Pat, an attractive woman is her early fifties, is angry, angry, angry! Her husband of over twenty years had an affair. In the midst of an ugly divorce she discovered that he had been unfaithful with many women throughout their marriage. Good reason to be angry. Except that they have now been divorced for five years and Pat is as angry today as she was the day she discovered his infidelity.
“My daughters don’t even want to talk to me anymore. When they see it’s me they just don’t pick up! They say they’re sick and tired of listening to it. Who else am I supposed to talk to? My friends are sick of me too. I don’t get it. What do they mean I should be over it already? Why should I be over it? What would make me get over it?”
“Actually that’s a good question, Pat, what would make you get over it?”
“When he drops dead! Or gets some horrible disease. Or loses all his money. But none of those things will happen. I’ll be dead before him. He could never suffer enough!”
“He could never suffer enough to what?”
“To make me happy. To get me my revenge. To make him feel the hurt that I felt.”
“Do you still feel that hurt, Pat?”
“What do you mean? Of course!”
“Well, you’re certainly still very angry, but I wonder if you do still feel the hurt I’m sure you did feel, or if you let yourself feel the hurt even five or six years ago.”
“Do you mean do I cry myself to sleep? No, I don’t cry myself to sleep anymore. I wouldn’t give the bastard the satisfaction.”
“Did you cry yourself to sleep when you first found out?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. Why do you keep asking me all these questions?”
“Your anger takes so, so much of your energy, Pat, so much of your focus, that I wonder if it’s partly a defense, a defense against all the pain and humiliation and powerlessness you felt. I wonder if your anger helps you to feel more powerful, but also keeps you trapped with your ex-husband forever.”
“Damn right I don’t want to feel powerless. I don’t want to feel powerless ever again in my life. That jerk humiliated me in front of everyone. I want him to pay – and I don’t mean just monetarily.
“At this point, Pat, I’d say your anger is hurting you much more than your ex-husband. It’s eating you up. And, as you said, it’s driving people away from you.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I can’t tell you what you should do, Pat, but I think being willing to look at some of the feelings you have underneath your anger – like hurt and powerlessness – might really be helpful to you.”
“Not until I get my revenge!”
“But you already said that you don’t think you’re going to get your revenge, so why would you doom yourself to anger and misery for the rest of your life?”
“I want him to suffer. I want him to suffer like I suffered.”
Much to my surprise, an image of my husband lying in his hospital bed shortly before he went into hospice, flashes through my mind. “Pat,” I ask, “Did you really, really love your husband?”
“Why did you ask me that?” she says less stridently.
“I don’t know. I thought if you really loved your husband, perhaps we could focus on that love and maybe that would bring us closer to your hurt, maybe that would help us to break through some of your defensive anger.”
She lowers her head and mumbles, “Yes, I really loved my husband. I thought we had a great marriage.” After a brief pause she shifts back again, “Ha! That’s a joke! The bastard was screwing around on me forever!”
“Pat, you know for a moment you allowed yourself to feel your sad, hurt, loving feelings. I know it’s hard for you to stay there, but I do think that’s where we need to go. You need to be able to move on in your life and you can’t do that while you’re tied to your ex with your anger and desire for revenge.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I want to do it.”
“Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what develops.”
This is a great example of why more than "anger management" is needed for many people. Anger management techniques are helpful, but so often I hear people suggesting it without considering the other, underlying emotions that are hidden behind the anger. I'm planning to share this example with my students!
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