Love in the Face of Hatred

In an earlier post, I talked about how clients sometimes feel anger and hatred for their therapists; I believe this is inevitable on occasion and appropriate.  Today I’d like to discuss how therapists may respond when they’re hated, and how much it can help the people we treat if we’re able to tolerate them and not retaliate in kind.

Often these clients, especially severely troubled individuals, need to express their hatred.  They need to feel they can show what they actually feel and still be accepted.  One of my long-term clients, a man in his early 30s, would scream at me during session after session.  He’d vent in the most vicious tones, week after week, accusing me of any number of crimes even when I might have said very little.  For me as his therapist, it was extremely painful to be in the same room and feel his hatred — hard to be the object of his hostility but also to feel his pain. (See my much later post on countertransference issues in treating depression).  I knew he suffered from profound shame and that venting his hatred was a desperate effort to ward off that shame and hold himself together (see my earlier post on the ways in which hostility can function as a kind of psychic glue).

After months of bearing with him, I said in session one day that I thought he felt horrible about himself.  He knew on some level that I didn’t deserve to be abused, but in truth, he couldn’t help it.  I talked about the reasons why hatred felt to him like a kind of refuge, better than feeling small and horribly damaged.   He began to sob.  The kind of body-wracking sobs that seem to come up from the depths, also painful to endure.  He couldn’t tell me so for a while, but he felt profound gratitude.  In truth, nobody in his life had ever been able to understand and tolerate him.  His father was weak and absent; his borderline mother made him feel he had to suppress himself and his own needs in order to look after hers.

Bearing the hatred and hostility of a child without getting angry back is what good parents do, an expression of their love.  Although I was not his father, I felt a kind of paternal love for my client.  I’ve had the pain and privilege of doing long-term work with a number of very troubled people; I find that you can’t do the work, can’t tolerate the way they need to abuse you if you don’t feel some kind of love for them.

Love in the face of occasional hatred – it’s what good parents do for their children, and what we therapists in our own way do for our clients.

Finding Your Own Way:

In my family of origin, explosions of anger and hatred were rare but terrifying, never discussed afterward and never understood.  What was it like in your family?  If you have your own children, do you have rules about what can and cannot be expressed?  How do you react when your children become angry or hateful?  Did your parents instill shame if you expressed hatred?  Do you do the same for your own children?

Clearly I’ve been focusing on the issue of hatred in these recent posts.  I think it’s a central and misunderstood feeling that’s at the heart of many psychological difficulties.  What is your opinion as to the acceptability of hatred, in yourself and in other people?  Do you think it’s a “bad” feeling, one we should try to get rid of?  We live in a society that discourages the expression of hatred in personal relations; I’ll admit it can be problematic, but do you see any value in acknowledging hatred?

In my opinion, hatred is inevitable.  The challenge is to acknowledge and make room for it without at the same time letting it destroy your feelings of love.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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14 Responses to Love in the Face of Hatred

  1. Grace says:

    Are the feelings between the client and therapist real or is it all just transference??

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Just because it’s transference doesn’t mean it’s not real. This is one of those concepts that’s largely misunderstood. Instead of thinking of transference as treating your therapist as a stand-in for somebody from your past, I think that, while there are important differences, the relationship between therapist and client is still a relationship; whatever issues/difficulties you have in your other relationships will likely come up between you and your therapist, as well. This way, the therapist has a chance to see first-hand how you relate to other people, and use his or her observations to help you understand those dynamics better.

