Embarking on a journey of self-discovery and emotional healing through therapy can be incredibly empowering – but it’s not without its challenges, of course. Within this process, exploring emotions such as anger, practicing forgiveness, and cultivating self-compassion are essential steps towards inner peace. Drawing upon insights from Zen Buddhist philosophy and practices, my intention here is to provide a guide which offers practical techniques and strategies for navigating the internal terrain of emotions in therapy, along with addressing common challenges and pitfalls.

Recognizing Anger:

So many individuals struggle with acknowledging their anger, and sometimes simply recognizing or understanding that they are experiencing anger.  This is often due to societal conditioning that has labeled anger as an unacceptable or harmful emotion.  In my practice, I have found this to be the case particularly for women and girls, but certainly not uncommon for men.  This can lead to suppression or denial of anger, resulting in its festering and eventual explosive release.  I wish to be clear here that it is this release, or explosion, that is harmful – not the emotion of anger itself.  This is a key distinction to appreciate in order to practice self compassion, which I will delve into in a moment.  Practice cultivating awareness of subtle signs of anger – such as tension or heat in the body or racing thoughts – and allow yourself to sit with the discomfort without judgment or suppression.

Exploring the Roots of Anger:

One common challenge in therapy is delving into the underlying causes of anger, as it may unearth painful memories or unresolved traumas.  Fear of confronting these deep-seated emotions can lead to avoidance or resistance in therapy – which, again, is quite common and understandable.  Approach this exploration with compassion and patience, knowing that it is a necessary step towards healing.  Work closely with your therapist to create a safe and supportive environment for exploring the roots of your anger at a pace that feels manageable for you. 

You may begin to notice feeling anger which is instantaneously followed by a sense of guilt or shame, or thoughts like, “I really shouldn’t be angry about this anymore, that was so long ago,” or, “That’s a ridiculous thing to be angry about, it could be worse.”  Simply notice these parameters that you are tempted to place on your anger (and on any feeling, really – this especially goes for grief), and say to yourself, “Wow, I’m noticing I feel a lot of guilt for being angry.  It’s hard for me to give myself permission to feel anger.”  This is a neutral noticing statement, free of judgment.

Releasing Judgment towards the Self:

Self-judgment and self-criticism, like the examples above, are common barriers to self-compassion and forgiveness.  Negative self-talk, feelings of unworthiness, and deep-seated shame can create a cycle of self-loathing that feels impossible to break.  Be gentle with yourself as you navigate through these feelings, recognizing that they are remnants of past conditioning and not reflective of your true worth.  What I mean by this is that these unhelpful patterns are often learned, perhaps from a parent or caregiver, or simply a misunderstanding born of a child’s mind.

Oftentimes, negative beliefs about ourselves are rooted in childhood experiences in which we may have substituted a story about ourselves for a lack of information or understanding about circumstances outside of ourselves.  This is because as children, we are all ego-centric, meaning we experience ourselves to be the center of everything.  Therefore, we perceive that others’ actions mean something about us.  For example, if a parent’s business trips left us feeling abandoned and alone, we may have perceived that we were not enough for them to want to stay home, or take us with them.  This is a simple misunderstanding of a child’s mind.  This innocent misunderstanding, left unchecked, may be unconsciously causing us to try to convince others of our worth and keep them happy, in order to avoid them leaving us.  Practice self-compassion by treating yourself with kindness and understanding, just as you would a young child or dear friend in need, allowing anger as well as any emotions underneath your anger – often sadness, grief, loss or fear.

Integrating Zen Buddhist Practices:

Incorporating mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation into your daily routine may initially feel overwhelming or challenging, especially if you have a busy schedule or struggle with racing thoughts.  Start with small, manageable steps, such as setting aside a few minutes each day for meditation practice.  Be patient with yourself and acknowledge that meditation is a skill that requires practice and patience to develop.

Engaging in Loving-Kindness Meditation:

Loving-kindness meditation can be particularly challenging, especially when directed towards oneself or towards individuals with whom you have strained relationships.  Feelings of resistance, skepticism, or even aversion may arise during the practice – this is normal and all part of the practice.  Approach these feelings with curiosity and compassion, recognizing that they are natural responses to the vulnerability inherent in opening your heart to yourself and others.  Notice your experience and the layers of judgment, and allow this to be – it’s all OK, and it is all welcome.  The goal is not to eradicate all judgment, resistance or cynicism – it is simply to notice it, allow it and continue.  You might say to yourself, “I am noticing feeling like this is so hard for me, and I just can’t do this kind of thing.  I am also noticing that I am labeling this as weakness, or laziness in myself, as if I am not trying hard enough.  I can watch all of this unfold, know that these thoughts are totally normal, and still try to do this meditation.”

Embracing Imperfection with Self-Compassion:

Embracing imperfection and practicing self-compassion can be challenging in a culture that values productivity, achievement, and perfectionism.  Feelings of guilt or unworthiness may arise when confronting your own limitations or regrets.  Practice self-compassion by reminding yourself that you are human and deserving of kindness and understanding, regardless of your perceived shortcomings.  We all have strengths and opportunities for growth.  Normalizing our challenges as part of the human experience can give us access to a greater compassion and acceptance for ourselves.

Cultivating Forgiveness:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”   -Buddha

I love this quote because it is a wonderful reminder that forgiveness is for us – the one who forgives.  Forgiveness can be particularly challenging, especially when it involves forgiving oneself or forgiving others for significant hurts or betrayals.  Feelings of resentment, bitterness, or a desire for revenge may arise, hindering the process of forgiveness.  We forgive to be free of our anger and resentment, rather than to excuse or condone hurtful behavior.  This is an important distinction.  For example, you may forgive someone else, but choose to let your paths go in different directions – or set a boundary to protect yourself from being hurt by them in the same way, as trust was compromised.  Practice patience and self-compassion as you navigate through these challenging emotions.  Recognize that forgiveness is a gradual process that unfolds over time and may require many attempts before it feels genuine and complete.

Building a Supportive Therapeutic Relationship:

Establishing a trusting and supportive therapeutic relationship can be challenging, especially if you have a history of mistrust or betrayal in past relationships.  Feelings of vulnerability or fear of judgment may arise, making it difficult to open up and share your innermost thoughts and feelings.  Communicate openly and honestly with your therapist about your fears and concerns, and work together to create a safe and supportive space for your healing journey.  Encourage yourself to move to your edge of vulnerability with opening up to your therapist – but not too far over that edge, going at your own pace; this will serve your growth and healing.

Navigating the terrain of emotions in therapy involves recognizing and addressing common challenges and pitfalls that may arise along the way.  By approaching these challenges with compassion, patience, and self-awareness, individuals can overcome inner turmoil and cultivate emotional resilience.  Through dedicated practice and engagement in therapy, individuals can navigate the challenges of anger, forgiveness, and self-compassion, channeling the inherent wisdom and compassion within themselves.

Author:  Nichole Boudreaux, LCSW

Nicole Boudreaux is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of North Carolina.







Nicole is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of North Carolina. She earned her Master’s Degrees in Social Work from Western Carolina University where she focused on Integrated Healthcare and was recognized for Excellence in Leadership. She is passionate about working with clients who may be experiencing challenges with adjusting to new situations, anxiety, overwhelm, anger and rage, particularly in young adults and mothers.