Melanie Marklein, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Director
“I am not an angry person.”
“I don’t really get angry.”
“There is no use for anger.”
These are phrases that I hear on a regular basis from people who are seeking therapy. Often, the people who tell me they never get angry are also those who are subjected to a very harsh inner critic that beats up on them constantly from the inside, attacking them for every perceived shortcoming. They are also the people who complain of depression and a loss of interest or motivation in much of anything, and they often describe feelings of worthlessness, powerlessness, hopelessness, and excessive guilt. And more often than not, the people claiming not to feel anger are people who have been abused, neglected, and abandoned in the past in ways that would evoke legitimate anger in any healthy person.
It makes sense though. People with childhood trauma have learned that anger is a dangerous emotion. They have often witnessed anger being misused in destructive and violent forms. People who grew up in homes that were volatile--who witnessed domestic violence, or who were subjected to physical or verbal attacks from a parent or caregiver whose rage was out-of-control--are terrified of repeating the same mistakes. They express fear that their anger will hurt others. They have difficulty distinguishing between healthy assertiveness and aggression. And they tend to feel intense guilt and shame any time they do stand up for themselves or set a boundary.
Even if physical violence was not part of the trauma history, people who grew up in families where it was not acceptable or safe to express feelings tend to be masterful at suppressing anger in adulthood. Children of narcissistic or emotionally immature parents were often made to feel guilty any time they tried to communicate that they were upset by something the parents were doing. Instead of having their anger heard, validated, and responded to in a constructive way, these children were emotionally abandoned and met with reactions like, “How dare you! After everything I have done for you... you should be grateful.” These children learn that their anger leads to abandonment and the loss of attachment, and they grow to be adults who cannot say no or confront someone who has crossed a boundary.
Does that mean that trauma survivors truly do not get angry? No. Anger is a natural human emotion. We all experience anger. It means that they suppress anger, and that they are probably so adept at suppressing it that they don’t even notice they’re doing it anymore. The anger is suppressed so swiftly that they don’t even have a chance to register it. What happens to the anger then? Just because you bury it, doesn’t mean it goes away. Anger, like any emotion that does not get resolved, morphs and intensifies into something else (e.g., rage, deflected rage, boredom, apathy, depression). Here are some signs of hidden anger:
Sarcasm, cynicism, flippancy
Smiling while hurting
Frequent disturbing or frightening dreams
Habitual muscle tension, clenched jaw, facial tics, fist clenching, teeth grinding, spasmodic foot movements, or other physiological symptoms that usually happen unconsciously
“What am I supposed to do with all of this anger?”
Let’s look at the two parts involved in answering this question.
First, what do we do with anger in the present. We have to learn how to recognize anger as it arises in the present, and to effectively address present- day situations that evoke anger. Anger gets a bad rap. Emotions in general, especially the so-called “negative emotions,” get a bad rap. We live in a society that is fearful of emotions and gives preferential treatment to “rational thought.” Emotions and rational thought are not meant to be at war with each other. We need both in order to be fully functioning, relational beings, and we need them to work together on the same team. Emotions hold information for us, and we can engage the rational mind to decipher the message in our emotions and take effective action based on that information. The message in anger is that someone or something has crossed one of our emotional or psychological boundaries. In its purest form, anger is simply a call for self-respect. Whether the person invaded your space unintentionally or with the intention to control or take advantage of you, the surge of energy that comes with anger is meant to help you stand your ground when someone pushes your boundaries. When you experience anger, your task is to determine what boundary was crossed and how it can be restored. It’s important to emphasize that taking effective action based on the information in the emotion is not the same thing as expressing anger. Outlandishly expressing emotions causes just as many problems as suppressing them. Expressing unbridled emotion and suppressing emotion are two sides of the same dysfunctional coin. The idea here is to recognize when you feel angry, determine what boundary was crossed, and find a way to restore the boundary through nonviolent communication. Once those steps are completed, the anger dissipates naturally. (For more information about how to get the information in emotions and master boundaries and assertiveness, refer to The Power of the Herd: A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation by Linda Kohanov).
