Over the last thirty years, I have had many clients come in who were dealing with feelings of anger or rage. These clients were of all ages, and both sexes. They invariably felt that they were out of control because they had feelings that were threatening to them or feelings that they did not find acceptable. They were often ashamed because they were angry or because they were angry about some particular thing that they “should” not be angry about.
Sometimes my clients felt that they were justified in their anger and they were being “sent” by someone (school, parents, employers, even their children) almost as a punishment for having or expressing unacceptable (to these others) feelings of anger or rage.
What I always tell my clients is that anger is original issue equipment for the human animal. We all feel anger. We cannot go through life without being or becoming angry. I go on to tell them that being angry is a natural physiological response to stimuli. We are not responsible for getting or being angry, we are responsible for how we BEHAVE when we are angry.
I work with my clients to try and identify the things that they are angry about. We look to see when or how they recognize that they are angry. This is a difficult task for some clients because they have been trained and conditioned from childhood to mask negative feelings. They have been propagandized to believe that they “should” not feel certain things. “These feelings are unacceptable and unjustified”, is what they are told. So what does a child do when he/she feels something that his/her parents tell them they cannot feel? (“ If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all…..”) If they demonstrate it they will be punished for it, or shamed, or emotionally rejected for being unacceptable and shameful. (, (I know, these are other forms of punishment). Eventually they internalize the message and separate those parts of themselves that generate unacceptable or dangerous feelings out and try to subdue or lock them away.
The effort to block an unacceptable part of yourself from being is physically and emotionally expensive! It can cause ulcers, migraines, TMJ problems, emotional numbness, dissociative experiences, and it can even destroy relationships that are important to you.
In the beginning of therapy these angry clients are often resistant to exploring these feelings. They frequently deny the feelings ( because they are still unacceptable, or more accurately, unaffordable) and they complain that they are being forced into therapy (which they say won’t help) because of agendas others have for them which are unfair and unreasonable and over-reactive. After all, they have not done something so bad, or they have not done something that could be helped because they CAN’T help it. It is not their fault!!
As the process of therapy works, and they become safer in the sessions, they usually become more able to own their feelings. This means they are able to say out loud that they do feel these “awful” things. They are still ashamed and threatened by having these feelings and they do not want to have them, but they become able to say that they do, indeed, have them.
I particularly remember one young woman who was raised in a very “important” and “successful” Catholic family. She had been controlled and shamed by her parents all her life. She harbored much resentment and anger towards her parents but could not accept having these feelings. She was ashamed of herself because her parents were “good” and “reasonable” and her feelings were wrong! But, she did feel that way. She first had to whisper that she hated her father. She could not even say it out loud in our session. She would be yelling about how she felt and then her voice would drop and she would whisper: “I hate him!” The father that she knew in private and away from the world was, indeed, a mean, abusive man. Her private knowledge of him was in contrast to his public reputation. Part of her healing had to involve her ability to know the truth of this dual identity and to be able to figure out that she and her “mistakes” did not cause him to be the way he was. She eventually learned to do this and even learned to acknowledge her anger.
When my client was able to own and voice her anger as anger, it ceased to be rage. It stopped being explosive and appearing to be irrational. She learned in therapy how to identify the triggers which made her angry, and to label the feelings she was experiencing without having to use shame and denial to “hide” them. She became less stressed, more relaxed and more emotionally available to her own children and her husband. Without knowing it, she had evolved into the same parent her father had been, she had created a public image of incredible goodness, and privately she was a virago, a screaming, yelling, angry monster to her husband and her children.
How did she achieve these changes? How did she “correct” her behavior so that she was no longer rageful? How did she “mellow”? These are great questions, and the answers will fit for many people who struggle with the issue of anger/rage. It is important to remember that we can generalize so that our understanding is improved, but that all clients are individuals. The triggers may be different, the resources of the client may be different, the self awareness will be different, and so on. Nevertheless I believe it help to talk about strategies and goals which are “typical” for dealing with these issues.
First is self- honesty and self -acceptance. We have to learn to admit that we feel this way. If we are able to do that without judging or controlling it, just acknowledging it we can begin to break it down into separate components. I often work with my clients to learn to feel and identify the differences between irritation, anger, and rage. It is important to identify the different levels correctly, to recognize or know the triggers that set them off, and to learn differentiated responses to each of them.
Second, learn to honestly identify what your feelings are. Do not immediately deny your feelings or smother them with shame or some form of self- hatred. In this stage it is important to know what you feel without acting on the feelings. Just label it and own it to yourself. You can learn to “share” with appropriate boundaries later.
Third, work on developing an awareness of the cost benefit ratio of your actions. As I said earlier, you are not responsible for how you feel, but rather, for how you act.
Fourth, learn physical and verbal things to say and do which will effectively vent or release the agitation and physical force generated within you by these feelings. It is important to learn to release these feelings in private and in carefully controlled ways which do not lead to some explosive release which will result in negative consequences for you or someone else. (Road rage comes to mind here, as does physical violence, and cursing out your boss, etc.)
Finally learn to have good boundaries. Work on the ability to say “I am feeling angry and explosive and I need ……..” Do not say “you are making me angry”, do not scream or yell and pound your fist while trying to communicate that you are frustrated, irritated, or angry. If you learn to communicate your needs as your needs and not as an attack on someone else, you will be more successful.
Developing this skill will increase the likelihood that you will get what you want, but it will not guarantee it. If other people do not respond in the way that you want you may remain angry. The trick becomes knowing how to be angry without destroying a relationship or burning a bridge. Remember you can be mad at or about someone without hating them or ending a relationship. You don’t always get what you want.
Being rageful and acting out of rage in an explosive and destructive way will never make a situation or a relationship better. Therapy can help you learn to identify, own and release/ resolve your negative feelings in less destructful ways. It can increase your self awareness, your self -acceptance, your sense of balance and freedom. If you have been accused of being angry/rageful, therapy can help you resolve these issues in your life.