Saturday, July 9, 2011

Anger and forgiveness in psychotherapy

On occasion there is the need for some anger expression in therapy. A recent example brought this to the fore.

A woman in her 50s had a life time of being ignored by her mother. But to make matters worse her two sisters were often highlighted by her mother at times in front of her. In public the mother may talk about the exploits and successes of her two sisters but never of her. It seems safe to say that there was favouritism in this way.

The woman would at times recount such situations that had occurred many times in her life and often felt anger as she did remember. When this happened it was not long until she would mention that she did not believe that her mother did this on purpose. That she was probably unaware that she was even doing such a thing. And from what I was told I tended to agree with her. In addition her mother was now quite elderly and frail and the client would say that how could she be angry at such an elderly person. Her goal was simply to forgive her mother for the mistreatment that she had received over the years in the way described above. However this meant she was directly avoiding being angry. Unfortunately this kept reappearing, her anger at her mother kept resurfacing.

As a therapist I am all in favour of the idea of forgiveness. I think it is a very wise psychological goal to aim for. Forgiving ones parents for that they did or forgiving ones abuser for the abuse received is a wise psychological goal. However sometimes this is the situation:

Anger and forgiveness

At times in order to get from the hurt to the forgiveness you have to go through a period of anger. If it is only a minor transgression then one does not have to. If it was significant especially at a young age and especially when over a period of time then one cannot go straight from the hurt to the forgiveness. They have to go through a period of anger.

This is where a lot of people get stuck, in one of two ways. Firstly, as in the case cited above the person is uncomfortable with anger and finds it difficult to go through that stage. They try all kinds of ways to avoid it and the example above shows some of the rationalisations that people will come up with in order to do that. Secondly, the other individual does not avoid it but gets stuck in it. This is not an uncommon scenario to come across in therapy. Some one who is chronically angry at their abuser. Quite often they never see their abuser now or the abuser may even be dead. The client may be carrying around a sack of anger on their back towards some one who died years ago. What does that achieve, and more importantly who suffers from the sack of anger - certainly not the dead person.

Tooth table
Some find forgiving their abuser this hard to do.

If the person does successfully transverse the anger then they are well on their way to achieving a sense of forgiveness. Once done, their life in the here and now is more pleasant and they are capable of more staisfying relationships in their current world. Indeed their current relationships are much less likely to be damaged by such unresolved past events.

However the difficult part for the therapist is to judge how long the angry period is meant to last. This is not an easy thing to gauge. As is often the case in therapy it is usually best to leave it up to the client and they will tell you in one way or another. However this is not always the case. For instance it is highly likely that the client described above will be saying she is ready to pass the angry stage before she is.

Tiger tail
Living in the here and now. Can't enjoy this if your head is stuck in the past.

But she may tell the therapist in another way. Over time one will notice that she spontaneously brings up the issue of anger at mother less and less. When this happens she is ready to begin the forgiveness work and the therapist starts that phase of therapy.



  1. Do you suppose those steps on your timeline could happen in reverse sequence?

  2. I am not too sure how that could happen Crocus. Are you meaning the forgiveness before the anger?


  3. Here’s a scenario I had in mind. A person is abused by his dad and blames himself because his dad always tells him he deserves it. He accepts the abuse because it’s his own fault and he knows it’s temporary ( he’ll grow up and move out). Then he learns his grandfather beat his dad all the time when he was growing up, so he feels sorry for him and thinks this probably has a lot to do with why his dad beats him. The person grows up and has kids of his own, doesn’t beat his kids, and realizes his dad was at fault – now he’s mad at his father for all the suffering he caused him. In the end, he’s sad he lied so many times to protect his father because that allowed the abuse to go on.

  4. Hello Crocus,
    I understand what you are saying now. But i would say the process is still the same. The persons FC is still going to be angry at his father because he got beaten. I see the person used lots of rationalizations to avoid the anger but it will still be there and I hope he gets to it at some point. Then he is in a position to move on.


  5. When I first went to therapy and discussed many things that had transpired during my childhood the therapist said to me he could not believe that I was not angry about it all.

    It just seemed pointless to be angry because it was anger I was exposed to all the time for half my life. I did not want to cave into that negative thought process.

    I am not sure what feelings I have about it all still. Maybe acceptance. Which is kind of close enough to some sort of peaceful.

  6. You raise a good point Linda,

    One that there is some argument about. Does there have to be an angry reaction to abuse? To my mind in the great majority of instances yes there would be. However I do acknowledge there are significant natural inborn temperament differences in relation to this. Some people are born to respond angrily to what they percieve as injustice whilst others are much less so.

    Thus one should expect considerable differences in this way but there needs to be some level of anger at some point.

    Are there some with no inborn angry response?

    A good question. I would think so but this would be a small if not very small group in size. But this is simply theroretical guess work on my behalf.


  7. I might still be waiting for the angry bit to develop.

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