  2. James says:

    My therapist and I have oft spoken of the difference between guilt and shame, and how those two feelings can intertwine with self-hatred. The advice given, in my case, is that shame is very harmful, while brief periods of guilt are an acceptable way of helping me right a wrong. On self-hatred, I grew up in a family that does not like itself. As the most “healthy” one, I turned to a bottle and stayed in it for 25 years until I was 41 .. I am now 51. I still have some feelings of self-hatred, and hatred/rage toward the world around me, but we’re getting there!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      James, I’m sorry I did respond to this sooner. The way I think about shame is a little different. Whether or not it’s harmful, shame for people who come from very troubled backgrounds is often a FACT. I think of it as the residue of early trauma; in other words, shame is the emotional component of being damaged, not something we are made to feel by others (that’s a different kind of shame). Shame, in and of itself, can be tolerated; we can learn to accept the ways we are damaged and take them into account. The real problem come from our own perfectionistic demands that we be different, that we be a person undamaged by life — self-hatred, as you say, is one way to talk about it.

  3. Marla Estes says:

    I’ve actually been doing workshops on Exploring Hatred. Below is a part of what I teach:
    Hatred is one of our culture’s strongest taboos, even more taboo than anger. It is considered “politically and spiritually incorrect.” But hatred is simply an emotion that comes “naturally.” One only has to look at young children to see this, especially with the advent of a younger sibling. Acknowledging and owning our own hatred and finding a safe way to express it is in fact a way to our wholeness. Much work along this same way of thinking has been done in the past decade regarding the emotion of anger.

    The way it functions is this: Basically, we want inner peace, stillness, tranquility. Then something happens to disturb us, and we feel agitated. We may get angry. We may try to do something about the situation. When we can’t change something or someone who we perceive is at the root of our inner agitation, we begin to feel frustrated and powerless, that all our attempts to change things are futile. Our anger is blocked. Somehow we feel that if only that person or situation would just go away, our inner peace would be restored. That’s when hatred begins; when it feels like there is nothing we can do to regain our stillness unless that external factor ceases to exist. Hatred is actually an attempt to bring inner peace to ourselves. At the extreme, this is the dynamic of war. At the least, if we suppress our feelings of hatred and don’t acknowledge them, they come out in indirect, sometimes sneaky ways: passive-aggessivity, icing people out, stonewalling, withdrawing, sniping, back-stabbing, rejection, exclusion and so forth. We close our hearts.

    This is not about justifying acts of hatred; it’s about acknowledging our hatred in a safe way so that we don’t have to act it out.
    Not only is this about returning to a sense of inner stillness, but hatred is also a path to our empowerment. Hatred comes about because we feel helpless, hopeless, powerless in the face of a circumstance or a person, and we feel like the only way to not feel these feelings is that the person be “killed off” in one way or another.

    Recently I had an experience in which I needed to set a boundary with someone, which has historically been difficult for me. One day I ran into him and my first reaction was to avoid him, to “ice him out” (which in my way of thinking is a mild form of hatred). I realized what I was doing, and took that steely feeling and turned it into resolve to do something. By using the “energy” of hatred in this way, I could use its power to speak up for myself…and guess what? I didn’t feel icy and rejecting of that person anymore. In addition, I spoke in a calm, clear manner without hatred or anger.
    Thanks for these posts, Joe!
    Marla Estes
    http://www.marlaestes.com

  4. Grace says:

    Thanks Joseph. I totally agree with you in regards to transference. It’s similar to my work with children who are accused of lying. For many traumatized children, their “lies” are their perceptions, thus to them they are not lying even in the face of accusations that they are. To them, what they see, feel and interpret is “real”. The challenege is “be” where the child is to understand what they see, feel and understand in order to work through their world view.

    In the discussion about “shame”, I feel this is probably one of the most complex core issue to address and change as it rears it’s fiery head in many ways including patterns of self-sabatoge. To feel shame and unworthiness is like a bottomless well that can never be filled to form a concrete foundation as its complexities are so entwined like a ball made out of string.

