Responding to an earlier post, Rafael Mendez-Arauz wonders whether the inner “brat” is in reality the “pseudo-self”. My good friend Marla Estes has stated, on both her own site and in a comment to one of my posts, that she believes anger can be a response to forces from the outside that disturb our tranquility. I think the three of us would agree that a response of anger or hatred isn’t always primary; that is, it might be a defense to ward off something else. The best way I can illustrate this is to discuss the “drowning kitten.” This metaphor came to play a central part in the treatment of one of my long-term clients, a very disturbed young woman who was cutting herself when she first came in, and suffered from a kind of depression that bordered on psychosis. Years later, after much improvement, she’d stabilized and had developed a positive relationship with a man. From time to time, though, when she was under great stress, she’d erupt in anger at him; with a cruel sort of insight, she would savage him for his faults, spew invective at him, and then feel horribly guilty afterward. We tried to understand this in various ways but didn’t seem to be making headway. My own theoretical point of view at that time was limiting my understanding, and I’m very grateful to this client (and others like her) who stuck with me long enough for me to grow into understanding. Real insight came when she described herself during one of these outbursts as “a drowning kitten”, lashing out with her teeth and claws at those around her. What we then were able to understand was that her rage helped ward off an unbearable experience of anxiety that verged on terror: she felt she might literally fly into pieces (death), and the outburst of rage helped hold herself together in the face of this disintegration anxiety. It acted as a kind of “glue”, in the way Marla Estes has described the function of psychological defenses. At some level of stress, we may all feel as if we’re going to come apart. How much we can bear reflects the strength of our self, which usually depends on the extent of early trauma we suffered and the degree of basic shame we must cope with.
Finding Your Own Way: At first, you might have a hard time identifying with this client. Think back on a time when you “lost it” or “flew off the handle.” Did your outbursts occur during periods when you were under a lot of pressure at work or home? What does it take to make you “go ballistic”? I highlight these expressions because they’re the ones our culture currently uses to describe the phenomenon I’m discussing. “Going postal” is another. Do you know someone else who is prone to this kind of outburst? How strong a sense of self do you think that person has? What about your own sense of self? These moments (hopefully rare) when we do “lose it” can give us a look at parts of ourselves we usually keep locked away and out of sight.