Anger (v) c.1200, “to irritate, annoy, provoke,” from Old Norse angra “to grieve, vex, distress; to be vexed at, take offense with,” from Proto-Germanic *angus (cf. Old English enge “narrow, painful,” Middle Dutch enghe, Gothic aggwus “narrow”), from PIE root *angh- “tight, painfully constricted, painful” (cf. Sanskrit amhu- “narrow,” amhah “anguish;” Armenian anjuk “narrow;” Lithuanian ankstas “narrow;” Greek ankhein “to squeeze,” ankhone “a strangling;” Latin angere “to throttle, torment;” Old Irish cum-ang “straitness, want”). In Middle English, also of physical pain. Meaning “excite to wrath, make angry” is from late 14c. ~ ( http://www.etymonline.com)
So someone is always angry at me about something. At least one person a day, often more than that.
Often enough with good, fair reason and because of something I have done or not done, said or not said. I am running late. I push when I should have held back, or held back when more was needed from me. I can make my own errors, stumble about, bang into a painful bruise. Sometimes I am clumsy, slow, frustratingly thick-headed. Or lost in my own projections, operating on an erroneous assumption, or stuck in my own subjectivity.
Sometimes people are angry because they have been sold a bill of goods, hopefully not by me, although I am probably also a participant, that psychotherapy can offer them a cure, some relief, when the truth is less certain. Sometimes it can and sometimes it can’t.
People get angry that I don’t have the magical powers to take their pain, their confusion, their ambivalence, to heal the wound away.
Some become angry that I don’t just know. Right away, instantly, what is needed and how to provide it. Sometimes people become angry because they have told me what they want from me, and they believe that I am withholding, refusing to cough it up.
Some want to control, extract, command that I fill their need to their exact specifications and are enraged at the dereliction of my professional duties when that need remains thwarted, unfulfilled, exposed, empty when I can’t. Or won’t.
Some become smaller, exceedingly polite, self-diminshing in order to metabolize the anger that a mis-attuned moment has activated. And then I have to drag it out of them:
“I wonder if something I said made you feel angry?”
“No. I am not angry….”
“Well, something shifted in our conversation and it seems like maybe I said something that hurt? Maybe anger is a strong word for you? How about annoyed?”
“Well, okay. Yes. Maybe I was a little annoyed”
Some become angry because I can see the pathway in, I have gazed at a vulnerable and naked space in them – and they want to cast me out and drive me away. Some are secretly terrified that I will go and their anger helps them organize a pre-emptive strike. Sometimes anger helps people self-regulate, manage their dependency, separate.
Sometimes the anger that emerges in session, or is directed toward me is obviously displaced, patently unfair. A lashing out. And still, somehow, it is almost always understandable to me when I can hold, or uncover the subjective context that it is embedded in.
Usually I am a participant. I bear at least some responsibility. At the very least I lit the fuse, even if I didn’t build the bomb.
Sometimes the client is angry or disappointed that I have my own wound. And they have found the very spot where my needs, my history, my trauma, my vulnerability lives and they want something from me in the exact pocket of my psyche where I have nothing to give at all.
Some attack or express contempt for my core values, my stance, my beliefs, my sense of what is right. Some reject the models of psychotherapy I have embraced, the patch of ground I stand my professional identity upon.
And of course, I get angry too.
I breathe and do my best to stay cool. I contemplate the tightness in my chest: What am I responding to? Where do I feel strangled, offended, tormented, grieved, distressed? What needs to be opened up between us in order to be released from this constriction? Where has our relationship grown too narrow?
If I am caught off-guard, or feel too reactive, too agitated, I may ask to table the discussion until I can think with a cooler head. But the arrival of anger must never be ignored or forgotten. It is a sacred signal and attention must be paid. We must return to it, examine it, discover its gifts and lessons once our nervous system and our heart-rates have settled.
Anger and aggression have important, constructive functions too: to establish boundaries, to protect privacy and autonomy, to fight for justice, to correct imbalances, to guard vulnerability, to take risks, to hunt for prey, to compete for resources, nurturance and provisions, to challenge and surpass ourselves.
And sometimes to forcibly remove obstacles to intimacy and wholeness.
In relationships, anger points our attention toward the tight, narrow, constricted, strangled, tormented, wanting aspects of ourselves and others so we can broaden and console our hearts, release our fears, open wide our souls.
