The Raphael Remedy

Is Anger a Setback in Therapy?

by | Apr 4, 2017 | Counseling

It takes courage to seek out therapy.  It often means looking at memories or situations you would rather avoid or forget. But when a person is so distressed by depression, anxiety, or a relationship problem they overcome that reticence and make the commitment to get the help they need.  Many don’t know what to expect. What they hope for is simple: to feel better.

As a person begins looking at their problems and unraveling whatever things from the past, or in the present, are contributing to their distress, it’s not unusual for some anger to surface. In fact, it’s perfectly normal. For many it can be scary and unsettling and the temptation is to discontinue. There are many factors to consider in order to understand this and to work it through to a productive end.

First, we need to recognize the rightful place that anger has in our emotional life. It may be an unpleasant or even scary emotion for some but it is one of the emotions that God gave us and, therefore, it has its purpose.

Think of this: when we hear of an elderly individual duped out of their life savings and left destitute by some charlatan, anger is the appropriate and necessary reaction. The appropriate part seems obvious…but necessary? Yep. Necessary. In order to have the energy and maintain the motivation to rectify the situation and prevent it from happening again, we need anger to move us. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is an excellent example of using anger quite constructively to effect change in response to injustice.

It’s no different in our own personal lives. Bad things may have happened in the past. People who should have loved us may have let us down. Unforeseen circumstances may have derailed our dreams and plans. As we unravel the issues, it’s not uncommon to start to feel anger…or perhaps more accurately, intense frustration. For some, this comes as a surprise and can trigger significant fear and the temptation to retreat from therapy. After all, they may have spent a lot of energy over the years trying not to feel this anger, which may be at the root of their depression, anxiety, or relationship problem. Anger is a necessary tool to respond to injustice and to protect us from further harm. When it’s buried, or not allowed its place in our psyche, problems inevitably develop.

For the most part, when anger starts to surface in therapy, as uncomfortable as it may feel, it is actually a good and healthy development which signals the emotional life is being freed. Naturally the goal though is not to remain angry but to work through those feelings toward forgiveness. But forgiving prematurely can short circuit the process and lead to more harm than good.

Therapy should be a venue that allows you to feel your anger
and to express it to your therapist in a safe environment.

So, if you’ve begun therapy and are starting to feel angry, go with it. Discuss it with your therapist and don’t be too quick to move away from it. It may be scary as you may have seen anger expressed destructively in the past. You may have been shamed for expressing anger by your parents. You may have been erroneously taught that anger is a sin (it’s not). You may have a sensitive heart and fear hurting someone with your anger. That’s all understandable. But keep this in mind: experiencing anger and expressing it are two different things. Before you can use your anger constructively toward a goal, you first need to allow yourself to feel it. If it’s intense or has been repressed for a long time, it may feel powerful and overwhelming. But it’s only a feeling…and feelings can’t really hurt you or anyone else. It’s what we do with them that matters. By allowing yourself to feel your anger in a supportive therapeutic relationship, it will eventually begin to subside. As it does, the task of therapy is to decide now what to do in response to it. Do you hold a grudge or forgive? Do you fight back or write off your losses? Do you reconcile or stay away? Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things that should not be confused.

Therapy should be a venue that allows you to feel your anger and to express it to your therapist in a safe environment. It may be awkward and scary at first. You may feel like a bad person. You’re not. A good therapist knows this and will allow you to express whatever it is you’re feeling. Once you become more comfortable feeling it the next stage of counseling involves learning healthy ways to manage it and to express it, and to use it constructively toward predetermined goals. In other words, you want to guide your emotion of anger by reason. By learning to do this you will feel a new freedom.

Anger is just one of the many emotions God gave us. It can be said to be the guardian of the other emotions. It gives you the necessary energy to fight against what’s wrong so that your other emotions, like love and joy, can have the final say in your life. After all, God created us for happiness.

Allison Ricciardi, LMHC
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