Anger says no

by | May 15 2017 | 12 comments

For a very long time, I didn’t ‘do’ anger.

In the family I grew up in, the adults were allowed to be angry, and even my sister was allowed to be angry, but for some reason I was not. The adults were allowed to be angry with me, but as a child I wasn’t allowed to be angry with them. Nothing much changed when I myself became an adult, and mostly I just accepted it as the way it was. Many of us grow up with the mandate of ‘Don’t upset your mother’.

There’s a lot of people who are uncomfortable with anger, and I seemed to run into an awful lot of them in my early adulthood. So by the time I arrived in therapy, I was armed with my version of what it takes to be ‘mature’: ‘I don’t do anger,’ I said, and not only did I sincerely mean it, but I actually thought it was the end goal of adulthood. I didn’t understand the puzzled look that came back towards me. I certainly didn’t understand when my therapist seemed to indicate that my ‘not doing anger’ might be something we’d want to work on.

I equated anger with vehement, violent rage. It was destructive. It was demeaning. It was ugly and putrid and rotten and foul. Surely everyone in their right mind should be aiming to ‘not do anger’?

‘Aah, but there’s anger and there’s anger,’ my therapist said, unhelpfully. By this point I was beginning to feel a bit unsettled. Even talking about anger was making me squirm. I was convinced it was some sort of a trap, but I couldn’t quite figure out what for.

‘Part of your problem is that you’re not angry enough.’

You can go right off therapists, you know. This one was really getting under my skin.

And then there I was this weekend, talking to a survivor, and encouraging her to find her anger and use it to keep herself safe. ‘Part of our problem is that we’re not angry enough,’ I said, unoriginally.

It was an arduous journey from anger-teetotalism to where I’m at today. I had to unpick a lot of cognitive distortions, beliefs implanted covertly by abusers to cover their tracks. Because it was convenient that in my family I wasn’t allowed to be angry: convenient for the people who wanted to keep me quiet and didn’t want to be confronted by the reality of their own wrongdoing.

But I hadn’t seen it like that. So many of the beliefs we grow up with, we end up clinging to because we uncritically believe them to be true. Yorkshire is better than Lancashire; the milk goes in before the teabag; Christmas lunch can’t be eaten before 3pm. And children aren’t allowed to be angry with their parents. Obvious, huh?

But if you want to hurt a child, you need maintain a secret. What better way than to create a family culture where the children are never allowed to object to anything that is done to them? Where anger is forbidden? Where the child is always in the wrong?

There are lots of reasons why I didn’t ‘do’ anger, but it took me a long time before I realised that this was one of them. I had been set up never to be angry, because if I were angry, if I found my voice, if I learned to say, ‘No!’, then where would that leave my abusers?

Once I realised it was a set-up, it made me doubly angry: angry for the abuse, and angry for being tricked into never being angry.

So now out it all came – anger unleashed. Angry that I wasn’t allowed to be angry. Angry at what they did to me. Angry at the way they covered their tracks. Angry at their blaming of me, how I was the one nobody could trust, the one nobody should ever believe. And angry too because it was a set-up, to maintain their secret.

Anger is a protective force and a creative force. Anger doesn’t have to explode all over another person, to destroy them, to eviscerate them. Anger at its simplest is the boundary that says, ‘No!’

I had to get angry with them, in order to protect myself from them. They kept on expecting me to take the blame and be silent. They got angry with me when I dared to say that I’d been abused, even though I never said by whom. But this time I got angry back. I refused to take the blame. And I put up a boundary for the first time in my life.

That was ten years ago, and it was the best thing I ever did. And now I’m standing talking to this dear survivor, and she wants to know how she can keep herself safe from her abusers.

My heart explodes on the inside of me. I seethe with the wrongness of it all. Why should she be hurt? Why should she be so fearful? Why should they get away with this?

My mind spins through the obvious options, of grounding and breathing, of journalling and ‘phone a friend’. All the usual stuff – good stuff, wise stuff. But something more is needed. Something fundamental in all of this. How do we keep ourselves safe from people who would abuse us, when we don’t even know what we’re doing, when we’re programmed to obey them, when we switch automatically into submission mode?

It surges up within me, and I know what the answer is. We need to get angry.

We find the explosive energy of decades of unexpressed rage, and we tap into it to set a boundary. All the pain, all the hurt, all the injustice – instead of using it against ourselves, we lay a hold of it to plant a wall around ourselves. We say, ‘No!’

No, we’re not going to do what they say. No, we’re not going to let ourselves be hurt. No we’re not going to take the blame again. No, they can’t have access to us. No, we won’t do what they want.

No, no, no, no, no.

Want to stay safe? Get angry.

Want to change your life? Get angry.

Want to heal? Want to find help? Want to succeed? Then get angry.

Because the anger is in there. Anger is the natural response when our boundaries are transgressed. It’s the natural response when we’re invalidated and abused, when we’re maltreated and betrayed. Anger is the normal response to having been abused.

But we often fear anger, as if by acknowledging it, it will erupt all over us and we will set fire to the world around us. But I think we should fear our anger-less-ness more, because it’s that which fails to set a boundary, and keep us safe.

Anger is a protective force, a creative force. We mustn’t use it to hurt anyone. But we must use it to stay safe.

12 Comments

  1. Anne
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    I’ve been in trauma therapy and I’ve learned that I have protectors which harbour anger. It takes time to work with my system but I’m on my way toward being able to express healthy anger.

