What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?

9 Mar

Once, during a heated fight with my husband, I felt a flashback coming on and fled the room. He followed and found me in the bathroom. I had wedged myself between the toilet and the wall and curled up into a ball on the floor. “Please don’t hurt me,” I said. He’s asked more than once why I invariably react to his anger with anxiety, even when it isn’t directed at me. He’s never done anything violent, not to me or in general. Why can’t I just allow him to feel angry? Why must I become skittish and immediately try to placate him? It makes him feel as though he isn’t allowed to have that emotion. (He articulates this easily because he’s a trauma-free, emotionally balanced individual, or as I call him, “a unicorn.”)

The immediate answer is that witnessing a loved one’s anger can be triggering. Anyone who’s lived with domestic violence knows that when your abuser starts losing their temper, it’s wise to hit the deck. It doesn’t matter whether the anger originated with you or how insignificant the infraction was. That rage is always lurking just beneath the surface, and the slightest provocation can unleash it.

Actor Patrick Stewart has spoken and written extensively about growing up with an abusive father and how he developed such a finely-tuned sensitivity that even when he was upstairs alone in his room, he could read his father’s emotions. He explains that “when you grow up with domestic violence in a confined space you learn to gauge, very precisely, the temperature of situations.” Stewart used this ability to try to protect his mother:

I became an expert at judging the heat of an argument….As the temperature rose I would get out of bed and on to the landing, and, if it rose further, I would go down the stairs, sitting on the stone steps so as to be as close as possible to the door if something bad happened. If the escalation continued I could try to intervene….I knew exactly the moment when I would throw the door open and rush in and say “Stop!” or literally put my body between them.

Once programmed, this hyper-sensitivity to others’ anger is difficult to unlearn.

But once I started thinking about it, I realized that that does not fully answer my husband’s question. Trauma is a palimpsest. I was already well-trained by the time I stumbled into my first abusive relationship. I knew that the only acceptable reaction to others’ anger was submission, just as I knew that my own anger hurt my loved ones and cost me their love.

My sister has a rage problem. When she was little, she constantly threw temper tantrums so loud and violent that the neighbors suspected my parents of beating her. She’d throw herself face-down on the floor and pound dents into the rug with her little fists. She screamed until her face turned purple and veins throbbed in her temples. No one could even get close, much less soothe her. The only option was to monitor her and wait for her to exhaust herself. She outgrew the temper tantrums, but her rage never abated.

It was silently but unequivocally understood that my parents expected me to compensate for my sister’s fury by stifling my own. They reinforced this with a strict zero-tolerance policy: any expression of anger on my part immediately met with tearful exasperation from my mother and an icy emotional retreat by my father. There were also the more conventional disciplinary measures of corporeal punishment, groundings, and banishment to my bedroom, but anyone from a dysfunctional family knows that guilt and withholding love are more effective deterrents.

My mother is an accomplished martyr and she groomed me to inherit her mantle: tirelessly help everyone. The needs of others supersede your own. Respect and submit to your elders. Do not resist or complain. Never fight back. These lessons did not serve me well. Consequently, I was nursing my own white-hot core of rage by the time I reached adolescence. In accordance with my family’s dynamic, I held it inside, where it festered into self-loathing. As I grew older, I did what many sexual abuse victims and family scapegoats who’ve internalized their inferior status do: I gravitated toward abusive people who would perpetuate a cycle I instinctively recognized as both normal and deserved.

In her memoir The Invisible Storm, Juanima Hiatt writes about the role her own anger played in her recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder. When she was fourteen, a friend’s parent reported her stepfather for sexually abusing her. Her stepfather was arrested and she was sent to a psychiatrist who compounded the trauma:

“Tell me how you felt when Ron molested you,” he asked in a subsequent session.

I blinked. I hated that word: Molest. And now he wanted to know how I felt about it? The thought overwhelmed and confused me. I’d never tried to scrutinize or vocalize my feelings about being abused…. I pulled out the single word that felt the strongest.

“Angry,” I said. “I felt angry.”

He furrowed his brow and leaned back in his chair. Tapping his pencil on his chin, as if I’d said something confusing, he tilted his head and said, “You felt angry?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well…you shouldn’t have felt that way.”

This conversation inflicted tremendous damage. From that day on, Juanima redirected her anger inwards and held herself responsible for the abuse. She learned to hold her pain and anger at bay by denying her own needs and becoming relentlessly other-oriented. This made her more vulnerable, and over the next few years she was repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted by boyfriends and acquaintances.

When her PTSD finally manifested, all of these mechanisms she’d employed to survive in an abusive environment intensified the ravages of her trauma and hindered her ability to heal from it. Her recovery reached a turning point during her first appointment with a therapist who expressed sympathy for her ordeal. Juanima responded, “It’s okay…it really wasn’t that traumatic.” The therapist’s reaction was a revelation:

No!” Her response both shocked and jolted me from my daze. She was the one shaking now, furious, and almost in tears. “It’s not okay! It’s horrible! Horrible! None of this should have happened to you, Juanima! You should be angry! Very, very angry at these guys!”

I stared at her, frozen at the words she had unleashed. My mouth hung open, locked in her genuine compassion, and the anger she so freely displayed. The anger she said I should have….This woman was gushing with it, and it shocked me….I knew my next step of healing would be starting here.

Victims of sexual and domestic violence, especially female ones, learn early on that expressing their own anger is socially unacceptable and can exacerbate the abuse. But no one is born a victim.  Numerous studies have shown that young children inherently grasp the concept of fairness. A study conducted by the University of Washington concluded that babies as young as fifteen months understand that it isn’t fair when toys and food are arbitrarily distributed unevenly. Our anger is a recognition of the inherent injustice of the abuse and a refusal to accept that “that’s just the way things are.”

Too many survivors, myself included, were both implicitly and explicitly pressured to internalize our own anger and downplay the injustice of what was done to us. Acknowledging that anger  breaks the cycle of denial and self-loathing. It plays a crucial role in the journey from being a victim to being a survivor. Obviously, that’s not the end of it; we must then learn to manage that backlog of anger in ways that don’t hurt ourselves or others, and we must address our fear of others’ anger. But we cannot begin to heal until we allow ourselves to be angry about what happened to us.

I still have trouble acknowledging and expressing my own anger, and I suspect I’ll be working on it for a long time. But I know that unless I do so, my trauma will have more control over me than I do over it. I also know that it’s vital to interrupting the interpersonal transference of dysfunction and trauma. My husband has just as much a right to feel and express anger as I do, and it pains me that he feels as though he can’t.

I recently came across an unexpected source of inspiration in a song Fred Rogers wrote to teach children to regulate their anger in healthy ways:

What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?

It’s great to be able to stop
When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.

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