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A compassionate approach to understanding anger and rage

    I thought I’d write about anger this month because I’ve just finished reading a really interesting book on these oftenImage of angry person misunderstood emotions.

    How many of us think of anger as a negative emotion?   Perhaps you were raised in a family where expressing anger was frowned upon or perhaps when you have expressed anger at something, you were shamed for doing so?  Sue Parker-Hall author of Anger, Rage and Relationship argues that anger is a positive emotion when allowed its true expression.  As we develop our unique personality, we use anger as a way of trying to maintain boundaries and separate ourselves from our parents or caregivers.  If our anger is taken seriously and responded to in a helpful way, it can set the stage for dealing with challenging situations, decision making and effecting change throughout our lives.

    According to Professor Paul Ekman, in addition to happiness, sadness, surprise, fear and disgust, anger is one of the six primary emotions.  Anger acts like an alarm system warning us that something isn’t right.  Although it helps to keep us safe, many of us have a difficult relationship with anger.  Family and cultural views often mean that anger is seen as a negative emotion.  As we have a natural desire to be liked and approved of, this positive emotion often gets distorted or denied and loses its powerful and helpful function.

    Parker-Hall suggests that rage, on the other hand, develops from an inability to process life’s experiences and develops when we are still babies.  It is an early defence mechanism which we use when our environment is not supportive and when our emotions threaten to overwhelm us.  This unsupportive environment could be in the form of an early relationship which doesn’t meet our needs or perhaps a traumatic event where there was lack of support to help soothe our overwhelming emotions.

    Parker-Hall talks of two types of rage – hot and cold.  She uses a metaphor of a pot to describe both. If you place your feelings in a pot, hot rage will cause the lid to fly off.  Behaviours associated with hot rage include criticism, manipulation, violence and aggression.  With cold rage, the pot lid is firmly held in place, not allowing any of the emotions to be revealed.  Here, behaviours can include withdrawal, indifference, distance and impotence.

    With both anger and rage, Parker-Hall recommends a relational approach to counselling which fits my person-centred roots.  Offering a similar relationship to that which would have been helpful in childhood can help process experiences and feelings or look at how anger might have been denied or distorted.

    Anger in its true form can be reclaimed and rage can be transformed into what Parker-Hall calls ‘adult rage’ which can be used in pro-social way to challenge social issues and make a difference to wider society.

    As I hope is becoming clear from my posts, I am passionate about offering a relationship which is rich in understanding and acceptance.  I choose to work this way because I have a fundamental trust that when we can experience a genuinely empathic and acceptant relationship, there is a natural tendency towards growth.  I believe that if we are offered an environment which is free from threat, we can get back in touch with what we really think, feel and want and when we can do this, it is less likely that we will want someone to tell us what to do because we will have regained the ability to trust that we know what it best for us.


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