About a month ago I wrote about Erin. I made the points that in the psychological realm much of what hurts is often buried and therefore people don’t usually know what’s wrong with them. I warned about approaching psychotherapy with the idea that you already know your diagnosis or even for certain what the problems are. Also in that entry we touched on resistance, which if you’ve been with me this far you’ll know comes up almost everywhere in psychotherapy. In subsequent sessions with Erin we can see how resistance rears its thorny head again in surprising ways. You may want to review the first posting about her so the rest of this will make sense (click on the link to “Erin”, above).
Remember that we found Erin was hiding anger, resentment, rage beneath her façade of helpless anxiety. This wasn’t conscious, of course; it had to be brought out in session. Erin wasn’t lying, she genuinely believed all she felt was helpless and anxious. The more assertive feelings had been shunted out of consciousness.
In the weeks after the session I discussed in the first entry , Erin continued to realize just how angry and frightened she gets. Regarding the latter, it was particularly useful for her to climb into the depths of that experience. She had told me stories of her parents and moments in which she felt particularly “frozen”. During session we got clearer about just what happens to her in those moments, and she came in very excited one day having realized that her great fear – then, when she was a child, and now, whenever that feeling is again triggered – was a terror “that the world is ending”. Such a feeling is entirely understandable in a very young child, but Erin continued to experience it in the present, triggered by various seemingly unrelated events. Again, don’t forget that at the start of our work all this was out of her awareness; she only knew that she often felt “frozen”, i.e. indecisive, tentative, timid, mousy.
This phenomenon of something triggering an old pain is of course similar to posttraumatic stress: For example the soldier who breaks into a heart pounding cold sweat at the sound of helicopter, or a woman I worked with who similarly panicked when her boyfriend cheerfully said “ciao” at the end of a telephone call because it rocketed her back to childhood experiences of her father abandoning the family. Again, it is important to emphasize that these connections are usually unconscious. It is only when they become fully conscious, fully experienced, and the memories are brought entirely to the surface, that the symptom – the overreaction in the present – diminishes.
But now comes the twist! We thought that Erin hid – resisted – her feelings of anger, resentment, rage, by a retreat into a conscious experience of being timid and helpless. And this is true. However another side to the story emerged in subsequent sessions.
One day Erin was telling me about being “so angry” because her employers “don’t appreciate me, make me do their dirty work, don’t pay me enough…”. You may recall that Erin had been passed over for promotion because of her interpersonal style, and this of course cost her concomitant increases in pay. I sympathized with her anger and she suddenly said “no, I feel like I’m resentful all the time, towards everyone, anticipating their abuse, and then I find reasons to specifically resent whatever person is in front of me.” I suggested that this sounds like the teenager whose anger covers an entirely age-appropriate and understandable host of anxieties about identity, potency, independence, and of course control. Erin enthusiastically agreed and then realized how frightened she was in front of the many different people for whom she felt resentment or even just irritation. She went on to discover as she spoke just how deep that anxiety is and how it even at such times includes that deeper anxiety discussed above – that she is about to be destroyed (“the world is ending”).
So what did we see? In a single person all kinds of angry feelings are buried under a façade of anxiety and helplessness. But then we find those same angry feelings are being used to cover up – to resist – strong anxieties. Feelings of anxiety and helplessness were one moment the surface cover-up of the deeper gold – anger – and the next emerged as the gold beneath the surface anger! What a mess, you say? In some ways it is. But that’s what makes the whole endeavor so interesting.
A last reminder: Don’t forget that every time Erin or any patient makes these discoveries she about what feelings are lurking under the surface – they feel better and function better. You can see that in the many case examples in the website.