Psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy in Dublin

Children, adolescents and adults often attend for psychotherapy because their anger has become problematic. Parents complain that their children are having uncontrollable tantrums, that their teenagers are truculent and uncooperative; adults, as individuals and as couples, seek anger management because their relationships are suffering.

Anger management requires the distinction between appropriate anger, and pathological anger. Treatment of pathological anger requires a careful exploration of triggers and responses in the context of one’s personal history. When understood and worked through, anger takes its place as part of our normal emotional spectrum.

Anger is a necessary instinct that constitutes a fundamental element of human nature. Usually, we overlook that and notice it only when it becomes an inconvenience, a problem. In actual fact, it is a normal human emotion present from infancy. It is how we use it, just like any other emotion, that determines whether it becomes a vice or a virtue. Anger is a vice when it is expressed by the violent abuser but it is anger’s virtue that is made manifest in the law which society employs to penalise the abuser, in defence of the victim.

Psychologically, anger, properly harnessed, helps us to cope with external contingencies: defending ourselves from impingement by building resilient boundaries; pushing us to study hard at the Leaving Cert to achieve our ideal result; resolving our attitudes to form personal opinions and values.

Most of the time, we can and do control our expressions of anger at will.
Civility, “good manners”, social etiquette, diplomatic protocols: these are examples of how civilised societies sublimate aggressive behaviours into social norms. Education, example and experience inform our instinctual angry responses, turning them into socially appropriate behaviour that may become automatic. As anyone who has had a pet will tell you, empathy and curiosity are also factors that determine a more consciously-measured response in the face of provocation.

Occasionally however, rather than problem-solving, anger can become the problem. What may have begun as a necessary form of psychological defence, a way of aggressively coping with life’s irritants, escalates for some into shocking outbursts that offend and dismay those around them and threaten their relationships at home and work. At this point, consulting a psychotherapist can help.

So what is pathological anger? Anger becomes pathological when it is inappropriate or absent.

An inappropriate angry response is one out of proportion to the provocation, or directed at a party other than the one responsible for the provocation, or presented without discernible provocation.

Likewise, it is extremely problematic when anger is absent or non-existent. How can a bullied child protect him- or herself, physically or psychologically, if they cannot get angry? A teenager needs to ‘rebel’ in order to leave behind childish dependency and become a self-reliant adult. Adults channel their anger into areas such as creativity and self-governance. In fact, so-called “non-existent anger” is often manifested in passive-aggressive behaviours which arouse anger in others around them, particularly their most intimate relations.

Like any other emotion – love, hate, envy, gratitude, etc. – anger offers a powerful release of psychological and physical tension.

The physical satisfaction of the anger response explains why tantrums in young children and even in adolescents can be a form of panic reaction, the physical manifestation of an unbearable idea or feeling. Unfortunately this physical response can become quite addictive, developing into habitual behavioural responses that escalate over time if not understood and treated.

Depression may be diagnosed by displays of anger rather than sadness because anger offers an omnipotent, powerful psychological defence of the self. In this form, anger denies feelings of vulnerability or hurt. For children having tantrums, therefore, therapists advise parents and carers to respond calmly and model a measured anger response in their disciplining of the child. In this way, the child learns self-governance with their carers and later the child can discuss with the therapist what other feelings underlie the anger and what constitutes an authentic emotional response to the experience.

In dealing with issues of loss (e.g. bereavement, redundancy, separation), it is natural to experience anger as part of the grieving process. Therapists understand that feeling angry at being left behind (bereft, unemployed, separated) must be worked through as part of the mourning process. Working with a therapist in a safe and confidential space, these feelings can be safely verbalised to release the pain and move on.

In discussing the treatment at the initial consultation I take a precise history of the problem: the likely triggers, a description of the angry presentation, and the consequences for the client, psychologically and physically, of this problematic anger. I start by pointing out that it is only human to feel anger at times and I ask how they feel their own anger might deviate from an appropriate response. Frequently, the client demands that I help them get rid of this ‘dreadful part of me’. My focus, however, must be on discovering what exactly their outbursts are attempting to express rather than removing an essential emotional resource entirely. This is not a ‘bad’ element but rather a ‘poor’ one, a way of coping that is no longer effective and requires to be investigated and re-modulated in a supportive therapeutic space.

In discussing anger with clients or in seminars on anger management, I frequently refer to an old parable called “The Swami and the Snake”.
Here it is…

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The Swami and the Snake

On a path that went to a village in Bengal, there lived a cobra who used to bite people on their way to worship at the temple there. As the incidents increased, everyone became fearful and many refused to go to the temple.

The Swami who was the master at the temple was aware of the problem and took it upon himself to put an end to it. Taking himself to where the snake dwelt, he used a mantram to call the snake to him and bring it into submission. The Swami then said to the snake that it was wrong to bite the people who walked along the path to worship and made him promise sincerely that he would never do it again.

Soon it happened that the snake was seen by a passerby upon the path, and it made no move to bite him. Then it became known that the snake had somehow been made passive and people grew unafraid. It was not long before the village boys were dragging the poor snake along behind them as they ran laughing here and there.

When the temple Swami passed that way again he called the snake to see if he had kept his promise. The snake humbly and miserably approached the Swami, who exclaimed, “You are bleeding. Tell me how this has come to be.” The snake was near tears and blurted out, that he had been abused ever since he was caused to make his promise to the Swami.

“I told you not to bite,” said the Swami, “but I did not tell you not to hiss.”