“I don’t mean no harm I’m just searching for calm In the storm of mankind. “
(David Gray, 1993)
Singer/songwriter David Gray captures in these lines what I believe to be a common experience for those seeking therapy. There is a basic assumption avowed in this song, an assumption that I believe to be pivotal in how we approach and assist others to work through anger, or indeed any of the feelings and experiences that emerge in group therapy. The basic premise that I am referring to is: the readiness on the therapist’s behalf to accept that human beings (although they may have caused harm) are now in therapy to access and make meaningful contact with the place of ‘no harm’. I am aware as I write that some beings seem intent on harm regardless of the situation. I will say a little more about this later. For the time being I will focus on those who seek to accept, understand and heal the anger and rage that lurks menacingly within them. Group therapy can offer the safety, strength and support to do this. What naturally summers to mind for me is the powerful paradox often experienced by clients as they attempt to come to terms with inner rage. The paradox that says: in the past I have been hurt by other people’s anger/rage and I, in turn, have hurt people with my anger and rage. Now, here I am, sitting in this group with a rage in my belly that frightens me, since I have neither the desire to hurt them, nor be hurt by them. This is quite a typical group dynamic that requires patience, mindfulness and the willingness of the therapist to stay with the client/group, allowing them to work gently through this complex paradox.
The term ‘anger’ has many definitions (too many to explore in this piece). In the context of therapy; I am alluding to anything from mild irritation to thunderous, explosive and often murderous rage. As I mentioned earlier, this can present fear and confusion for the client or the group who are struggling to come to terms with this powerful energy. Needless to say, (yet I’ll say it anyway) the therapist who is working in group therapy must not be afraid of this mighty force if the group is to feel free. The only conditions where this is possible, is when the therapist seriously explores, works through and accepts his or her own rage and anger, which is always an ongoing process. This point is crucial as clients often fear that we will not be able to ‘take’ the sheer volume of rage that they carry. The client will always sense when the therapist is afraid or out of their depth, no matter how much you try and reassure the client/group that it is okay. This can be complicated even further in group therapy because even if the therapist is grounded and unafraid of the client’s energy, other group members may not feel safe or able to witness such open discharges of anger/rage. If the group members are not safe and not facilitated in the expression of this, they will use every means at their disposal to block the expression and working through of these powerful feelings. I cannot express enough the importance of creating safety within the group – this is more important than expressing anger merely for the sake of it. It has become quite trendy to ‘get your anger out’ yet I believe that this often happens irresponsibly, without any resolution or healing.
”Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.” (Indigo Girls, 1995)
This piece by singer/songwriters the Indigo Girls really speaks to me about the human tendency to be drawn into and remain in the darkness of our inner world . No place is this so poignant as in group therapy. It can be so frightening and humiliating to allow what is inside us, emerge into the light of day. This can be particularly true when dealing with powerful emotions such as anger and rage. If the group is safe enough, and if the therapist is grounded, secure and unafraid, this provides the perfect environment for the client to begin to show the world (group) who she/he really is. It doesn’t matter what technique the therapist may or may not use when assisting clients working through anger. What does matter is: (1) the level of safety, (2) the therapist’s own personal groundedness, (3) awareness of all group members, (4) the clients’, ability to take full responsibility for themselves during and after expression of anger/rage. I would like to say a little more about this last point, as I believe it to be of paramount importance when working with anger and rage.