As frightened as we are of it, anger is a sacred energy – and a central one in the psychotherapeutic process.
I don’t ever intentionally provoke a client’s anger, but I am not fearful of it. I don’t avoid conflict, because I know the gifts that it can bestow.
I try to inform every new client that comes into my office that anger has a place in our work:
“There will be times when I disappoint, disturb or upset you. I won’t have done it on purpose, although it might feel like I have. Sometimes you may not notice it while you are in session – as most of us are taught to be agreeable and polite and avoid talking about such things – but it may strike you after you leave – on the subway ride home or even the next day. You may notice something sticking in your head, something I said or didn’t say that struck you the wrong way, that feels off, or annoying, or wrong. You may think to yourself ‘Why the hell would she say or do that?’ If you notice any feelings or thoughts like that it will be extremely valuable and important, if you can, to bring that back in to our next session, or even to jot down a quick note so it doesn’t get lost in the weeks events- so that we can remember to talk about it. It may be hard and uncomfortable, but its really valuable – and its an essential part of how therapy works.
It helps me to understand you as precisely as possible, to be a better therapist for you. You may point out things that I haven’t recognized or considered- or that I had a different perception of. Sometimes you may be distressed by some real limitation or blindspot I have, or even some core value that I hold that you disagree with. That is okay too. I can’t promise that I can always change or stop it whatever has been upsetting, but I can promise that I will always do my best to examine my part of any divergence that comes between us and I will absolutely care about how it makes you feel. And if we can talk about it frankly, it may give us a chance to find a new way through, a new solution, a new space.”
It seems that whenever I have neglected to invite anger to enter into the process as a welcome guest, conflict barges in unannounced and unexpectedly, harming the therapeutic relationship – sometimes irreparably. Anger and conflict are experienced then, as definitive proof that something is wrong in the therapy, rather than as a vital component, a therapeutic mechanism of healing and connection.
Or, the relationship proceeds walking only the most avoidant and domesticated paths, making the woods and the wilds of our innate aggressive impulses appear more terrifying, a place too dangerous to ever venture.
Conflict is part of the therapeutic process, not a failure of it. And part of this job is to initiate people into the generative, creative, and intimate uses of anger, and to learn how to move through the angry states in our psyche and our relationships in order to live, to love courageously, fearlessly, and honestly.
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. ~ (Standard King James Version Genesis Chapter 32: 24-26)
Even when seems to have knocked us out of joint, conflict can bring blessings. Owning our anger explicitly, consciously, and constructively makes us more whole, and less afraid of ourselves.
And other times my job is just to survive it, withstand it, not be destroyed by it, and not let my love or my empathy be destroyed by it. To continue to have compassion for the distress that is present in front of me, to take all the responsibility I can for my part, and to understand that the rest is not about me at all.
If I can. I can’t always.
And sometimes even that is not enough.
It does neither of us any good for me to merely withstand abusive energies. Limits must be set. There are things I can’t accommodate. Angers I cannot absorb. It is my responsibility in those moments to set limits, protecting us both. I cannot let a client who needs me, harm me or compromise my integrity or we are both lost.
Anger is at once an energy which destroys and derails, and one which creates, strengthens, and fuses and purifies, through its refiners fire and alchemical heat.
Part of my job, as I see it, is to initiate clients into the constructive, transformative, generative uses and processes of anger.
Any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy ~ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109a.27)
If we can manage to wrestle through conflict squarely and bravely together – operating in good faith – or setting limits when anger has temporarily washed good faith away – certainly it is not difficult to see how to carry those processes out into the world, into other relationships.
The word wrestle, derives from “wrest” from the Old Norse, meaning “to bend” and the healing forms of anger make way, when we have listened to each other deeply, for us to release our tormented tightness and constriction, and discover how to bend toward each other.
What is external occurs internally as well, so our well negotiated conflict also becomes model, a mirror to help us sort through purely internal arguments between conflicted self-states.
It is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings with equal rights, each of whom gives the other credit for a valid argument, and considers it worthwhile to modify the conflicting standpoints by means of thorough comparison and discussion or else to distinguish them clearly from one another. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.
How else will we change each other? How else will be transformed?
If we avoid what we fear in ourselves, and in each other – what will be possibly be able to learn about ourselves?
The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living third thing… A movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.
But first we must embrace the wrestling match.