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  2. Denise Buxton
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    Anger kept me silent for so long. As an adult I recognised I hadn’t got a voice. Slowly anger started to seep out and I was told I was aggressive. I thought I was being passionate, I just wanted my view to be heard! Then the the inferno irrupted in my chest and how to deal with it without burning those who love me now. How sad, what I thought were my choices, my life, well it was all an elaborate illusion. Gosh it’s been a long journey.
    I try to help my daughter to recognise and deal with her own anger. I’d like her to know and feel her own voice. The tender and vulnerable voice I never had, I see unfolding in a petal but I feel strength in the wind. I’m reminded of the rage through injustice in the world but I know my boundaries now and I take such a therapeutic value from nature.
    Carolyn, you have inspired me in so many ways and you continue through your work, to support me more than you know and for that I’m forever grateful, Thank you.

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  3. David McGough
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    Living a huge height of traumatic loss then a period of terrible abuse and injustices (where other authors are the guilty party) – part of me using this profound life story surviving it is to become very educated and observant and that anger yes is very positive and what it is trying to tell me about the past where dehumanising events happened to a very nice man. Identifying healthy personal boundaries was very liberating so part of my hyper-alertness is that i instantly won’t tolerate such trauma ever again even a trigger of a re-experience of what i went through last year was met by me saying No ! Instantly exiting the situation. Anger is liberating because it wants to make life safer part of my post-traumatic growth being in environments where i am equal respected no longer betrayed.

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  4. Silversands
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    You’re exactly right about anger helping to lay the foundation of new boundaries.

    I spent so long putting myself second to my families wants and needs. It took me getting really, really angry about my abuse and my families neglect to finally lay it all out to them, and to start asserting my own boundaries.

    Harnessing that anger was one of the most productive things I ever did – I expected guilt afterwards, but it never came. Because I had challenged the dynamics of a lifetime and they could not defend themselves.

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  5. Moana Jakubowski
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    I’m not ithere yet. I am very numb, and therefore can intellectualize my anger, but still cannot FEEL the anger. I’m working on it. Your blog and books have been very helpful to me. Thank you for sharing your talents with us.

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  6. Merry
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    I felt a wave of sickness reading this as it still feels explosive, we didn’t do anger either. This insight is very helpful thank you.

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  7. Suzanne
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    This made me cry my eyes out. I was trained to dissociate at any hint of myself feeling ‘angry’, so naturally I am terrified to feel it now. Have been thinking a lot about the concept of getting angry – and you are absolutely correct that it is necessary – and I’m not sure I would even know what the feeling FEELS like. Thank you for writing this blog; what you write about is so important. You are an inspiration to many, myself included.

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    • Stella
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      I feel every bit of hurt in you. I suffered too.

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  8. Helen C
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    Thank you – Perfect timing for me 🙂

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  9. Imani
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    Getting angry to an appropriate degree with an appropriate person or situation is an art form! I too was conditioned to never be angry as an abused child, and as I was abused in a religious setting, forgiveness was pedalled out as being everything. There was no room for anger, but I had to forgive forgive forgive any transgression of boundaries. When the abuse memories dawned on me I went through the single most angriest phase of my entire life! and this anger erupted and was unleashed on everyone in my path. I yelled swore and hated the world I lived in and everyone who hasn’t been abused my I resented them for having had a happier childhood. My anger flooded out to mental health professionals as I felt they were fair objects for my anger. I went from no anger, to full anger, and now I’m progressing in my recovery I am learning the art of anger in balance. What is justified and what is too much. It’s subtle and challenging because it’s a whole new emotion. It’ll take me a while to get used to what to do with it 😉 It’s reassuring to know that this is not something that only affects me though, and seems fairly universal in abuse survivor circles.

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  10. Sheila Dane
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    I went through a period in my teenage years in which my anger expressed itself in violent images of what I wanted to do to my father and mother. I terrified myself with the things that were in my mind. For they were so violent, murderous, frightening. I thought it made me like my father who I didn’t want to be like, more than anything else. He was my litmus test of what was bad in the world and I knew I wanted to be nothing like him. He was violent and abusive. So was his twin brother. I thought my anger made me like them and for years repressed it, until I finally in my thirties got into therapy and got in touch with my anger. My rage was enormous. Huge, overwhelming. I had to let it run through me until I didn’t feel it anymore. I learned to set boundaries with my family from whom I am still estranged as they will believe nothing that I say about my father or his brother. I’m still angry about what happened to me but it is a much more manageable thing now. Not nearly so powerful or overwhelming. And the murderous thoughts went away as well. For which I am grateful to the three therapists that I saw over a period of 30 years. I still struggle to exress anger with anyone. Especially men.

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  11. Michael Shannahan
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    I see anger and fear as flip sides of the same coin, as adrenalin can produce a fight or flight response.
    In my experience people can quickly shift from one to the other, or find that underneath one emotion is the other.
    In terms of healing I found that feeling and believing that I had a right to my anger was a vital part of my healing process, particularly for me to be able to overcome my fears. Without my anger I was just stuck with my fear.
    Further, in terms of emotional health, I believe the least healthy way to be is turning that anger inwards, especially aggressively, and that the most healthy way to be is to always feel able to express it assertively. However, to move from one position to the other commonly involves stages where that anger comes out aggressively and uncontrollably.

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