Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More
Many people have asked what they should do about the fact that their therapist did or said something that made them very angry. At first glance this should be an easy question to answer, “Just tell him.” However, upon looking at this more closely and asking the person why they are having such a problem with this, the answer becomes very complicated.
The fact is that many of us have been raised with the prohibition that we must honor and respect our parents. Unfortunately, too often, honor and respect is turned into, “Don’t express anger or disapproval at your parents. Of course, the irony of this is that the very same parents often have no difficulty expressing anger at one another and at the children.
Given these this type of shaping experience, it is understandable that many people would have a hard time telling their therapist they are angry and about what. To do so would go against everything they have been taught.
More sinister than this is the fear that the therapist might get angry right back and in a way that is mean and hurtful. You can bet that this fear results from having been scolded and punished by parents after the child got angry.
On an even more sinister level is the fear that the therapist will find the patient’s anger so unacceptable that he will banish me from his office. I know of several instances when the patient was astonished that I did not reject them after an expression of anger at me. The astonishment came from the fact that they feared, having shown anger, they were no longer worth having around. Its a variation on the old saying about “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” How many of us fear that we may be worth throwing out, especially when we show the angry side of ourselves. How many parents such intolerance of their child’s angry expression that they communicate wanting to throw them out. It goes something like this, “I’lll keep the good, adorable good child but get rid of the child who is angry and crying.”
Part of the fear of being banished is the dread of no longer being loved by this heroic and idealized person, the psychologist or psychotherapist. Of course, this too, represents the childhood fear of losing the loved and nurturing parent, whether they were loving or not. Parents represent nurturing, safety, warmth and security. Because we depend on them so much when we are children, the thought of loss can be overwhelming. If rejection is awful and depressing then rejection by the therapist is even worse. Just think about it, “I pay this person to listen to me and that won’t help to make him stay with me. How reprehensible a person am I?”
Some people, perhaps too many, grew up in family environments in which emotions were expressed with violence, both verbal and emotional with the accompanying feel of loss of control. That casts a deep fear on children that anger always means loss of control. There were many times when patients argued with me after I told them there are healthy ways to express negative feelings. It just sounded incomprehensible to them. It was the psychotherapeutic relationship that changed their perception.
There are those who believe they will injure their therapist if they express their disapproval. Sometimes this is a projection onto the therapist of their own feeling of fragility or fear about someone being angry at them. The fact is that any good, well trained therapist is able to tolerate and accept those times when there is anger or disapproval directed at them. When that happens it is helpful for the patient because they learn healthier ways to not only express their negative feelings but to experience feeling acceptable even so.
So, when you are asking if you should express your anger at the therapist, the answer is yes. That way the two of you can sort out the details and separate reality from distortion for both of you.
It is important for the patient to learn to be open and honest, especially if as the relationship moves from guarded at the beginning to the building of more trust. Regardless of the type of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, group and family therapy, etc, real growth cannot happen if the patient withholds his thinking and feeling.
Keep in mind that there is a middle point between loss of control due to rage versus suppressing all anger. Actually, surpressing anger can result in an outburst later on. There is recent research to support this. Instead of out of control expressing of negative emotions, there is the firm but controlled and verbally expressed hostile feelings. That leaves room for discussion.
What are you experiences with anger at your therapist?
Allan N. Schwartz, Phd