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  • Fiona Owen

Working With Anger (Gestalt Therapy)

An exert from the book by John Bernard Harris, available from Manchester Gestalt Centre. The Second Edition is now available (September 2001)Click here for Publications Page.




Chapter One

What is Anger?


"...in any biological, psychological or sociological investigation whatever, we must start from the interacting of the organism and its environment." [Perls, Hefferline & Goodman 1973 p. 274]


All human experience and action is the product of a dynamic relationship between persons and their environment. As a human being I have ongoing needs and wants that I try to meet through this continual 'person-environment' interaction. Here are three examples of what I am talking about.


(i) On a hot day, I feel thirsty, and get a drink of water. I drink it gratefully, and get on with my work.

(ii) Spending Christmas on my own I begin to feel lonely, and call up a friend on the telephone. We talk for a while, then, feeling better, I say 'good bye' and decide to go down to the pub.

(iii) Whilst I am driving my car to work another driver cuts in front of me on the road, and I wind down the window and shout at him. He doesn't hear, but I feel a bit better, and drive on.


These everyday events remind us how closely I am linked to my surroundings, so that my environment affects me and I affect it in turn, in a continuous mutual 'shaping'. In Gestalt, we call the system of 'person-interacting-with-environment' the organism-environment field.

Fritz Perls described the organism-environment field thus:

"No individual is self-sufficient; the individual can exist only in an environmental field. The individual is inevitably, at every moment, a part of some field. His behaviour is a function of the total field which includes both him and his environment. The nature of the relationship between him and his environment determines the human being's behaviour...The environment does not create the individual, nor does the individual create the environment...Each is what it is, each has its own particular character, because of its relationship to the other and the whole." [Perls (1976), p.81: my italics]


We must therefore begin our study of anger by acknowledging it as a function of the organism-environment field. When we talk about anger, we are not just talking about 'subjective feelings', but of a complex person-environment interaction which finds its meaning, its origin and its resolution in the environment as well as in ourselves and specifically in the interaction between the two. Anger also involves all our human faculties: when we are angry it not only stirs our feelings, but affects the way we perceive, think and act in the world.



The Vocabulary of Anger

Anger is a complex and multi-faceted emotion, and this is reflected in the way in which we use the concept in everyday life. In discourse about anger, for example, we have the advantage of a rich vocabulary with which to describe it: we talk of explosions and outbursts, of tempers and furies, of simmering resentments and seething rages. (You might pause here to brainstorm your own list of 'anger-words').


We use these words to express different kinds and gradations of anger, both in terms of feelings and behaviour. One metaphor we use is that of heat and cold. At the 'cool' end of the continuum we are mildly irritated or annoyed, and at the 'hot' end we are 'boiling' with rage. We can find words to describe every conceivable shade of anger, and it is an interesting exercise to try to list them all.


The word 'shade' is appropriate here, since we often describe our temper by painting it in rich colours:

"In red anger, awareness is somewhat confused. In white fury it is often very sharp, when, stifling all bodily appetite it yet draws on the vividness of imagery that belongs to the delayed appetite, as the self confronts the object to annihilate it. In purple or congested rage the self is bursting with its frustrated impulses and is confused indeed. In black wrath, or hatred, the self has begun to destroy itself in the interests of its hostile aim; it no longer sees the reality but only its own ideas." [Perls, Hefferline & Goodman 1973 p.398]


Our Everyday Concept of Anger

There are three strands to the way we conceive of anger in everyday life [Kenny 1963 p.67].

First, is the idea of environmental situations which provoke anger - annoying or enraging circumstances. Having another motorist cut in front of me in a dangerous manner is one of these: anger is a natural response to this dangerous manoeuvre.

Next, are the signs and symptoms of anger: the feelings and bodily reactions that I experience in myself and observe in others; so when I am furious at the bad manners of the other motorist I turn red, clench my fists and shake with rage.

Finally, there is anger-behaviour - what I typically do when I'm angry, such as winding down the car window and shouting, or slamming the car door when I get out.

These three strands provide the basis for our use of the concept of anger from day to day. Generally, when someone is angry all three of these elements are present; but not always. I might be furiously angry, yet because I am also very scared, disguise this fact by controlling myself.


