circumstances described above in the cases of Jonathan and Helen, but their reactions, like most of those my clients experience, end up being destructive to self and others. As a therapist, I have found it useful to help my clients understand their feelings and then hold the discomfort of their powerlessness while letting the anger move through them. It has also been very helpful for me to guide them in avoiding the creation of secondary narratives, through which they attempt to grasp feelings of empowerment through frantic and unhealthy action that only serve to feed their rage. Instead, I encourage them to remain as safe as possible in this COVID era, while living with the uncomfortable feelings that powerlessness often brings.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, COVID-19 Blogs