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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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When You Are Angry At Your Therapist

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 4th 2011

When You Are Angry At Your TherapistMany people have asked what they should do about the fact that their therapist did or said something that made them very angry. 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 have been raised with the prohibition that we must honor and respect our parents. Unfortunately, too often, honor and respect is turned into, "Don't express anger or disapproval at your parents. Of course, the irony of this is that the very same parents often have no difficulty expressing anger at one another and at 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 have been taught.

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 having been scolded and punished by parents after the child got 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 did not reject them after an expression of anger at me. The astonishment came from the fact that they feared, having shown anger, they were no longer worth having around. Its a variation on the old saying about "Don't throw out the baby with the bath water." How many of us fear that we may be worth throwing out, especially when we show the angry side of ourselves. How many parents such intolerance of their child's angry expression that they communicate wanting to throw them out. It goes something like this, "I'lll 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 or not. 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 rejection is awful and depressing then rejection by the therapist is even worse. Just think about it, "I pay this person to listen to me and that won't help to make him stay with me. How reprehensible a person am I?"

Some people, perhaps too many, grew up in family environments in which emotions were expressed with violence, both verbal and emotional with the accompanying feel of loss of control. That casts a deep fear on children that anger always means loss of control. There were many times when patients 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.

There are those who believe they will  injure their therapist if they express their disapproval. Sometimes this is a projection onto the therapist of their own feeling of fragility or fear about someone being angry at them. The fact is that any good, well trained therapist is able to tolerate and accept those times when there is anger or disapproval directed at them. When that happens it is helpful for the patient because they learn healthier ways to not only express their negative feelings but to experience feeling acceptable even so.

So, when you are asking if you should express your anger at the therapist, the answer is yes. That way the two of you  can sort out the details and separate reality from distortion for both of you.

It is important for the patient to learn to be open and honest, especially if as the relationship moves from guarded at the beginning to the building of more trust. Regardless of the type of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, group and family therapy, etc, 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. Actually, surpressing anger can result in an outburst later on. There is recent research to support this. Instead of out of control expressing of negative emotions, there is the firm but controlled and verbally expressed hostile feelings. That leaves room for discussion.

What are you experiences with anger at your therapist?

Allan N. Schwartz, Phd

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    sometimes they want you to get angry, apparently - Tim - Dec 17th 2014

    I got angry because all we ever did was talk about what i came in with each week, and relating it to my childhood. As if that's hard! When i pointed out after two years it was a waste of money, he just said it was good i felt able to express that anger, which showed the process was working. I'd had more change in my response to bad drivers from the mindfulness meditation i started two months ago!

    Now I'm told (independently) that getting angry with him probably was the fissure into my personality and buried anger he needed! Too bad I'm going to find it difficult - for practical reasons - to resume. And even if i did, now i know it is part of how things work, I'm unlikely to get angry! So frustrating.

     

     

    action and reaction - - Nov 15th 2014

    I think anger at your therapist or at your client is ok. The way that anger is made apparent is what matters. It is difficult to imagine anything constructive coming from anger as in society, anger all too often leads to some form of violence and lingers rather like a spaghetti stain. I think suppressed anger just burns and then can flare, possibly in an uncontrolled manner. I don't ever want to raise my voice or use venomous words with my therapist but she does sometimes really piss me off. Sometimes I hide it and sometimes I tell her. I mostly hate when she was right. For some reason, that's the most infuriating instigation of all.

    defensive counsellor - Suzanne - Jul 3rd 2014

    My counsellor said things that made me feel devastated; rejected and abandoned. I was so frightened because things had been amazing before that I hid how upset I was. Sometimes I referred to it but not fully. Eventually I felt that I needed to express it all. She said she couldn't see any point and even told me to stop talking about it. It wasn;t until I told her that I was anguished about it all the time and couldn't stop going over it that she let me talk. Such deep and painful material, almost evertything i say about it is so obviously about my mother, either when she became depressed when I was 2 and a half or a little later when she was enraged most days. Even though it's amazingly rich sometimes I slip back iinto being directly upset with the counsellor and she seems fed up.I wish we could somehow stay on the same side and I could feel safer. She said herself that she was probably defensive on one occasion. Often she seemed critical and she did think we were stuck but i explained that i thought it was about deep early pain and we started to move. Inorder for someone to be emotionally versatile and responsive they need to remain vulnerable . I would however like her to be less defensive. I would like all my feelings to be acceptable and I would like her to believe in the process enough that she trusts both of us and believes that reality is basically benign. She's a really lovely person and I don't like upsetting her but I need to be as I am. It's obvious that she did not deeply hurt me really. It makes my habitual responses clearer. Now I am beginning to realize that I feel responsible for messing everything up. Last week I cried at home from a very deep place for a long while that I was not responsible for my mother's depression. If she had not let me down perhaps I would never have got this far.

    Bad therapist Northern Ireland - Anon - May 18th 2014

    Some therapists are very bad. I was told to 'get out' once I told my therapist how I perceived her tone with me after she asked me to explain it to her. This was a trap. Horrible woman. It has taken two years to finally start realising that anger is ok and normal.  I feel sorry for her other clients.

    Anger at Therapist - S.J - Sep 24th 2013

    I am angry at my therapist because he keeps on letting me down, in minor and major ways - sometimes this ony becomes manifest at the end of a session when I am walking out the door i.e not sticking to agreed committments.  I do not think I am a difficult client and would just like reliability  - that is to say, to be told in advance, to be consulted etc - but I sometimes feel he is messing with my head.

    Confrontation can in fact be dangerous - Sue - Jul 30th 2013

    I agree that anger at a therapist is complicated, and a client can feel intimidated broaching the subject with her counselor.  Unfortunately, as I experienced, some therapists CAN be quite fragile, and respond with fury, retaliation and even diagnosis when they feel challenged.  This damage was greatly magnified because I had been encouraged to idealize my therapist. I wish I'd received therapy on a far more egalitarian basis.

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