'When hidden, anger becomes a corrosive poison. When honestly expressed, friendship can flourish'

During an initial assessment with a man who has come to therapy to sort out "relationship problems", I realise I am feeling uneasy about something. It begins to crystallise. He smiles too often in a slightly over-anxious way yet his eyes remain quite cold and inexpressive. After a few more sessions, it becomes clear that this discrepancy between what he wants to tell the world about himself and what his body is actually revealing runs like a seam through his everyday life, and lies at the root of his difficulties. He overstrains to come across as a gentle, easy-going sort of chap who gets along with everyone. But every now and again this persona snaps and another side splutters out - an aggressive, rather bitter side full of complaint about various people and situations in his world. When this happens there is no smiling, just a very angry young man.

During an initial assessment with a man who has come to therapy to sort out "relationship problems", I realise I am feeling uneasy about something. It begins to crystallise. He smiles too often in a slightly over-anxious way yet his eyes remain quite cold and inexpressive. After a few more sessions, it becomes clear that this discrepancy between what he wants to tell the world about himself and what his body is actually revealing runs like a seam through his everyday life, and lies at the root of his difficulties. He overstrains to come across as a gentle, easy-going sort of chap who gets along with everyone. But every now and again this persona snaps and another side splutters out - an aggressive, rather bitter side full of complaint about various people and situations in his world. When this happens there is no smiling, just a very angry young man.

In its pure form, anger is a purposeful, constructive emotion that drives many struggles to make the world a more just and better place. Yet both within and outside of the consulting room, anger is rarely shown and used in any such pure and appropriate form. All too often anger is muddled up with fear, held back and pushed down because of its discomfort. All too often the person displaying an aggressive mood denies they are feeling angry at all. It's not part of who they like to think they are. All too often it is repressed for so long that when it eventually resurfaces it has shape-changed into headaches, nightmares, irritability, moodiness and anxiety.

The young man above was surprised when I commented on his anger. He repeated the word slowly as if learning a new language, which in a way he was. Like many people he had grown up with the message that anger was a bad thing. Any display of it was greeted with disapproval, so he gradually learned to usher it away and replace it with a smiling face in order to receive approval and love. After a while he mastered the art of hiding anger even from himself. When it erupted, usually when he was fatigued, or had had a drink, or was alone and the "nice" mask was off, he put the discomfort down to strain or stress, but never to anger.

Analysis is very much about lifting the lid on Pandora's box and looking at what has been rejected and neglected. Often a lot of strong feeling comes whooshing out. It has become something of a caricature that the therapeutic process causes a backlash of infantile angers and grievances to be released upon the world. In actual fact the opposite should be true. Analysis is not about giving someone carte blanche to dump previously squirrelled-away feelings upon family and friends. Analysis is about becoming aware of denied, often out-of-date emotions that are getting in the way of current health and lancing them rather than brooding upon them. It is about accepting who we really are and what we are really feeling so that we can stop giving out mixed messages to both ourselves and those around us.

In a poem by William Blake entitled A Poison Tree, he brilliantly describes the difference between clearly and cleanly expressing righteous anger, and the hiding of it behind "smiles and soft deceitful wiles". When hidden, it becomes a corrosive poison, destructive of relationships. When honestly expressed, friendship can flourish:

I was angry with my friend: I told my

wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe: I told it not,

my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears, night and

morning with my tears.

And I sunned it with smiles, and with

soft deceitful wiles.

The young man above was having difficulty in relationships because of just such a poison. Sunning friendships with smiles, he never gave honest vent to difficulties and discrepancies because he was afraid of any personal rejection that might ensue. Because of this relationships felt unreal, estranging, and were often short-lived.

The same pattern spilled over into his work life. Although highly gifted he had never developed the authority needed for his talents to be realised because deep down he was always afraid that being assertive would offend others.

What he needed to learn was to be unafraid of both feeling and expressing anger. His passive-aggressive stance which had been poisoning relationships and stunting his work potential needed to be shifted towards a more positive capacity for self-assertion. Achieving this would change both work and personal relationships. It would also rid him of the discrepancy between his smiles and his inexpressive eyes.

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the above clinical material refers to specific cases

Comments