By Shane Saenz
Disclaimer: Opinions and some humor below
My whole life, I have been known as “the nice guy.” There’s nothing more pitiful than being called “the nice guy.” Society taught me at a young age that girls don’t date the nice guy- they settle for the nice guy. For starters, there is the saying that never seems to die: “Nice guys finish last.” Although it has been debunked time and time again, it also seems to arise at the sign of any danger- real or imagined. The current political climate seems to suggest that a person who bullies others and creates an image of himself as someone who does not take flak from anyone is suited to be our President. Although I do not support this abusive platform, it got my wheels turning nonetheless. Is anger always such a bad thing?
I pride myself on only ever getting into one fist fight as a child. There were many opportunities to fight, but I consider myself a pacifist. I do not feel as though I missed an opportunity to get my ass kicked, but I do feel as though I suppressed my anger because I was too nice to fight. I thought to myself, if I was not nice, I clearly had to be angry. Funny enough, I found a job as a bouncer my last couple years of college. (I’m secretly hoping Larry David reads this post and makes a sitcom about me being the world’s first pacifist bouncer.) It was a cool job to say the least. It helped pay the bills, it was a fun place to work, and it served as a great pick-up line. When I tell people now that I used to bounce, I often get chuckles because they “could never see that happen;” I am “too NICE.” Well, it did happen. It was a great job for what it was and I learned a hell of a lot about therapy by working at a college-town dive bar. Although I came close to many altercations, some of which could have been life-threatening, I learned that there is a level of respect (and sometimes anger) that comes with positions of authority. I never really enjoyed monitoring the inside of the bar. It was muggy and loud, and I often felt uncomfortable with so many people surrounding me while they were inebriated. I enjoyed working the door because I could schmooze people as they came in, they often tipped me for being nice, as I was the gatekeeper to the place they all wanted to enter. I “controlled” the entrance to the $2 PBR’s and $3 Margarita slushies. In our position as therapists, we are also perceived as the gatekeepers to what clients want – insight into whatever brought them to therapy. We don’t actually have the answers that they are looking for, but we have the tools to help explore what it is they are seeking.
Anger is always such a touchy emotion to discuss in therapy because it is commonly referred to as a mask for other emotions. As the kids in my socialization group would say, it is the “Anger Iceberg” where you only see a bit on the surface, but there is so much more below. What is wrong with solely being angry? Do we need another justification besides that emotion or are we too subconsciously fearful of being thought of as being insensitive or malicious? Anger can be relieving. It can be the catalyst to accomplish the thing we said we would never do, and it can also be the spark to change what we need. Anger can be a good thing. The most important question that must be addressed is: where we should draw the line with anger?
Of course, many people take anger too far. We see this as professionals in the field. People are unjustly abused (e.g. physically, emotionally, and sexually), they will use a variety of substances to try and suppress their anger, and others will solely deny any emotions at all. The list goes on and on. In my opinion, there is never an excuse for violently attacking another person. Anger cannot and should not be the excuse to be used for abusing other people. There are too many in-person and online resources that can assist with the control of such blinding temper. However, beyond being psychological professionals, we are also unfortunately human and have the ability to succumb to such debilitating temper.
What can we, as therapists, do about our own anger? I mean, I mentioned that there are countless resources. I personally love Mindful meditation to release anger that is unwanted and it becomes a nice tool for any type of emotion that is sitting with you uneasily. But even after a while, I still have that anger that arises both emotionally and physically. Thankfully, I have a classmate who reached out to me after a particularly anger-inducing day and asked, “Do you want to go hit something?” The answer, of course, was yes. I have collected and held onto so much aggression that it began to impact my work negatively. He showed me some techniques and spent about the next 30 minutes punching and kicking a bag as hard as we could and I do not think I have felt better since becoming a graduate student therapist. All the long hours, the sitting, the emotions, the annoyance. I punched away all the rejections, the “nice guy” comments, and made peace with my anger. I channeled it and released it like Mindfulness teachings expect. So, there you have it; the sage-like advice from this lowly graduate student: go hit something. Or do something within your limits that is physically different than sitting in a chair with one leg crossed over the other, nodding your head, making your face appear inquisitive, and saying “mmhmm” repeatedly. You know, everything you learned in your intro to Counseling Skills course.
Thus, when it comes to anger, use it toward something productive. For my Behavioral folks, consider this an activity more aligned with one’s values. For my Psychodynamic folks, consider this another example of Sublimation. However, in all seriousness, it will be beneficial for you and the clients you work with. After all, we are only human. We are integrated wholes and should not avoid thoughts and feelings that may arise in us as if we are anything more. If you take only one lesson away from this blog post, remember this: temper blocks insight.