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Working with rageful Parts

If you are a therapist you may have been there many times: a client is full of rage – usually about an injustice, i.e. they aren’t getting their way about something that matters to them. If you are in therapy yourself, you might have had that experience of being in rage and bringing it as a problem to the therapy room. If you aren’t in therapy right now, or never have been, you may have been rageful and wondered how you could deal with it to lessen the intensity and pain of the experience, both for yourself and others. This article gives a new perspective, informed by IFS, on rage and how to handle it.

Through the years I have been working as a therapist, I have had meaningful success working with the rageful Parts of clients. I’m happy to share what I have learned.

It didn’t start out that way. Many years ago, in my first job out of grad school, my protectors cut me off from sensing rage so completely that I couldn’t even see it in front of me when it subtly came up in other people. My first supervisor had to inform me my client was enraged. I know now that was the work of a dissociative protector formed when I was around too much rage growing up.

Many years (of personal therapy and professional learning) later, I know that helping the rageful person unblend from that Part is a big goal. It can take time. The more Self energy I can access, the smoother this works. Here’s the truth when I’m sitting with someone in a rage – the more I want them to change, the more that triggers them; the more energetically reactive or afraid I get, the more alone they feel; when I can feel genuinely open and curious it goes better.

Simply validating their experience is an important first step towards unblending. Honestly, I sometimes need a laser-like focus to feel genuine compassion for an aspect of the content of their rage. I need that because often many of the other elements of what they are talking about don’t spark that in me. So, if I’m present with them with what I know is Self energy, that somewhat blurs certain unpalatable aspects of what they are saying. That blurring is helpful to connect with them in a Self led way, enabling them to access their own Self energy.

Naming rage as a Part is always the beginning of unblending. Only after that, the IFS 101 questions come. How do you feel towards the Part? Frequently that invites other Parts to show up with strong opinions. There can be cheerleaders, judgers!  More gentle unblending ensues when these Parts also get attention.

I might say something like “Lets turn to those other ones, validate that they have feelings and then ask if they would cooperate just for now and have their energy rest someplace else – out on the bench perhaps?”

When at least a little unblending can occur you can suggest that the person ask the Part, what is it afraid will happen if it doesn’t do its job? If it doesn’t fill you with rage?  And what would be bad about that?

Drilling down like this will lead to the noticing of an exile. Many people who get hijacked with rageful Parts don’t know they have vulnerable Parts. Frequently people who are rageful don’t like, or they may even hate, their vulnerable Parts. Rage exists when the client has a huge amount of shame about their own vulnerability. Their vulnerability is unacceptable to them. They find their vulnerability disgusting. They feel uncomfortable even acknowledging it.

So it’s our work to tenderly invite curiosity. Hopefully…. eventually… compassion will emerge towards their own vulnerability. That takes time.

Get ready to spend some time showing gentle curiosity about the hate Part, always going back to IFS 101 with phrases such as “The Part that hates your vulnerability, what is it concerned would happen if it didn’t do its job, if it didn’t make you hate it so?” This cannot be overstated. Staying in my own non-judgey Self energy during this questioning period is critical. To this end I’m not afraid to gently repeat these questions. It also enables the rageful Parts to take a step back and thereby access their own Self energy.

The intensity of rage indicates it is a protector of an utterly helpless exile. I find it useful to keep that in my own mind and heart. There is always a logical reason why rage emerged as a Part even if I wish it weren’t so. There is a tremendous vulnerability in there somewhere.

People like this appear to benefit from an enormous amount of validation that they were mistreated. They were! But sometimes that sort of validation from a therapist as external supporter must be meted out carefully. Too much and someone can’t handle it. It can over-activate their system.  Since they have other Parts that feel bad about their (often imaginary) contribution to their experiences, I could activate a polarization instead of reaching out with non-scary compassion. For example, I have a therapy client with a Part that still hasn’t shifted away from feeling like a loser because he didn’t kill his father – when he was four. He remembers wishing to do that then. As illogical as that sounds, he hasn’t emotionally moved from it. My weighing in too intensely activates him.

Sometimes the client’s attachment to the energy that rage provides can become an addictive self-soother. I find the IFS model of addictions useful in addressing this (see work by Cece Sykes and others). In other words, people engage in addictive behaviors, even when they know they shouldn’t. They can feel helpless, watching themselves do awful things. Joining them with curiosity and compassion about a particular moment can be a powerful new experience for the client. I might say something like “What was that rage Part afraid would happen if it didn’t appear right then?” This invites the client to focus with growing compassion on their slip, rather than slide, into the old choice of “I’m justified in my feelings!” Or – head hung down, “Can’t we change the subject?”

Working with rage is a long game. It is seldom a quick, one off. It’s so satisfying when at a certain point we name rage as a Part that can be understood and helped and it doesn’t trigger the old shameful reactions in the therapy client. They are willing to go there. We can be curious together. It begins to feel way less toxic to the client now, relative to the past when even mentioning it led to activation.

As the work progresses, if the client slips up and reports becoming enraged at someone, we can unpack what caused rage to feel it was necessary to show up. And at some point it can be useful to make a calm query: “have you had a chance to repair that encounter?”

If you are working with an individual client, let’s face it, it’s pretty straightforward. There’s no one else in the room to be concerned about. When working with a couple, the potential awkwardness of giving attention to each person in sequence is challenging. Do I attend to the person affected by the rage right now because they are hurting or do I pay attention to the rageful person right now because…. well, they are hurting?

As the work unfolds you can even share that dilemma with the clients. Can we all feel an alliance together around the difficulty of making that choice in each moment? After all, that dilemma occurs in everyday life at home and in the course of our work or outings.

The essence of the matter is simple: rage seems to be sheer aggression but it isn’t. It is vulnerability and pain. To realise this is challenging, but it’s a beautiful path to walk with someone. The rewards can be extraordinary.

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