The Understanding And Treatment of Anger in Therapy

We use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from anxiety. That is the simplest formulation of what they are and what they do. They protect us, or at least, we think they do. We intend for them to protect us, but generally these defenses are not very sophisticated. Sometimes the defenses we use are only successful in the immediate moment. They stimulate us to make choices to get immediate relief. They are seldom part of a process of advanced awareness and long term change that might lead us to eliminate the anxiety-provoking situation totally. Defense mechanisms tend to be reflexive, unconscious reactions to move us out of, or help us endure, anxious situations.
Sometimes our defenses work like a nightmare, they make us jump out of an anxious situation, but we leaped without looking into a situation that often lands us in an even more anxiety-provoking place. So like the proverbial flea on the griddle, we immediately jump again. We keep doing that until we land in a place, which for the moment feels safe and non-anxious.
One of the most elemental feelings that all of us have is anger. Anger boils up from within us and it frightens us. Women in our culture have often been socialized not to show anger. Many of us were taught as children that we must never show or express anger because it was dangerous for us to do so. As children we did not have the right to be angry or to feel angry because we were children. We were not in control of events. We had to learn to redirect, master or subsume our anger.

If we wanted to survive we could not afford to indulge in being angry. Some of us learned to displace our anger into other avenues of expression. One example of that is the person who becomes passive aggressive, PA. They look like they are helpful and co-operative, they dodge direct conflict and constantly manipulate the environment to get what they want. They leave behind them a trail of people who are “rageful.” It is so frustrating to deal with a passive aggressive individual. They appear to be the nice, cooperative person and you appear to be the angry unreasonable person. When you see the PA husband at a party with his wife who is angry and petulant, the party-goers will classically sympathize with the husband because he is married to such a horrible woman! None of them sympathize with the wife, unless of course they are also the victims of someone who is passive aggressive. Those who deal with PA in their life are fellow travelers and can recognize each other.

One useful skill is to learn to use your anger as a way to intimidate others. While this is successful in getting what you want in the short term, it damages your relationships. You may find that when you feel out of control exhibit your rage and others will surrender to your will. Anger is often a weapon of control, it is one of several skills we develop to try to manipulate our environment. It is a card in our hand that we can play. We can play others if they seem to be more advantageous or strategic, but we keep the rage card as a trump that will win the hand. Most people are so conflict-avoidant that they will just give in or surrender in order not to be discomforted by your rage.
I used to be very passive aggressive. I grew up in a violent, alcoholic home and learned to be seductively manipulative and adaptive. I had to learn to read the winds to see where danger lay. I had to make sure that when the storm broke, it did not break on me. One of my strategies was to try and make it break over my brother’s head. I was very skilled at manipulation. What I learned to do as a child was numb out my own emotions because they got in the way. If I felt them, I would flood with anxiety and fear and not be able to move in a way that would help me survive. Numbing emotions is a very good coping strategy for immediate crisis. When there is a crisis you cannot fall apart, you must function. The problem was that I lived in a constant state of crisis. My home was physically dangerous, emotionally destructive, and soul deadening. If I was going to survive, I had to learn how “not” to feel so that I could calculate, manipulate and minimize the damage until I was old enough to escape. I remember spending much of my childhood planning my escape. Like the classic chameleon, I had multiple escape strategies that I could use in a crisis. My plan was to endure and survive until I graduated from high school and then escape by going off to college. I knew that education was my ticket to safety and I was willing to pay any survivable price to get it. What I did not want to do, which so many of my family did do, was protect myself from my feelings by self-medicating with alcohol.
What happened is that I learned not to feel anger, not to identify it in myself or be aware of it. I was proud of the fact that I was never angry. I was happy that nothing could get to me. I was wrong, of course, but I was using the short-term defense mechanisms to survive the crisis. The way this works is that when you cannot afford to feel emotions, you numb yourself out. Imagine a funnel. You must squeeze your feelings into that funnel. You put them into the wide end and gradually compress them, shoving them into the spout. By the time they come out of that funnel, they are monochromatic. In my 30 years of experience personally and clinically, people who learn to numb themselves squeeze all their feelings down to one of two emotions. They are anger or pain. You cry all the time because you are deeply, soul despairingly in pain. Or, you become a mass of anger radiating such intensity that no one can stand against you, or with you. Then, if you are successful, you go numb. You don’t feel anything. You just exit, sort of, and you survive, but you are “protected” from the trauma and the danger of your feelings.
In therapy we learn that the healing process requires that we go back through the funnel. We have to give up our numbness and start to feel again. That means that when we begin to feel, we will feel the rage or the pain. We will not want to do it, because it feels all consuming and overwhelming. But if we manage to let ourselves feel it, it does not last long and the mouth of the funnel opens and we can start to feel the colors of the rainbow. The defenses that we have always used will try to make us turn and go back into the funnel where it is safe. We must fight against that and learn that we can feel without dying. We can deal with and experience our own emotions and become aware of them without having it destroy us. We are no longer in a trauma environment of immediate crisis survival 24/7. We do not have to be control freaks in order to keep our anxiety at bay. We do not have to be passive aggressive any more (if that is the path we have chosen early in life.)
Part of the healing journey is to begin to feel our feelings. I work with clients to teach them to feel their feelings, label them accurately and honestly then externalize them. They must feel it, label it, and externalize it. The over powering intensity of feelings will fade. The “bad” feelings will pass. The happy ones will too! Life is about the journey and feelings are an essential part of it, just like the air we breathe. We are not living if we are numb, we are merely catatonic. That is just surviving, not living.
In addition to encouraging my clients to feel, label, and externalize, I have to teach them to explore and experience the gradations of anger. I teach them to “know” and self-express that they are miffed, irritated, mad, angry, and full of rage. I make them say it out loud (externalize.) I do not encourage them to say it to anyone, it works when they say it to themselves, but they have to say it aloud, not to think it. If you just think it you don’t “hear” it and you don’t change.
It takes a lot of courage to confront these successful coping skills in order to pursue the hoped for “life” that you want to have but think you are either not entitled to or can never be good enough to get. One of the hardest lessons of therapy, for most clients, is to find their anger, recognize it and to express it honestly. I work intentionally to get them to say it, without having to explain or justify it. Just say it. It is safe here, so say it here. If you can do that much, you are well on your way to healing!

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