Object and Cause

Like other emotions (but unlike other feelings and sensations) episodes of anger are related to the environment in two distinct ways: they have an object and a cause. The cause of anger is the environmental circumstance that originally produced it; the object of anger is any thing or person that I take that anger out on. To illustrate this, suppose that when I reach home after the incident on the road, I lose my temper and shout at my partner for no particular reason. The motorist who 'cut me up' is the cause of my rage; but my partner is the object. (Of course, if it had stopped the car and confronted the motorist, the cause and object of my anger would have coincided.)


Understanding this distinction has great relevance in a therapeutic context. A colleague told me that it helped her make sense of her puzzlement as a child at her mother's anger, which was often directed at her, though she seldom knew what she had done to provoke it. She now realised that though she was often the object of her mother's anger, she was almost never the cause of it; hence her confusion. Other things 'made' her mother angry, but she bore the brunt of it, probably because she was the closest and safest target available. 'Displacing' or 'dumping' anger in this way is, regrettably, very common and all of us at some time are both perpetrators and victims of this phenomenon.

I finish this chapter with a delightful quote which illustrates this point from no less an authority than Aristotle - just to demonstrate that our interest in and knowledge of these matters is more ancient than we realise:

"It is easy to fly into a passion - anyone can do that - but to be angry with the right person to the right extent and with the right object and in the right way - that is not easy, and it is not everyone who can do it."


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Chapter Three

Social and Cultural Aspects of Anger


"Parents and society try in various ways to suppress angry behaviour. Children are usually punished for outbursts of anger. In adults, even the slightest display of anger may be frowned upon as socially disapproved behaviour." [Morgan 1961]



Imagine a world in which there was no emotional repression or self-control, in which we always feel and act out all our emotions fully, all the time. It becomes obvious if we do this that if our caveman ancestors had not found ways to limit their spontaneous and totally uninhibited expressions of an emotion such as anger we would not have survived as a species. We are first and foremost a social species, who need one another in order to live; and because we spend much of our time in each others company we have evolved a wide variety of cultural, social and psychological mechanisms to regulate not only our behaviour, but also our feelings. So the expression of anger in social settings has developed as the subject of many social rules and norms which we teach to our children as part of a general socialisation process about feelings and their expression.



The details of the etiquette of anger and other emotions will vary from culture to culture. We all know that the ways in which we learn to express anger are to some extent culturally determined; the contrast between the Anglo-Saxon 'stiff upper lip' and Latin expressiveness is familiar. But the detailed norms and rules will also vary from community to community and from family to family.


In the end, it is the family which is the primary tool of the socialisation process. We learn from our parents' example what anger is, and what it looks like; when - if ever - it is acceptable to feel or show anger, and to whom. Each family sets a different example. In some, anger may be accepted as natural and normal. In others it is forbidden, and expressions of it are punished. Or - and this is more confusing to the child - it happens, but is never acknowledged or commented upon. Some people in the family may be 'allowed' to be angry and not others - perhaps adults and not children; or men and not women. Sometimes the messages contradict one another, leaving us just plain confused.

What we learn depends on our role models, and as we know the lessons are not always helpful in terms of developing healthy adult social functioning; Later, I will look more closely at some of the common 'script' messages we take on as children, and look at how they can be re-written as part of the therapeutic process. (You might like to pause at this point and try to identify some of the rules and customs about expressing anger which existed in your own family.)


The socialising process also naturally reflects the main divisions existing in any particular society. Take social class: working-class norms will often be different to those of the middle-class. As a child I was brought up to be polite and well-behaved and well-controlled, and showing anger publicly or noisily was simply not acceptable. I was both envious and frightened of the 'poor' children at school, who seemed to have fewer inhibitions in this respect; and I grew up into an adult who found expressing 'not nice' emotions such as anger difficult.


Gender Differences

In our society, gender differences in regard to anger and its expression are particularly marked. For instance: it is not generally acceptable for little girls to have and express angry feelings ("I was taught to be ladylike at all times", as one woman told me) and this cultural conditioning has a powerful effect on women's lives.

