Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Love and Aggression

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 20, 2012



Billie, fifty-nine and female, was brought up in a strictly religious household where girls were supposed to be nice and boys were supposed to be wild and aggressive. Billie’s desire to be a tomboy, perhaps fitting her name, did not go over well with her mom. She was constantly told that getting angry was not “nice” and that she needed to be “nice.” Consequently, when Billie gets angry at her friends, she is filled with guilt and despair. Internal feelings of aggression are so uncomfortable for Billie that she never outwardly experiences a sensation of anger or frustration. Yet, at the same time, she has many sleepless nights where she experiences fantasies of killing her friends, yet she denies any conscious disappointment with them. “It is really hard for you to deal with aggression,” I say, using the word aggression as a short-hand for all of the negative feelings that arise in close relationships. “I suspect that you were never given permission to experience hostility and so now that you are an adult, you are confused by your feelings.” I say, thinking about just as children need to learn to read as youngsters, so also, they need to learn to begin to understand their emotional interior. Without a space to learn feelings, children grow up without the tools to deal with a range of emotional experiences. This lack of exposure to feelings is one kind of emotional deprivation which can have life-long consequences. In other words, trusted adults need to help children translate their behavior into feeling states. For example, I explain to Billie that if a child hits a parent, the parent can say  “you are angry and that is why you are trying to hit me, and it is not OK to hit me, and yet I can understand your anger.”  These kinds of narratives begin to help a child understand that his desire to hit the mother he cares deeply about,  is a function of an angry feeling state. The feeling is understandable, but the behavior is unacceptable. Without this narrative, a child may be confused as to why he feels like hitting his mother. The child knows he loves his mother, but he also wants to hit his mother. This juxtaposition of love and hate needs to be sorted out, with help from the parent. Billie, it seems, never had an explanation for why she wanted, at times,  to hurt the person she cared most about. As such, she is haunted in the evenings with disturbing fantasies that confuse and disturb her. “I hope I can get over this,” she says, with despair. “I hope so too,” I say, mirroring her wish to have a better state of mind.

2 Responses to “Love and Aggression”

  1. Shelly said

    So can these emotions be learned in adulthood? Can you give her the space in your office and can you help her sort them out there? It must have been tough, as a child, never to have been encouraged to express her internal thoughts in a healthy way. How lonely and isolated she must have been. But can she in some way make up for it now?

    • Yes, absolutely. Learning, just about anything, can happen at any time in life, but as we all know, the older one is, the harder it is. In other words, age is a relevant factor in the rate of change. Thanks.

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