Laura was angry at her boyfriend, she told me in our first therapy session. While he claimed to love her, he was still living with someone else. He assured her that he no longer had romantic feelings for this other woman, only that their lives remained entangled in ways that made leaving her difficult. Laura had waited patiently for him to move out, understanding his caution, but some new hesitation on his part suddenly seemed too much and Laura let him have it. In a rage, she told him she no longer wanted anything to do with him, and for a day and a half she stuck to what she'd said. Then she felt her resolve slipping away. She relented: She was lonely without him.
On the surface, Laura had a boyfriend problem. But the underlying issue was one that plagues a lot of people: the inability to handle anger effectively.
Sure enough, Laura's difficulties spilled over into other areas of her life. Her 9-year-old son liked to sleep in her room, which made her increasingly uncomfortable. Periodically, she'd make a stab at weaning him from his habit, buying him something special to make his room more enticing or telling him he was too old for this. When neither tactic was effective, she would yell and threaten him. But when he trudged to her room in the middle of the night, she didn't have the heart to send him back to his bed.
Like many of us, Laura would lose her temper to no good end. Pushed to her limit, she made threats she couldn't uphold and lost the respect of those who'd offended her.
In my practice, I've noticed that sometimes our relationship to our own anger is more troubling than our relationships with other people. We might have a fight-or-flight response to feeling irritated. Like a wild animal threatened by a hunter, we're propelled into crisis mode by stirrings of rage. Our angry feelings may be so charged and so forbidden that they have to be quickly repressed or vented—for which we judge ourselves mercilessly.
I explained to Laura that anger might be cause for reflection, not for immediate action—that she could learn to tolerate her feelings long enough to learn from them. "Isn't anger bad?" she wanted to know. But in the next breath, she revealed her confusion. "If I'm so angry, shouldn't I express that?" And then "If only I could stop being so emotional..." Rather than see anger as a valued component of her emotional makeup, she treated it like a waste product and spewed toxic material at those she loved. I sensed this was a sign of a broader fear of conflict and a deeper feeling of helplessness: Laura had no confidence in her ability to sway her boyfriend or set limits for her son.
My work with Laura proceeded on two fronts. First I had to show her that anger, in its essence, was not bad, even though I agreed that the way she sometimes acted was self-destructive. Then I had to help her find ways to put anger to work. "Your feelings aren't the problem," I repeated many times. "The danger comes only from what you do when you are angry. How can you be more effective?"