Many people have asked what they should do about the fact that their therapist did or said something that made them furious. 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 grow up with the prohibition that we must honor and respect our parents. Unfortunately, honor and respect often become: “Don’t express anger or disapproval at your parents. Of course, the irony is that the same parents often have no difficulty expressing anger at one another and 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 learned.
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 being scolded and punished by parents after the child gets 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 accepted them after expressing anger at me. The astonishment came from the fact that they feared that they were no longer worth having around having shown anger. It’s a variation on the old saying, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” How many of us fear that we may be worth throwing out, especially when showing our angry side? How many parents have such intolerance of their child’s angry expression that they communicate wanting to throw them out? It goes something like this, “I’ll 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. 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 the rejection is depressing, then rejection by the therapist is even worse.
Some people, perhaps too many, grew up in family environments in which expressing emotions was verbal and emotional violence, with the accompanying feeling of loss of control. That casts a deep fear on children that anger always means losing control. Patients often 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.
Some believe they will injure their therapist if they express their disapproval. Sometimes this is a projection onto the therapist of their feeling of fragility or fear about someone being angry at them. The fact is that any reasonable, well-trained therapist can tolerate and accept when there is anger or disapproval directed at them. When that happens, it is helpful for the patient because they learn healthier ways to express their negative feelings and experience feeling acceptable.
So, when you are asking if you should express your anger at the therapist, the answer is yes. You can sort out the details and separate reality from distortion.
The patient needs to learn to be open and honest, especially as the relationship moves from being guarded at the beginning to building more trust. Regardless of the type of psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, group, or family therapy, 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. Suppressing anger can cause an outburst later on. There is recent research to support this. Instead of controlling the expression of negative emotions, there is a firm but controlled and verbally expressed hostile feelings. That leaves room for discussion.