Kip Flock talked with Mary Montaut about his work
Anger is something that in itself is innate and needed. We need to have access to our anger in order to protect ourselves, so there is energy there that’s available to say ‘No, that’s not acceptable’.
Anger is an affect that, along with the other affects, is part of our legacy as human beings; but most of us get shamed in our anger very early on. Men get shamed for being sad or distressed. Women get shamed for being angry, probably more than men do, because there is a cultural pressure for women not to act angry, and if they do they’re seen as unfeminine. There is a sexist dynamic in our culture – over here as much as in America, I’m sure – for women not to be angry. If a woman comes in to see me and she’s crying, I need to figure out whether she’s really sad or not. I used to help people cry and cry, and they didn’t seem to get better, because that wasn’t what they were feeling – they were feeling angry. But women are not allowed to be angry, so they cry. This is what I know as a feeling racket. Similarly, a lot of men get angry when they’re really sad or scared, so when men come in to see me, I have to figure out if they’re really enraged, and ask if they’re really sad or scared. Then the therapeutic goal would be to help them get to those fe elings rather than for them to get angry.
Action anger work, using active ways to express anger – like beating cushions – has been controversial at times. The fear has been that if we get people doing that stuff, they’re going act it out on people. Now I haven’t seen that. What we’ve found is that when people are able to be angry, feel angry, act angry, like they needed to when they were six years old and they were being violated, that it helps to finish the business on all levels of our reference systems, the verbal level, the seeing level and the feeling level. The more we can do congruent activities with our bodies, with what we’re remembering and saying and seeing, then the business can get completed. So that, when people who need to do that kind of work, finish it, they are actually less likely to go and act out on it.
The key is being clear clinically as a therapist, on what we’re dealing with. Now with men especially, we need to figure out whether they are in an anger racket. Legitimate anger, when we’re able to retrieve it from shame binds and the sense that it’s bad, is then available to us to have the energy there when we say no. You may have heard somebody say something like,”I want you to stop doing that”, in a kind of flat way, with not much energy. Or I could look at you and say, “I want you to stop doing that”, and look you in the eye firmly. You can tell the difference. I don’t have to raise my voice and throw things, but I have access to that primitive place that I mean business. That’s what I think of when I have anger. I think in the case of a woman, if she can have that edge available to her, she most likely will not be perpetrated on. Some of the studies I’ve read about show that the perpetrators are going to look for somebody who seems to be the weakest the their presence to go for, and so having access to this energy is a wonderful thing.
Control and Choice
I had to learn how to get access to this energy. In our house, anger was not expressed openly and the message I got was don’t get angry at authority figures, and don’t get angry at people who are in charge of things, starting with Mom and Dad. If the message we get when we’re kids is that anger is going to hurt our parents, then we can feel very guilty about being angry. There is a catastrophic fantasy that builds, that if I ever get angry I won’t be able to stop it, I’ll lose control and it will be kill or be killed. If we don’t know when we feel angry, then we don’t have a choice as to how we’re going to express it. So the agenda for shutting down anger in children is to try and control it, but what happens is the opposite: we shut off people’s awareness of their anger. If we don’t model other choices besides either stuffing the anger or blowing up, then one of those two things is going to happen. Usually what happens is that you stuff it and stuff it, and then some little thing happens and it all comes out, usually at your wife or somebody that you love. So that’s what can happen if we don’t have access to our anger consciously. And what that means to me is that choosing not to be angry or expressing anger to any degree are all choices, but if I don’t even know I’m angry because it’s all stuffed in there, then I don’t have a choice, and it’ll come out on somebody usually at a time when I don’t want it to.
Knowing the Feeling
In the therapy work, we need to help people to know what it’s like. They don’t even know what the feeling is, they need help to know what it’s like to be angry, identify it as anger and then to be able to find, and experiment with, different ways to express it. If it’s old anger, what we may do is to set up an experiment, perhaps with Gestalt. It is a very safe way for people to complete anger business, or any emotional business, with past issues. Mom, Dad, the teacher, people in church. If we’re in a group I like to use psychodrama, that can be very powerful to help people access the inner states that have been shut off and repressed.