I believe that the whole purpose of encouraging the client to express these feelings in the first place is to help evoke personal responsibility within the client. Creating a scenario where the client can feel, express and be accepted with emotions that usually have been experienced as bad, dangerous and unwelcomed. In the group setting, the client has access to the corrective experience of owning and expressing powerful feelings without hurting themselves and others. This in turn, has a powerful impact on the group, as they are encouraged by what they witness (and in some groups actively take part). It also eases their anxiety and supports potential expression and self healing. What group therapy really holds the potential to do, is to turn ‘blind’ rage (which so often is the root of violence and pain) into ‘seeing rage’ where the client literally ‘sees’ his or her rage, takes it out of the dark place of harm and sees it clearly as reflected back in the eyes and energy of the group. This can be an empowering experience where the client may begin to use anger/rage in a constructive, beautiful way, for the good of humankind as opposed to its destruction. Of course, it is not everyone who is ready to work in this way. This is a gradual process and should never be rushed. Either way, the principle is the same: if the client is supported in taking responsibility for their anger/rage and if these emotions are allowed to emerge from the place of no light – where darkness and confusion reign – in a safe supportive setting, this potentially violent, harmful force can be transformed into a grounded reality of strength that supports justice, truth and goodness.
I referred earlier to a darker force in some beings, an intentional darker force that desires to do harm. This is quite distinct from the harm we may do to each other as a result of our own ignorance, confusion and raw woundedness. The key here is that we recognise our faults and are willing to make amends. Many people end up in therapy for this very reason. This is very different to the being (who may arrive for therapy) who carries a conscious/unconscious desire to do harm, destroy, undermine and bring about suffering. I am not saying that these particular people do not need help, what I am saying is we need to trust our intuition and gut feelings when we sense this malevolence in another person. As therapists we need to be clear exactly who and what we are opening ourselves up to. For example, there are some people I will not engage in ‘anger work’ simply because they do not possess enough ‘adult self’ to sustain such work. However, there are others still whom I instinctively avoid working with because I sense (and have only recently begun to trust this) their desire to harm myself or others. This is radically different to transference and projection. This is the person who refuses to take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, intentions and actions. Their abuse of anger/rage can wreak havoc in group therapy. I believe not enough is known about this in the therapy world – we need to furnish ourselves with more information around self and group protection from these sinister energies. I have often been the fool who rushed in where the angel feared to tread and I’ve been hurt!! However, thanks to some wonderful colleagues and friends I am gradually learning to recognise the need to protect myself.
To conclude, I would like to explore briefly what may lie beneath the energy of rage and anger. As important as these powerful forces are in their own right, it is not uncommon to discover – beneath them or behind them – that there lies oceans of deep hurt, sorrow and sadness… This is often what clients arc defending against. In the same way that global conflict and violence is fraught with intransigence justified by altruistic motives. Could you imagine, for example, world leaders experiencing an unprecedented injection of humility and compassion? We might witness a universal outpouring of sadness, sorrow and desire for forgiveness which could dissolve in its wake, the need for war, genocide and other expressions of anger/rage. It is my belief that working through these emotions opens the door to the softer, sweeter scent of sorrow and sadness. These feelings often precipitate the healing warmth of mercy, compassion and redemption. It is said that the group is a microcosm of society, if this is so, we as therapists, are in an extremely advantageous position to affect positive change. In a mysterious yet totally understandable way the beckoning light of freedom and transformation can seem blinding and unbearable in relation to the darkness and solitude of self-doubt and self-hatred. I would like to acknowledge how excruciatingly painful it can be, to accept love and support, in that place within us where we feel most undesirable - yet crave most to be desired. To know love at this depth, is to know meaning of spirituality is to know the true meaning of spirituality.
The words of poet and songwriter Rickie Lee Jones grasp beautifully what I am trying to describe here:
Running From Mercy “Little acts of kindness Little words of love Make our earthly home, like heaven above Ant there is no sorrow heaven cannot heal Abide within, no cross and no crown Running from mercy, healing and cloy Swimming our sleep down oceans of joy Die in the arms of natural life Waken our happiness, drowning in light…” (Rickie Lee Jones, 1993)
Gray, David, “Let the Truth Sting” from the album A Century Ends, VC Records, 1993.
Indigo Girls, “Closer to Fine” from the album Four, Five, Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 1995.
Jones, Rickie Lee, “Running From Mercy” from the album Traffic From Paradise, Geffen Records, 1993.
Jimmy Judge is a psychotherapist working at the Rutland Centre.