“The basic function of aggression is about our need for genuine recognition. It is not inherently hostile or destructive, though it can become so. It’s force moves one’s self out and towards the environment, to demonstrate that ‘I am here’, that I exist, and that I matter.”
– Bill Cornell
Working With Aggression
When an expression of aggression is reasonably healthy, it is not intended to destroy the environment, it is intended to secure it. The expression is meant to get the environment to ‘do something’, to respond appropriately to what is needed. The aggression communicates to another, “I am here, now you be here too!”
- Forces the environment to respond.
- Demands that the environment be reliable.
- Claims a space for the self so it can exist in relation to others.
When a client comes to therapy, most often:
- They want the work to stand up to their own distrust of the therapy itself.
- They need the therapist to stay put, to withstand their defenses.
- They want the therapist to deal with what’s wrong with them in an effective manner.
The Therapist’s Job:
- Is to receive the client’s aggression, and begin to work at understanding it.
- Is to not withdraw, and to not retaliate.
Enacting any withdrawal or retaliatory tendencies in the therapist will only serve to put the real work on hold at best, or in jeopardy at worst.
Often, the therapist’s way of withdrawing is to become overly passive, with a distancing kind of niceness that is non-responsive, that ignores or looks away from the insistent and pervasive expressions of aggression from the client.
Making Space For The Trouble
As the therapist stays, can the client notice the therapist’s active way of ‘being quiet’ as a way to hold on to the trouble, think about the work, and stay with the client?
People with troubled lives, with repeatedly painful and traumatic childhood experiences, will not have healthy responses to their own anxiety. They will easily become immobilized, agitated, defensive. But underneath all of this, the intent to be helped is still there.
The more tenacious defensive strategies and anxiety-driven defense of our clients helps to cut off from a brutal hatred that lies within them.
When that hatred begins to surface:
- Can we bear to withstand it? Can they learn to stand it?
If not, the hatred will start to become destructive, violent and potentially dangerous. As therapists, we have to be able to allow, to attend to, to think about, to bear, and to welcome the expressions of hatred that begin to emerge from our clients.
Unfortunately, for many clients, psychotherapy can simply become a kind of ‘cocoon’ from life. There can be a lot of gratification for that in the client, and as well, for the therapist.
When the therapeutic space only becomes a place of refuge, comfort is privileged over learning, over making the effort to wrestle with the trouble long enough to want to change something fundamental and problematic for the client. It is insufficient.
The therapeutic endeavor needs to provide an outcome that has increasing generativity, increasing capacity for adaptation, towards more effective ways of being in the world.
Ultimately, in needs to be in service of others, beyond just one’s self. This therapeutic posture is a fundamental expression of vitality and health, and it supports life giving expressions and actions in the client.