Anger has always been a tricky emotion for me. Ever since I was a child, I would tense up if I could sense anger in the room. I also struggled to experience and express my own anger. It often felt wrong for me to be anger, so I would stuff it deep down where no one could see it.
So, when I began seeing clients and their anger showed up in the room, I had a tough time staying open and curious. I noticed my first impulse was to get rid of it as quickly as possible. I also noticed myself doing the best I could to not anger my clients, being extra careful with my questions and assertions.
I would have been fine avoiding anger all together.
Thankfully, through supervision, self-reflection, and learning more about the importance of anger, I’ve come around to inviting anger to have its place in the room. There is a lot we miss when we avoid anger or don’t understand where our anger is coming from.
Here’s 4 insights I’ve learned about working with anger:
- It’s not about you. I felt scared of my clients’ anger because I took it personally. When a client would start raising their voice, everything inside me would tense and bristle as if they were getting angry with me. The truth is, though, that their anger is coming from someplace, some experience outside the therapy room. It’s not about you.
- What’s coming up for you? Fear was the primary emotion I would feel with my clients experiencing anger. Fear is a powerful emotion and I needed to explore why I was feeling afraid so I could get out of the way and be there with my clients. What I found was that I had so rarely ever experienced, let alone expressed my own anger that I associated it with something being terribly wrong. I only had negative associations with the emotion. The more I let myself feel anger and frustration, I noticed myself becoming more comfortable with the emotion overall. I felt the importance of experiencing anger for myself.
- There’s something important underneath. Last week we talked about primary and secondary emotions. Anger tends to be a secondary emotion which means it is often a reaction to a more sensitive and vulnerable emotion. To help our clients better understand their own anger and regulate it, we need to help them see the precious core that is underneath. I tell my clients that anger is often an indication of something crucially important to them – we rarely (if ever) get angry about things we don’t care about. What is it that is so important to your client? Maybe they desperately need to be heard and understood? Maybe they lost something precious and irreplaceable? Maybe they long to know they are enough as they are? Whatever it may be, get curious about the primary emotions (hurt, sadness, fear, guilt) that are lying just below the surface of their anger and how they connect to what is important for your client.
- Maybe it is about you (and that’s ok). I said before that your client’s anger isn’t about you, but that might not be 100% true. Therapy is all about the relationship we have with our clients, and as in all relationships, there’s opportunity for anger to arise. And that’s ok. Actually, it might even be necessary. Oftentimes, our clients haven’t experienced healthy or helpful reactions to their anger. So, when there is a rupture in our relationship with our clients, it is a wonderful opportunity for us to model how anger can be responded to in a curious, validating, and co-regulatory way. Instead of firing back with anger, we reflect what they are saying, ask deepening questions, and reassure them that we care about what they are saying. This offers them a new relational experience and hope that things can change.
I’ve found that working with anger, both in my client’s and myself, I’m more open to the difficulty in all its forms of being a therapist. Something I was so scared of has become both professionally and personally enriching.
I’ll admit that I still get nervous from time to time when I sense the tension rising, but the nerves are now balanced with a hint of curiosity.
What’s really going on here?
I know there’s something delicate, something important.
What a gift it is to search for these precious pieces. They are so often buried and misunderstood. You get to uncover them and validate their incredible worth.