I used to work at a residential setting for teenagers where most of the clients I was working with were struggling with multiple problems and not wanting to be living there, let alone needing to meet with a therapist weekly. Needless to say, most of them could be downright mean to me at times. I was pleasantly surprised when I started to work with one teen boy who not only wanted to complete the programme, he was super pleasant and polite most of the time.
Then one day it happened. I had to give him the disappointing news that his parole officer would not allow him an overnight pass one weekend. He became very angry for the first time since he’d started the programme. At this point, most people would cringe, respond back with more anger, or be confused. However, I was grinning inside because this meant we were getting somewhere with the treatment.
Pleasant and unpleasant emotions
Before I explain why getting angry can actually be a good thing when you’re in counselling, let me back up talk about emotions. Emotions as feelings we experience that inform us if we’d like to continue or avoid these experiences in the future. We tend to categorise these into ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’ feelings. When we experience ‘pleasant’ emotions, this lets us know we’d like to continue to experience these feelings so we tend to repeat the behaviours and choices we made to obtain that emotion. When we experience ‘unpleasant’ emotions, we try to avoid these by either ignoring the events that led to this experience, or changing our behaviours. However, it can be difficult to change or repeat our choices if we aren’t tuned in to how we got there in the first place.
Mindfulness (or tuning in)
Becoming aware of our experiences, or tuning in to our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, we can notice patterns that lead to the same or similar outcomes. Mindfulness is a concept often discussed in counselling as a practice to help one calm down and de-stress. It is also a useful strategy to help one gain insight to how their thoughts, feelings and behaviours connect and relate to their main reason for going to counselling in the first place. To practise mindfulness, one just has to notice, without judgement, their experience. That’s it! There are several meditative and mindful practices out there that can help you focus your skill in this area.
What’s all the excitement about anger?
Anger is often experienced as an ‘unpleasant’ emotion, meaning it is something we don’t typically enjoy feeling. This is why so many people either ignore or avoid anger. However, anger can be a great tool to helping you check in because it is often a protective emotion. In counselling, we refer to anger as a secondary emotion, meaning it occurs following an initial, or primary emotion. The concept is that the primary emotion, which is first felt, is often so intense, or so uncomfortable, anger takes over to protect us from an even more unpleasant emotion.
So is anger as a good thing?
When your start getting angry, it means you are starting to feel, or experience an emotion people often like to ignore. However, by ignoring this emotion, it has often led to negative thought patterns, problem behaviours, or some other reason you may be hoping counselling can help. Once you allow yourself to experience anger in a healthy way, you and your therapist can work together to address the underlying difficult emotions, and what they may be trying to tell you about your concerns.
Mallory Grimste is a teen mental health therapist with a counselling practice in Woodbridge, CT.