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Nadja Geipert
Nadja Geipert

Is Anger the Kathy Griffin of Emotions?

Both the emotion and the acerbic comedian spend their lives on the D-list.

"Anger as soon as fed is dead- 'Tis starving makes it fat." Emily Dickinson

Asking someone who is mad "What's underneath the anger?" has become such a widely accepted catchall pseudo-caring response that I fear being outcast for suggesting otherwise. It patronizes, rejects and invalidates the person's feelings and tops my list of rock-solid evidence that dumb questions really do exist. A psychotherapy session on the TV show Law & Order: Criminal Intent beautifully illustrates my point.
In my previous post, Saving Detective Goren: First Diffuse Worst Fear, I discussed a mandatory therapy session in which the client Detective Goren became justifiably enraged because his therapist Dr. Gyson evaded his question whether he could ever have a normal romantic relationship. The session ended with him storming out and stating, "You can tell the captain that I'm not a good candidate for therapy!"

Yet Detective Goren returns for his regular appointment the following week.
At the beginning of the session, he appears docile and almost submissive while describing a strange dream from the previous night while Dr. Gyson (appearing sulky and disinterested) is finishing up some notes. After a few minutes of haphazard head nodding, the good doctor quickly brings up last week's blow up.
Here is what happens next:
Dr. Gyson: ...instead of discussing what happened at the end of last session. A week ago you were furious, you walked out and today, I'm not sure what's on your mind or, or even why you came back (this is all said with raised voice, a frown and a lifted chin).
Detective Goren (quietly): It's on my mind. No matter what was going on from your side, I'm sorry for losing my temper. I wanted to apologize for that.
Dr. Gyson: Thank you. It's fine to apologize, but I think we should talk about and try to reconstruct what happened between us.
Detective Goren: I told you. I think I overreacted (see me previous post for why I don't think he overreacted).
Dr. Gyson (leaning forward aggressively and continuing in a confrontational voice): Yes, and I'm suggesting because something powerful came up, something important. Why do you think you turned so quickly ...hmm?
Detective Goren (still very docile): We got our wires crossed.
Dr. Gyson: Hmhh...has that happened to you before?
Detective Goren: Oh come on! Are you telling me that's never happened to you before? (...) You wanna know what I feel? I feel anger.
Dr. Gyson: And last week you were flooded with it...fight or flight. What's underneath the anger?
Detective Goren: MORE ANGER!!!!
Detective Goren's reply exposes the absurdity of Dr. Gyson's question and its implication that anger is bad—a kind of D-list feeling. The cruel irony is that frequently there really is something underneath the anger. But asking what that is backfires because we all need to feel safe and accepted to explore our feelings. When we are indirectly told that what we are currently feeling is unacceptable, we usually just shut down. And let's not forget, sometimes people are just angry.

When someone we care about seems sad, we simply ask "Why are you so sad?" Shouldn't we ask someone who is angry the same?
Anger is simply an emotion and should never be confused with aggression which is a behavior. It's easy to forget that when anger is expressed in the context of a relationship, it means we matter. After all anger is not the opposite of caring, indifference is. And expressing it requires emotional honesty and a certain degree of vulnerability. The therapy sessions between Dr. Gyson and Detective Goren illuminate this dynamic.

Before Detective Goren blew up at Dr. Gyson, he was very guarded and phoning it in. By asking her if she thought he could ever have a normal relationship with a woman and then getting angry at her evasiveness, he became more engaged in the therapeutic relationship. This was a huge step and Dr. Gyson completey failed to acknowledge it. Generally speaking, if a client blows up, walks out of the session and then returns the next week, this is an excellent sign for the client's prognosis. It indicates a certain amount of ego strength as well as the ability to tolerate intense emotions and vulnerability.
Too bad, Dr. Gyson (or more accurately, the writer of the scene) did not understand this and missed the opportunity to highlight the client's progress and everything he was doing right.

Dr. Gyson doesn't even acknowledge that it took a lot for Detective Goren to return after his outburst and thus misses the opportunity to strengthen his faith in himself. In addition she accepts his apology and her body language and overall demeanor suggest that she is upset with him because he got angry.

It may seem like I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but I encounter this attitude toward anger in the mental health field frequently. And it deeply concerns me. A therapist who is unable to tolerate a client's anger is like a brain surgeon who can't tolerate the sight of blood. It's a recipe for disaster.

I also believe that being unable to tolerate negative emotions in our loved ones impedes our ability to feel close to them. We all know when someone cringes at the depth of our emotions and instinctively retreat. So the next time someone tells you that they are mad at you, consider doing this: Say nothing and just look at them. Take a breath and then say: "Okay. Tell me more."

"Copyright Nadia Geipert 2011."

About the Author
Nadja Geipert

Nadja Geipert, M.A. Psychology, is the founder of LA Family Therapy in Los Angeles and a science writer.

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