Therapists, couples and people in general often have the experience of being in the presence of someone who seems angry but isn’t expressing it. This can produce feelings of anxiety, since most people are not comfortable with their own anger or, ipso facto, that of others.
Is this person angry at me? Did I do something? Will they blow up at any minute? What’s with them anyway? This can lead to counter-blame or counter anger. You can become angry at this person for making you anxious, for creating tension or making you doubt yourself. You then might even feel guilty about having these feelings and so forth. You usually end up doing nothing or blurting something out due to anxiety.
Another common response is to try and indirectly check in with the person by enquiring how things are going or to test the waters in some way. Therapists may point out that this is codependent, trying to take care of someone else’s feelings. They may offer the insight that this is how, from a position of real inferiority, you once tried to deal with the feelings of your parents.
Another interpretation is that you are trying to avoid your feelings by avoiding theirs, trying to smooth things over. This makes sense based on the behavior alone in that what you are indeed saying and doing is actually not addressing either their feelings or yours. Perhaps you are trying to imply concern in the hopes of soothing the underlying conflict. It may reflect a worry on your part that you can’t handle their anger, that you feel embarrassed about how easily their anger is already effecting you.
In psychoanalysis and some other forms of therapy and even the recommendations of some self help authors they may make or recommend a naming interpretation that could be as simple as “You’re angry.” This could be well intentioned, in that the speaker thinks they are being helpful and may not have any normalizing beliefs about anger (“…and you’re an asshole for being angry with me!”) which are being sub-communicated.
However, this often produces a negative reaction. The person denies being angry or erupts into rage and blaming. Traditionally, this would be viewed as confirmation of the therapists interpretation in the case of the former, or evidence of a weak ego and narcissistic rage in the latter. In ego-analysis, these would be weak ego = strong super ego and narcissistic rage would be shame about shame.
The ego-analysis approach, what I’d like to call reality psychology or the psychology of innocence, would say this interpretation is wrong. By this I mean that the person isn’t really angry. By which I mean they cannot feel entitled to / experience / express / enhabit the ontological experience of being angry. You can tell this because the angry person often hears the received message that “You’re wrong to be angry!”
The actual experience of the person is that they cannot be angry. They are held back from being angry by super ego effects such as shame, guilt and fear. And, in reality, the anxious partner often does indeed believe, and thus communicate, that they think the other person is indeed wrong to be angry, no matter how they say it.
An ego-analysis would look something like: “It would be natural to have feelings of anger right now and if you did you might feel like you shouldn’t, or that I wouldn’t respect that or be concerned that I can’t handle hearing them.” This of course may still just drive the feelings underground or cause explosive reactions.
This is because the opposite could be true since ego-analysis is amoral and non-normative. The person may feel like they should be angry and are unable to express it. They may feel like they are weak, immature or broken for not being able to stand up for themselves like other people seem able to do.
The point is that simply saying “You’re angry” is unlikely to produce relief but may be a key to the reality (causal relationship) of their problem, which is how they relate to their anger. Not knowing this problem exists is part of the problem.
One thing that could help is being vulnerable and respectful about your response. Perhaps something like “I’ve been feeling like I’m walking on eggshells lately, like maybe you’re angry with me. I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t be so sensitive. If you were angry with me it would probably be hard to tell me since I’m being oversensitive already. If you are angry, I probably should already know why and that’s gotta be frustrating.” The reason you would say this is that it is actually how you are feeling.
Some people will read this and conclude it is codependent. They may recommend bypassing all thoughts and feelings about your conversational partner’s experience, to just focus on yourself and your feelings and let them deal with theirs. Sadly, it may take you years of personal therapy to be able to address someones anger without having any of your own insecurities about doing so – if this is possible at all. Your life is happening now. Pretending not to have these insecurities by covering it up with neutral looking self help is part of the problem. Showing your actual feelings about what you are saying let’s the relationship have the chance of itself being therapeutic.
To think you ought to deal with you and let them deal with them is idealistic naiveté based on the normalizing belief that we all just should be more mature (read: better) and differentiated than we actually are. It relies on an idealization of psychological health (which refers to theoretical moralized perfection, not the cause of mental processes) and denies the reality of life and itself serves as a moral justification for ignoring the way we actually effect each other.
Besides, the person may be pissed at you because you already are avoiding their feelings, which is exactly why you sought out the self-help advice to bypass your thoughts and feelings about them in the first place. Perhaps they know that your therapist is just an ally you have enlisted to justify your position. It’s also why you can’t see their shame. Because you are both engaged in a process of helping each other hide your mutual vulnerabilities. If this process goes on unconsciously you wind up fighting over respect under the pretense of issues rather than disagreeing about issues from a place of respect.
The final defense of the codependency crowd may be that ultimately you can only respect yourself. This is an appealing belief, and it may even be true in that other people help or hinder our ability to learn how to respect ourselves. Were it not for the fact that it seems to deny the lived experience of almost everyone throughout time I may be inclined to believe it.
If the angry person actually had self-respect she would freely enjoy expressing her anger. If the anxious conversational partner actually had self-respect she would not be so threatened by another’s anger, and would have no insecurities to bypass and would not experience vulnerability as subordination.
It may indeed be wise for therapists to not disclose their feelings or the counter-transference. But it can be immensely helpful for their clients understand why this is: Differentiation is an ideal which may be impossible for some of us all the time or all of us some of the time. If you doubt this, consider how many therapists obsess about whether or not to shake your hand, accept a gift, give a hug, take notes, negotiate fees, say hello in public, etc. It seems to me like there is some evidence of a resignation about the limitations of human potential which is repressed by a systemic moral appeal to professional responsibility.
This appeal to the responsibility ethic is itself a moral position, not a causal analysis. To not realize it is a problem is the problem. To try to solve the problem by assigning responsibility is an attempt at an ethical solution, to feel alright about not solving the problem.
Perhaps the admonition to avoid thinking about how enmeshed we all are is an aspirational denial of reality. You know, we just don’t talk about that around here.