Gershin Kaufman talks about how shame binds up the other feelings. He says that affect is the primary innate biological motivating mechanism (that is, opposed to drives) and that shame is an affect that can bind up all the rest of the affects, so that it is essentially the master emotion. When shame binds up anger, or binds up any memory, it freezes us. Shame is the emotion that will occur when people start to feel anger. Any feeling that’s shame-bound will turn to shame. So when anger is mixed with shame and we start to feel angry, we start to feel shameful. We won’t even know that we’re angry, the shame will just hit.
We want to be able to help people to access anger or other feelings from the past, so that they don’t continue to impact present relationships and present experience. Gershin Kaufman says that when shame is too magnified, when it’s very big in proportion to what happened, it causes experiential erasure. This is mind boggling, because it’s as if it never happened, you wipe it right out. It never happened, so you can’t have a feeling about something that didn’t happen.
Forgive and Forget?
I know that there’s a tendency to want to say, why don’t we just forgive and forget? Why make a big deal about the past? Why not just gut it up and go on with our lives, not think about what Mom or Dad did, because they themselves were violated in a lot of ways and they were shame-based, and we don’t want to make it worse on them? Why go into therapy, if a real man or a real woman doesn’t need to dredge up the past and blame somebody else? We hear a lot of that kind of talk and criticisms of this work. What I’ve found is that if we can complete this anger business, we’re actually cleared to be more fully present to those very people that we have anger with. If we don’t do this, then what we are is a false self: we deny that we’re angry and the shame shuts off everything. We don’t know what we need or what we want, because the minute we deny any part of our feeling experience we start to cut off all of it. Bugental states that feeling is a unitary sense of being, so that if you try to shut off the bad feelings and keep the good ones, you really shut off everything. What we want to do is to help people to complete anger business and first of all we have to help them remember what happened as much as we can.
Sometimes people can’t remember, but they still have the anger. We don’t want to try to put memories in that aren’t there – the false memory syndrome is something that we have to be very careful of. But they still have the feeling and it doesn’t come from nowhere. So when I work, I like to lead from one step behind. Rather than interpreting a lot of things, I like to help people amplify what they give me and we can start to track energy. People may be angry in the present say, in a relationship and they’re angry with their spouse – so I’ll have them enact that scene somehow, and speak as though it’s happening now.
“ I just came in the kitchen door and she was sitting at the table and she said why didn’t you pay this bill and now I’m telling her, get off my back, you’re always on my case, you never leave me alone, you’re always hounding me.”
I might have him go over and be in the chair and be Alice, his wife, and have him do what Alice did to his empty chair. Then I’ll have him come over and be in the other chair and answer back to Alice – to recreate the scene so that all the memories of what’s in the room, what she said, what he said, will start to access the feelings. Then at some point I’ll ask, “What are you experiencing inside as you are in this scene?”
If we work with that for a while, I usually get enough information to ask something like, “Well George, remember a time in your life, maybe when you were a child when someone told you not to talk when you’re angry, and you felt weak and fatigued and tired and you wanted to go to sleep…?” A lot of times what will happen is what Gershin Kaufman and John Bradshaw talk about – governing scenes will emerge in the consciousness. Often when we remember something like this not in therapy, the shame will come in and tell us not to think about that, that’s in the past, your father’s old now, be nice…. So there’s a voice inside that tries to cut it off.
If we can help people get to those scenes and understand that what they are doing in the present is really about their past unfinished business, and we can complete it by letting them say what they needed to say then but couldn’t for fear of loss of the love of their parents, or reprisals – if they can really get to the deep anger and the deep sadness or fear, and express it, and have witnesses like a group or a therapist, it takes the energy away from the present problem to the point where they can function much more effectively in solving that problem. I’ve been astounded at how many times I’ve helped somebody resolve a past scene, complete their feelings with it and then they come up with the answer to the present problem themselves. They don’t need advice about how to solve their problems. What I believe is that we really have a natural ability to be in resolution and solution, but shame stops us, and if we can resolve shame wounds, then we can have all of our faculties available to us in present moments. When I go into a shame spiral. I can’t see, I can’t talk, I’m just feeling bad about myself. And I usually do something that’s less than appropriate, and I end up doing the thing that I felt so wounded about in the first place!