  5. Stephanie says:

    I believe hatred is an important emotion which can be positive because its a defence mechanism towards something or someone who we feel has harmed us in some way and we feel powerless against. The strength of the emotion can be scary for both sides, demanding full attention and immediate interaction. The form this interaction takes is I believe crucial to both the outcome of the situation and long-term mental health of the perpetrator. As you point out if it is contained by the person on the receiving end this allows the for a sense of release followed by exploration of inner feelings as to what lies beneath it- The perpetrator has felt his/her worst thoughts/feelings have been expressed/heard – they are out there and they only thing left is explore where they have come from. If however the hatred is attached, vilified or denied then the perpetrator is left with confusion or further anger and confusion leading possibly to the hatred festering and growing inside him. This kind of anger is negative, unproductive and can be dangerous.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I believe hatred is an important emotion which can be positive because its a defence mechanism towards something or someone who we feel has harmed us in some way and we feel powerless against. The strength of the emotion can be scary for both sides, demanding full attention and immediate interaction. The form this interaction takes is I believe crucial to both the outcome of the situation and long-term mental health of the perpetrator. As you point out if it is contained by the person on the receiving end this allows for a sense of release followed by exploration of inner feelings as to what lies beneath it- The perpetrator’s worst thoughts/feelings have been expressed/heard – they are out there and the only thing left is to explore where they have come from. If however the hatred is attached, vilified or denied by the person receiving it then the perpetrator is left with confusion or further anger leading possibly to the hatred festering and growing stronger inside him. This kind of anger is negative, unproductive and can be dangerous.

  7. Becky Murphy says:

    Stephanie,
    The way you broke down how anger can be the catalyst for therapeutic dialog leading to growth and healing versus not when it is not dealt with or even acknowledged. holy crow it helped me to realize why mine is seeming to get worse not better, and I don’t know exactly what it means, it at least validates something that has been a loose association up until now. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  8. Tamara G. Suttle says:

    Hi, Joseph! Happy to discover your site and loving the topic of this post. In fact, I don’t see too many books out there on hate . . . . Perhaps you’ll write one?

    Looking forward to following your blog!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks, Tamara. I would very much like to write a book about hatred. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. It seems such a crucial subject, and one that is still fairly taboo in our society.

  9. Anne Russell PhD says:

    I thoroughly agree with you when you are dealing with a client in therapy. You have a professional role. But in other relationships, such as spousal, sibling, friendship, adult child-parent, continuing to take ongoing abuse without protecting oneself, and making it clear that one is not serving as an emotional punching bag, can be masochistic and can enable to abuser to keep targeting you for attack. One has a moral duty to oneself in these situations.

    I have one sibling, a brother whom I love deeply, who is a very damaged person psychologically and emotionally, because of our father’s severe bipolar and violent behavior, which hurt me a great deal, but had a much greater impact upon my younger brother who is named after my father. I have spent decades being patient with his tirades, but they only escalated, and now we are totally estranged, to my sorrow. My oldest daughter (of 4) was a wonderful person and we were very close until she became 29 and her life fell apart (marriage, job) and she began showing extreme hatred of me, and hatred of her 3 younger sisters. I know this daughter is filled with shame, feels like a failure, and I would be glad for her to vomit up all this poison, scream at me,, hit me, to get it out of her system. But she will have nothing to do with me, and the law will not allow me to contact her. She is now 51 and completely estranged from all our family, her choice, and prevents her children from knowing us. If you have advice, I’ll sure take it, for I love her with all my heart and understand her pain.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Even in therapy, you have to set limits. With the patient I discussed in the post, there came a point where I had to draw a line and say, “No, you can no longer treat me that way.” The hard part is knowing when “can’t” becomes “won’t”. When is someone unable to control themselves, and when is it that they refuse to do so as an act of rebellion or resentment? It’s hard for me to give advice under these circumstances, but it might help you to think about your brother and daughter in these terms: what are they incapable of doing to meet you halfway in repairing your relationship, and what are they unwilling to do? You can’t fix these relationships alone, by yourself. Even if you’re willing to make the effort, it doesn’t necessarily follow that your brother or daughter will also try. You can’t make them; that’s their responsibility. The most you can do is be available.

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