Sad, or Mad?

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I’ve said before that my blog posts usually reflect what I’m currently reading; many times re-reading. And, my reading often aligns with the issues clients bring into therapy. As you read through this post, it should not be hard to guess the kinds of issues I’ve been addressing lately with clients.

In her book The Good Divorce (1994)—see July, 2013 blog post—professor and sociologist Constance Ahrons, PhD, talks about the negative effects of persistent anger in divorced couples. In a section she dubs “Acrimony Takes Its Toll”, Ahrons writes:

“There is no way to talk about divorce without talking about anger. It’s a universal reaction and it’s inevitable. But that doesn’t mean you should feel free to express your anger without restraint. If you throw more fuel on the inner fires, they’ll flare higher and higher and you’ll be stuck with the damage. When we focus on our rage, we stifle our ability to get on with life.

(In my research) those who stayed angry…stayed mired in the past instead of moving on to the present….In a real sense, they were actually more attached to their exspouses than were cooperative (exspouses). The ex became the target of any situation that created anger. Every time they felt hurt, they blamed it on their ex. ‘If it weren’t for the divorce, I wouldn’t have to date, or work, or take care of myself.’ Bad day? It was their exspouse’s fault. Messy apartment? Burned dinner? Broken zipper? Child failing at school? The holder of injustices—or the hostility junkie—needs to place blame on something tangible. The ex is an easy target, a habitual target, even a socially sanctioned target.

Continued, unrelenting hostility and anger are a clear indication that the losses that are an inevitable part of any divorce haven’t been mourned. Rage wards off not only the fears of facing sadness but ultimately the sadness itself. What almost always lies beneath rage is grief. If the loss of one’s dreams was allowed to surface, was felt and accepted, the rage would dissipate and life would go on. For many people, maintaining the continuing anger acts as a defensive shield….

(For example) Julie, the exwife of Paul, fifty-one….had to deal with the loss of her marriage and her terror at finding herself alone. She got seriously depressed. ‘The next few months were hell. I didn’t know what was happening to me. There was nothing I wanted to do. I lost any interest in how I looked and spent days just going from the bed to the couch and back, not even bothering to get dressed. I felt old, ugly, and utterly alone.’

With the help of a therapist, Julie mourned not only her relationship with Paul, but also her many losses. She grieved about ending her time as a wife and as part of a couple. Other role losses were more developmental. She mourned her youth, and her children leaving home. As she grieved she found new interests, new joys in life. Her depression resolved; she and Paul were then able to resume a cordial, sometimes friendly, relationship.

Julie had gone through two of the most common reactions to being left, and discovered that where anger is mobilizing, depression is paralyzing. Anger often masks depression, and when angry feelings abate, the depression emerges. In fact, some…couples stay furious as a way to maintain their energy over months or even years postdivorce.”

The point I wish to emphasize from the above excerpt:

“What almost always lies beneath rage is grief. If the loss of one’s dreams was allowed to surface, was felt and accepted, the rage would dissipate and life would go on.”

Thus, a compelling reason for permitting oneself to feel “sad”.

HOWEVER, there are equally compelling reasons for sometimes permitting oneself to feel “mad”.

In his book Why Therapy Works (2016), clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University, Louis Cozolino, PhD writes:

“Rage is an extreme expression of the fight-flight response triggered by a threat to a loved one or an offense against something we hold dear. Rage correlates with surges of adrenaline that lead us to be able to do things we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to….Although rage is usually seen as counterproductive, it can also serve us….Because…rage is so destructive and so many people are sent to therapy for anger management, the idea of using rage constructively almost never comes up. But rage is one of the antidotes to parasympathetic lockup – where fear conditioning keeps people from realizing their anger, assertiveness, and power….

(For example) Sandy came to see me for help in ‘getting his life on track.’ He was in the process of extricating himself from an emotionally and physically abusive marriage that had gone on for a dozen years. Besides his two young daughters, he could not see anything positive that had come from the relationship, and he felt exhausted and demoralized after so many years of hostile criticism, physical attacks, and what he called emotional sabotage. Beyond laying all of the blame on his soon-to-be ex-wife, he also described a pattern of relating to business associates in the same timid, unassertive, and deferential manner as he had with his wife….

As I got to know Sandy, he described a physically and emotionally abusive father who was a constant source of fear until the time he left home for college. He also described his loyalty to his passive and saintly mother, who tried to hold the family together at the expense of her own physical health and emotional well-being. This led Sandy to identify with his mother and adopt…her avoidant behaviors in the face of conflict….

(Because Sandy’s) anger, assertiveness, and power had been inhibited…I wondered whether his (anger) was still accessible. And if so, was it strong enough to counterbalance his parasympathetic inhibition?….I asked Sandy to close his eyes and imagine the following scenario:

On the way home from picking your daughters up at school, you stop for gas. While the car is filling up, the girls ask for a snack, so the three of you walk into the convenience store. As the girls are searching the shelves for snacks, you notice that your seven-year-old, now at the other side of the store, is being grabbed by a man who is trying to pull her out of the store. She calls out ‘Daddy, Daddy!’

Before I even ask Sandy what he is thinking and feeling, I can see the tension in his body as he leans forward, and his eyes well up with tears. I ask him what he is experiencing….What do you feel in your body?….What do you imagine you will do when you get to him?….What if he is stronger and bigger than you?”

(Because this is more of a G-Rated than R-Rated blog post, I’ll spare readers the expletives that Sandy told Dr. Cozolino. Needless to say, Sandy’s anger potential was alive and well!)

Cozolino concludes:

“I told Sandy, ‘This is the (assertive) part of you we need in order to rewire the fear that is stealing your life away from you. You have to take care of yourself like you do for your daughter’….The truth for all of us is that when we are not allowed to be angry as children, we have to bury our anger. But when we bury our anger, we also bury our assertiveness and our power. This may have been what we needed to survive living with an abusive parent, but it is exactly what we need to change once we escape. In order to change, we have to summon the courage to rage against the machine in our head so we can activate our bodies and emotions. An amygdala can be like an overprotective parent whom you have to break away from in order to have a life.”

Because I do so much trauma therapy with clients—whose fight-flight reactions have been inhibited, resulting in an immobilization or “freeze” response–, Cozolino’s words have rung true these past few weeks:

“When we are not allowed to be angry as children—or, even feel our feelings— we have to bury our anger. But when we bury our anger we also bury our assertiveness and our power.”

So, which is it? Sad, or Mad? It’s both – depending on when each is needed.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, Colorado

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