Men, in contrast, are generally expected to be angry when they don't get their needs met, and to express this in noisy, forceful and even violent ways. This stereotyping has an equally powerful restricting influence on them.


Anger as a Response to Social Injustice

Anger arises naturally in situations in which we feel powerless or afraid, and the actions that our angry feelings stir often represent an attempt to regain the initiative. This is true whether we are oppressed by individuals or by an unjust social system. So the homeless and hungry man in the Social Security office who is refused money feels desperate and becomes angry, and may even attempt to vent his anger on the nearest available target: the clerk. Many public service offices have become increasingly fortified to protect staff from just such 'frustration' attacks.


In any society - and in some more than others - anger may arise from the frustration and despair of being oppressed by the system, and expresses feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.


Anger can also be a response to more general social constraints. Here, Sandra Butler and Claire Wintram relate it directly to the role of women in society:

"As women begin to elaborate explanations for events and assign causes which do not involve self-blame...they inevitably get in touch with an affective state which is given a bad press in white western culture - anger. Women feel angry out of disappointment and betrayal. Anger out of giving more than they receive. Anger and the inability to move away from poverty and violence. Anger at the lack of recognition, respect and thoughtfulness they receive. Anger over the loss of happiness that they had hoped for." [Butler & Wintram 1991 p.146]



To summarise: how we experience and express anger and other emotions is greatly affected by socio-cultural conditioning. As infants and young children, we learn what is acceptable to our parents and what forbidden, and our attitudes are refined and developed as we grow up and come under the influence of teachers and peers. Often the messages are contradictory, so that we do not know what to feel or think. On the one hand we are naturally stirred to anger when frustrated or mistreated; on the other, we are socially restricted in its expression. This creates a tension which we all feel in our lives, and it is because of this tension that many people engaged in therapy will find themselves at some time 'working on their anger'.

The social side of anger is part of our holistic perspective, and a powerful influence in determining how we feel and think about anger. In the next chapter, I begin the task of overcoming some of the negative effects of our social conditioning around anger by developing the theme of the positive side of anger.


Before moving on, I would like to end this chapter with some 'food for thought' in the form of a quotation on the theme of 'anger and culture' from the acute social commentator Christopher Lasch:

"Twentieth century peoples have erected so many psychological barriers against strong emotion, and have invested those defences with so much of the energy derived from forbidden impulse, that they can no longer remember what it feels like to be inundated by desire. They tend, rather, to be consumed with rage, which arises from defenses against desire and gives rise in turn to defenses against rage itself. Outwardly bland, submissive and sociable, they seethe with an inner anger for which a dense, overpopulated, bureaucratic society can find no outlet." [Lasch 1979, p. 40]



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Chapter Four

The Positive Side of Anger


In the previous chapter, we quoted the views of Butler and Wintram on women and anger. These writers encourage women to see anger as "...an energy force which gives women the strength to sustain changes in their lives." bid p.146]. Another feminist writer attempting to positively reframe anger is Anne Dickson. For her, anger is the most misunderstood of all our emotions:

"Whereas love is regarded as beautiful and enhancing, anger is considered as ugly and degrading. We associate anger with the baser side of human nature, which is dark, sinister and threatening: a side we would rather not see or talk about. We bottle it up, turn a blind eye, sit on it or swallow it. We control angry feelings in whatever way we can, and we encourage others to do the same." [Dickson (1982) p.70]


Dickson wants us to identify another kind of anger. She says of it:

"You may not be aware of it as a force inside you but you will probably feel its effects. It provides the impetus to learn new skills...it pushes to express yourself in writing or singing or painting; it can push you on in a career or to some goal that you see as fulfilling; because of it you can survive crises and disasters and illness...This anger, which I call root anger, has, at its source, the basic you, the person under all the roles and responsibilities you assume in your life." bid p.71-2]


Root anger taps into our natural life force; it is a source of energy and determination; the force that helps us to find and be ourselves, regardless of the obstacles that unkind fate places in our way. This kind of anger helps us to feel and act powerfully and assertively and is a source of creativity rather than destruction. It represents the positive side of anger.