Cycle of Abuse
I see that when I work with perpetrators, when there’s sexual abuse – their only choice from the view of the child within them, is to be the victim or the perpetrator. A lot of times they’ll move back and forth between the two. They feel like victims most of the time, and when they feel powerful, they’ll be a perpetrator on somebody else. Whenever I treat anybody that’s been a perpetrator of sexual abuse, or somebody who is a domestic violence perpetrator, I’ll usually be looking for what is it that happened to them that set up all this rage and the need to control. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody who is an abuser who hasn’t been themselves abused – they were abused as children usually. I know that there is some controversy about this, at least in the States, but if I go in there with a group of abusers and start to blame them and judge them for being bad people, they’re going to shut me off and I will not be able to get enough rapport to be even ready to help. So I’m looking to empathise with their pain, with the agenda to help them rec ognise their own pain enough to be able to empathize with somebody else.
When people are bound in shame, they can’t imagine a life different from the one they’re in which was set up by all that unfinished business and the shame that came out of that back then. Essentially what happens is that those scenes that shamed us get internalized and imprinted and they become the purposes of our lives. They become the images by which we shape our behaviours, our thoughts, the way we express our feelings, how we set up relationships. And so essentially if we don’t complete the anger business, we end up recreating the whole original scene that put us in that kind of vulnerable immobilized frozen place in the first place, or we re create the scenes that were done to us, out of a sense that we caused it. Robin Norwood wrote a book called Women Who Love Too Much where she talks about this, that women who are violated by rage-oholic fathers and who are withdrawn a lot of the time, believe that they weren’t lovable enough. So they try to make themselves lovable so they’ll be accepted by this dad – they grow up with this same agenda that they’re fundamentally bad and not loved. The core of it is that we believe that we caused it and the only way to rectify it is to recreate it so we can do over again, but that’s not an adult decision, that’s the naive clarity of the child.
Shame is a being wound and unfortunately when we get to be adults, we try to heal being wounds by doing things, and it doesn’t work.
The Resented Gift
A lot of times people think the therapist is going to take the feelings away – the anger or fear – but really what it’s about is to help you get these back in a proper proportion to your experience, instead of having these enormous responses and amplification of feelings, far out of proportion to what you may need to function. Therapists are seen as the resented gift – because people come to feel better and not feel scared any more and we tell them that they need to reclaim and take ownership of their anger and be aware of it! But then a lot of times when people come to me in distress I tell them, you might feel worse before you feel better, it’s not that I’m going to cause you anger, or shame or sadness, but it’s been in there all this time. I want to help people to embrace the pain but not re-enact the trauma, to help people to have tools to be able to contain their feelings. I want to empower people in this, that’s the goal of it, not to break people down. I’ve heard people coming out of treatment centres and saying that they had to break me down and then build me up. I just don’t agree with that, and I think we want to be really strength-based. If I go in there and give people advice and tell them what to do, then I’m just taking over their reality like it happened before. It isn’t going to help them. What I want to do is to facilitate them getting it, not me giving it to them.
Toxic Shame & Healthy Shame
We need to move from toxic shame which is a killer, to healthy shame which is a natural normal feeling whose function is to keep people from getting too grandiose. Healthy shame focuses us inward so we can be critically reflective. I’ve heard John Bradshaw say that unless we have healthy shame we can’t learn, because that tells me my limits. And I don’t have a spirituality without it, because shame is a sense of inferiority and unless I’m willing to be in an interior place and feel little in the face of God, or the higher forces of the universe, I’m not able to appreciate that relationship. I have to be able to feel little and humble, which is another word that I’ve heard used to describe healthy shame, as opposed to humiliation which is what toxic shame does.
[Kip Flock is a trainer and psychotherapist working in Philadelphia, USA. He is John Bradshaw’s trainer]