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Page Contents: Feeling guilty about talking about anger in psychotherapy.                    


I was taught that anger is a bad thing. I’ve had an abusive childhood but it is hard to feel any anger about it because I feel guilty and afraid about offending God or blaming my parents. My therapist says I have to feel angry feelings to get better. How can I show these feelings without freaking out myself or the therapist so he will tell me to leave?

Anger is always a reaction to some sort of hurt or insult. But when you look at this reaction more closely, you can see that anger does not have to be the only reaction to hurt.

The most immediate and primary response to hurt or insult is a physiological arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. Your heart rate jumps. Your blood pressure surges. These things, however, are just immediate self-defensive reactions that prepare us to take some sort of action to respond to the threat.

Now, to be technically precise here, anger does not refer to the feeling of physiological arousal itself; anger is a particular response to that arousal that is grounded in hostility and hatred. In essence, anger is a wish to hurt someone because someone has hurt you. Anger does not even have to be experienced as the strong emotion of rage; it can just as well be a thought or a wish to hurt someone. In this sense, then, anger is a “bad” thing because it is an offense against love, for love is a matter of willing the good of others, not a matter of wishing them harm.

When you are told to acknowledge your anger in psychotherapy, however, you are not being told to do something that is morally wrong. Nor are you being encouraged to “get angry,” such as by yelling, cursing, throwing things, breaking things, or hitting someone. Instead, you are being told to recognize something that is already within you, so that you can stop deceiving yourself about your own reality.

So let’s see what that “something” might be.

Child abuse always provokes feelings of hurt and insult in the child, and almost inevitably that hurt leads to a feeling of hate and a desire for revenge. In fact, even many ordinary, non-abusive frustrations of childhood will provoke feelings of hurt and anger. But because children are not usually taught to express hostile feelings in any healthy way (and because they aren’t taught the psychological meaning of anger, and because they aren’t taught the psychological meaning of forgiveness and reparation), children quickly learn, through fear and guilt, to hide their true feelings from their parents.

The ultimate psychological problem, however, is that these unexpressed feelings—the “bad” anger—get pushed into the unconscious where they continue to grow in darkness, like mold on the walls. It may be hidden from conscious sight, and it may be hidden from public view. But it can’t be hidden from your unconscious.

That is, unconscious anger, no matter how much you try to deny it, will continue to stain all your interpersonal relationships. With this anger festering inside of you, it becomes almost impossible to give true love to anyone. Right now, when difficult things happen to you, you fall kersplash! right into the swamp of childhood anger.

The whole point of psychotherapy is to learn that there are very specific environmental triggers for your feelings. Recognize the triggers, first, and then recognize the emotional “bridge” that goes back to childhood wounds. Learn to look for the actual events (notice the plural) that have been bothering you recently. Take each one separately. What are all the feelings about that event? Frustration? Helplessness? Abandonment? Betrayal? Fear? (Keep in mind that anger is the final, hostile reaction to all the other feelings.)

When you have these emotions all separated out, then you have an idea of what is really happening to you, apart from the anger. Then you can deal with each event separately, according to the emotions specific to that event. And it’s your choice. Do something constructive and creative about each problem individually, or, well, get angry about everything and stew in it.

Up till now you have been stewing in it, and that’s why everything seems so oppressive and foul underneath the surface of a nice social demeanor. If I’m wrong, then why are you in psychotherapy in the first place? Most likely, everything in your life is all caught up in a big snarl of childhood hurt.

So, if you go through this healing process, you will learn to free your hidden anger from its dark, silent prison. Having thus set it free, and having thus cleansed yourself of its stains, you will also be free of something else. You will be free of feeling like a victim and free of secretly blaming your parents, because as long as you keep your anger hidden, you remain emotionally disabled, and as long as you remain emotionally disabled, you are throwing your disability in your parents’ faces to accuse them of their faults.

Once you acknowledge the core of your anger, and understand it, and stop unconsciously wishing harm on your parents, you can forgive your parents. Then you will be healed, and then you can turn to the whole world with true love in your heart.


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Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
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