Anger and Aggression

Why is it so difficult for us to identify this positive, life-enhancing aspect of anger? One reason is the association - even equation - of anger and aggression. Now the experience of many - especially women - is that anger and violence go together. But aggression is not the same as violence. Gestalt therapy has always taken a more positive attitude to human aggression, seeing it as a natural and necessary part of our interaction with the environment. Fritz Perls' first book, a revision of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, was called Ego, Hunger and Aggression, and, according to Petruska Clarkson, in this work:

"Perls conceptualised aggression in terms of its original root of 'to reach out', and wished to re-establish its true biological function (which is not senseless discharge) but rather application of one's will to bring about relevant changes in one's environment." [Clarkson (1989) p.10]


In this work, Perls was developing the analogy between how we eat and how we live our lives generally. He believed that unless I 'aggress' ('bite') on my environment in an active way, and am prepared to 'chew over' what I take in from it, then I cannot extract the nourishment that I need. Eating shows this process clearly and literally: I use my teeth (potentially formidable weapons) to bite off and then chew on my food so that I can swallow and eventually digest it.

This process of assimilation goes on all the time, and in all sorts of ways. So when you read this book you need to (metaphorically!) chew over what I say and decide for yourself what is useful and nourishing for your intellectual development, and what you wish to reject. Undigested ideas are as harmful to the mind as undigested food is to the stomach.

On this view, aggression is a natural and wholly necessary human function, and not a bad thing in itself: though of course it can be used badly. Aggression is part of our armoury of survival skills.



Anger as a Healing Force

When we are ill, especially if our illness is serious or life-threatening, anger can be part of the healing process. It can help us to take charge of our lives and our treatment. On a visit to the Bristol Cancer Clinic some time ago, I heard a member of staff say that for many cancer-sufferers the point at which they started to heal themselves was when they allowed themselves to feel angry at their illness and what it was doing to them. Anger can fuel a determination which may not prevent us dying, but can help us to live as well as possible for as long as we can. That is as much as any of us can hope for.


Psychological healing can also be enhanced by the expression of anger. This is especially true when we are working with clients who are the victims of physical and sexual abuse. As indicated earlier, anger does not arise from nothing, but is a response to environmental threat. Children who are abused are therefore liable to feel anger at what is being done to them, but may not be able to express this anger at the time. Helping people to get in touch with angry feelings against a perpetrator is often an important part of the healing process that therapy can support and encourage.



Anger as a Source of Power

One important theme of the last two chapters is that our own and our client's anger always has an individual and a social context, and this varies from person to person. We are often socialised into seeing anger as 'a bad thing', and it is true that in many cases people use their anger as a way of oppressing and hurting others. But we should remember that there is a distinction between feeling angry, which we may not be able to help, and acting on the basis of that feeling which we can help. We are, in this sense, responsible for our actions, but not our feelings. [For further discussion see Ap-pendix Two.]


For those who have been the victims of abuse or mistreatment in their families, or of oppression in society, getting angry about what has been done to you can be the first step towards mobilizing ourselves to fight the wrong or injustice. It is a way of being powerful, of making sure that we are safe, of getting our rights, of getting what we want in a way that still respects others.


If the cause of our anger is in the past, then getting angry may, as we have seen, be part of the healing process. Recognising and acknowledging that we have been abused and allowing ourselves to feel whatever we feel about it cannot change the past; but it can transform the way we view it and our image of ourselves in the present. We become proud survivors, rather than helpless victims.


Therapists, who have become used to personalising human behaviour, and seeing everything in terms of 'presenting problems' or 'symptoms' should never ignore the social and moral context of their client's anger. Often, our clients have every right to be angry about what has happened to them, and part of our role is to help them to see this, and even to share with them our own angry feelings at what we hear, so that they can begin to experience their anger not as a problem, but as a part of the solution. There is much injustice and cruelty in the world and we cannot hide forever behind the 'neutral' stance of the therapist, but should join with our colleagues and clients to fight against it wherever and whenever we can.



Extracted from Working with Anger in Therapy - A Gestalt Approach , by John Bernard Harris, published by MGC, approx. 80 pp.

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