Second, what do we do with anger that is related to old anger from the past. This is a frightening, but necessary, part of healing from complex trauma. As trauma survivors begin to uncover and confront the ways in which they were emotionally betrayed, abandoned, unprotected, or abused by the people who were supposed to keep them safe, they inevitably begin to experience intense feelings of anger. I often hear survivors say during this phase of trauma recovery, “I am angry all the time. I don’t know what to do with all of this anger.” Many survivors are still in relationship with the parents or other relatives who caused the harm in childhood. Usually, they have worked hard to “put the past behind them” and to forget about the wounds in order to preserve the relationship. They find it hard to continue interacting with these people once they begin the deeper trauma processing.
There are two books by Pete Walker that I find immensely helpful in guiding people through this phase of recovery from complex PTSD: The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness out of Blame, and Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. In his work, Pete Walker writes that grieving the losses of childhood that come from growing up in a traumatizing family is a vital part of reclaiming important parts of ourselves. He delineates four practices of grieving that must be done in trauma recovery: angering, crying, verbal ventilating, and feeling.
For the purpose of this article, I am focused only on “angering,” which can be defined as expressing one’s feelings of resentment and rage over the trauma inflicted by an abuser in a way that does not hurt either the survivor or anyone else. Pete Walker defines angering as “the grieving technique of aggressively complaining about current or past losses and injustices.” Survivors need a safe place and a safe way to rage about the humiliation, neglect, and pervasive lack of emotional and/or physical safety in their family. Importantly, it is usually not necessary or advised for survivors to directly confront the real-life perpetrator of the abuse/neglect (with some exceptions in cases where the abuse is still occurring). The angering is not directed at the person who inflicted the trauma, but at the internalized perpetrator that takes the form of a vicious inner critic. According to Walker, “angering is therapeutic when the survivor rails against childhood trauma, and especially when he rails against its living continuance in the self-hate processes of the inner critic.” Angrily fighting off the inner critic by shouting “No! You cannot talk to me that way!” stops the survivor from turning anger toward himself, and therefore rescues the survivor from toxic shame and a childlike sense of powerlessness. Standing up to the inner critic (i.e., the internalized abuser) helps survivors redirect blame to where it belongs and establish the healthy ego function of self-protection.
Angering is also important in trauma recovery because it decreases the likelihood of repetition compulsion. Being able to set inner boundaries in this way is essential to learning how to set outer boundaries. Pete Walker writes, “Survivors need to resuscitate their instinctual anger about parental maltreatment or they risk blindly accepting others’ reenactments of these behaviors.” Anger is what fuels our ability to say “no” and stand up to bullying and maltreatment both from within (i.e., inner critic attacks) and from others.
According to Pete Walker, angering must be done in concert with crying, which is another of the four grieving practices that allow people to heal from complex trauma. We need both emotional tools to fully release the pain of abandonment inherent in childhood trauma. When angering and crying are out of balance, it interferes with recovery and results in “dysfunctional whining.” When a hurt person only knows how to express anger, his repressed sadness tends to leak through in ways that make him sound like a martyr. On the flip side, when a hurt person is only able to cry, the repressed anger tinges her sadness and makes her sound like a chronic bellyacher. Because of a socialization process that shames boys for crying and girls for angering, half of the normal emotional release process tends to be stymied in each gender. Many men are only able to vent their emotional pain through angering. Their sadness leaks through as an irritable mood, and they get mad whenever they feel any emotion (e.g., scared, humiliated, sad). Many women, on the other hand, repress their anger and can only express their emotions through crying, which might leave them stuck in helplessness and self-pity.
A discussion of anger would not be complete without mentioning the concept of forgiveness. Being too eager and quick to “forgive” often results in pushing anger down even further and stymies real healing. There are many reasons people jump to forgiveness, including pressure from others to move on and to stop “rocking the boat,” religious ideology, or a personal desire to escape the painful reality. But there is no detour to real forgiveness that allows you to bypass the grieving process, which includes the angering. Compassion and forgiveness are beautiful and wonderful, but do not let compassion get in the way of your complete recovery. If you over-identify with or pity the perpetrators of your abuse/neglect, you might shrink from feeling any anger towards them. It helps to remember that you aren’t being angry at who they truly are or who they were throughout their lives. You are specifically angry at who they were during your abuse; you are angry at one aspect of them. You are angry at the parts of their abuse that live on inside of you in the form of the internalized critic/perpetrator. You are not self-centered or bad for being angry about that. Do not let others or your inner critic convince you that you need to forget about the past and “just move on.”