Shelby* lay on my couch and grabbed at her midsection. "Look at this," she said, her voice filled with a violent disgust. "I hate myself. I really HATE my body."
"I can see you're really angry," I told her.
"Yeah, I'm mad that I let myself go like this." She jabbed a finger into her stomach, grimacing.
I asked Shelby to imagine she couldn't be mad at herself or anything to do with her weight or calories. What would she be mad about? Who might she be mad at?
Shelby gave it some thought. After a few moments she sighed, her arms falling to the side, and her self-directed disgust also seemed to fall away. She began telling me about her husband, who made work more important than their relationship. He had an affair with a co-worker the previous year.
Shelby turned the anger she felt towards her husband on herself, attacking herself instead of him. She could change herself, she reasoned, but she could not control her husband. "It is what it is," she finally said. "I can't change him, so what's the point of staying mad at him?"
I suggested that her feelings were there no matter what, and that they needed her attention. Instead of taking her anger out on herself, she needed to express it.
"How?" asked Shelby. "How do I do that?"
It's a good question, and one I hear a lot. Shelby had grown up in a family in which anger was not expressed at all. Her feelings were labeled "dramatic" and "ridiculous" and she was accused of being "over sensitive" whenever she voiced any upset feelings. As a result, Shelby learned to hide her emotions from others, yet she also began taking them out on herself.
The following is designed to help give expression to anger. The first sentence is a relatively mild expression along the anger continuum, and the tenth sentence is an intense expression. Finish the sentences, and give voice to your anger.
GIVE ANGER A VOICE
(but don’t turn it on yourself)
1. I’m exasperated (because/when/that):
ie, “I’m exasperated when I ask my kids to clean up after themselves and they never do it.”
2. I’m aggravated:
3. I’m frustrated:
4. I’m annoyed:
5. I’m irritated:
6. I resent:
7. I’m angry:
8. I’m furious:
9. I’m incensed:
10. I’m enraged:
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*Names and situations do not reflect the identities and experiences of actual clients