‘Have you ever considered that feeling anger might be a good thing?’
This is what I asked Anthony (fictitious name) during a difficult session.
I could sense that there was unexpressed antagonism within him and I felt under attack and defensive. So I plucked the courage and I commented: ‘There is some irritation coming from you. Is that a valid assessment?’ After denying experiencing anything worth noting, Anthony admitted that he had been feeling angry at me because I was not helping him enough. Then he broke down in tears. I took a deep breath and I asked him to do the same. I sat with him through it all and I made sure that he could see that I was feeling sorry and concerned.
So, I asked that question: ‘Have you ever considered that feeling anger might be a good thing?’ Anthony met this question with a baffled look and said indignantly: ‘what’s so good about anger? I hate it, it makes me feel horrible and pushes people away!’
This is when I assisted Anthony appreciate that:
There is a difference between feeling anger and expressing it
There are at least two different ways of expressing anger, which tend to be diametrically opposite: to build and connect; or to destroy and disconnect.
I went on explaining that witnessing unexpressed anger in his body language made me feel like I wanted to pull away and disengage – this was the disconnecting action of anger. So yes, I agreed with him that this could be a problem when it came to maintaining meaningful relationships. I also felt some destructive undertones when he angrily asked: ‘what’s so good about anger?’ It did not feel like his question was coming from a curious and open place and yet again, I experienced the urge to recoil.
However, very importantly, I finally felt deeply connected and empathetic when Anthony admitted how he had been feeling towards me and my shortcomings. It motivated me to get closer and hear his feedback better and fully, because I could sense his emotional pain.
We ultimately convened that: anger is neither a positive or negative feeling. It is just a feeling that, even though it can be unpleasant and undesirable, can inform us that something’s not quite right. This will drive us to do something to change the status quo.
This difficult interaction led us to a very important breakthrough in our therapy, as Anthony grasped that it was possible for him to feel anger safely and express it constructively, so that we could explore what was hiding behind it: a strong sense of loneliness and sadness.
DISCLAIMER: Although lessons learned from the treatment of actual patients are included in the patient stories on this website and blog, the historical events and facts represented have been changed to protect the identities of any real patients and to protect their confidentiality