Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Angry Listening

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 19, 2014


“I think you are too angry to listen,” I say to Kerry, sixty-six. “Wow, that is interesting,” Kerry says, stunned at my comment. Her epiphany followed. “I never thought about that before, that when I am upset, I can’t take in new ideas.” Kerry says, as if the kaleidoscope just formed a picture. Receptive listening involves a calm state of mind, I think to myself. Floating ideas, however vague, or imaginary made Kerry so fearful that she began to yell at me for helping her think about ways to navigate her future. Kerry is in transition. Her husband died suddenly, leaving her with surprise debt, and thereby needing to make major lifestyle adjustments. On the one hand she knew her anger towards me, was really about something else, as on the surface of things, I was not offensive, but on the other hand, she had trouble expressing anger to her deceased husband, so her anger had to come out somewhere. “You know you have been telling me I am angry for a while now, and I am angry, at myself, for not taking more notice of our financial situation.” Kerry says with sadness, anger and fear. “Maybe you are also angry at Leo (deceased husband),” I say, helping her to accept contradictory feelings. “I can’t get angry at him. He did not plan on dying. How can I be mad about that?” She says with confusion and pain. “He withheld information from you about very precarious financial investments, leaving you to have a financial reversal, so I think you have some feelings about that.” I say, trying to parse out the multiple layers of feelings that Kerry has towards Leo. “When you are angry you then feel guilt about your anger, leaving you in a paralyzed place where you are unable to think about how to move forward.” I say, outlining a hypothetical mechanism in which her emotional state prevents her from moving into a contemplation phase over her next chapter. “I just don’t see how getting mad at Leo helps me,” Kerry says tearfully. “Knowing how you feel will help you.” I say, stating the obvious notion that first Kerry needs to identify her feelings so that she can begin to metabolize them. “It will help you listen,” I say.

2 Responses to “Angry Listening”

  1. Shelly said

    At least Kerry is listening to you now. I imagine that Leo has just died and her first reaction is anger at Leo for leaving her a widow with financial obligations. Interesting how Kerry’s reaction was, “I don’t see how getting mad at Leo helps me.” As if she already wants to rationalize the anger to help herself. Why not just let herself be, to feel, to work it through?

    • Anger at a loved-one, particularly one that has passed, can create guilt and confusion, and so Kerry wants to avoid these difficult feelings, by getting mad at me for suggesting that maybe she is mad at Leo. The problem with honest feelings is that layers of self-doubt and hatred can come with uncomfortable feelings, so to avoid this negativity, many of us do not pursue an honest exploration of our feeling state. Therapy is the push/pull of that process where the patient wants to and does not want to understand how he feels. Thanks.

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