Anger in its various forms, shapes, and guises is a doozy of an emotion. Few of us would count anger as a preferred, let alone favored, emotion. Yet for survivors of trauma, it is a well-known and sometimes frequently experienced emotion.
Before getting any further, a quick moment of clarification is necessary. The word anger encompasses many different experiences—from a quickly passing irritation to longer-lasting indignation, to being irate, having resentment, or harboring exasperation or hate. If you are interested in an in-depth discussion of the various forms of anger, I encourage you to read Paul Ekman’s book, Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, as this article will look at anger linked to the traumas you have survived.
Any facet of the traumatic experience may trigger your anger, and your anger may have various levels of intensity. Keep in mind that your anger is unique to you—what I mean by this is that what angers you may not be the same as what angers others with a similar life experience or what angers those who know and love you. In addition, your anger will not be static. What angers you can and will change with time, with various experiences, and with healing, insight, and growth. The variation of anger you experience may also change. You may go from having frustration to having rage about the very same component of the mistreatment, or you may go from having resentment about one facet of your story to having peace about that precise facet.
All of this changeability is normal—after all, emotions are fluid experiences. Just like a maple tree looks different with each passing session, the emotional relationship with your experiences of trauma will morph, ebb, and flow.
Like every emotion, anger is experienced within our bodies, and most of us can readily identify the sense of heat in our thighs, tension in our balled-up hands, or friction in our jaws that often goes along with anger. Anger is often easily identified because it has such a degree of intensity and power within it. This intensity is also experienced with anger’s urge to take action—we want to express, expend, or display our anger, be it through words, actions, or deeds. As most of us have learned, doing exactly what our anger wants us to do is generally not a good idea (please note that this maxim does not hold true in life-threatening situations). So, then, what can you do with the anger you feel and the anger you experience due to the trauma(s) you have survived?
A subtler and quieter option is to recognize why the anger is arising in the first place. Almost always, anger arises when you feel you have been wronged, when there is an approaching danger, when something you value is being interfered with, blocked, or denied. To some degree, the intensity of your anger is present so that you could annihilate the threat, clear the hurdle, or push aside the obstacle that is in your way or coming toward you. Phrased another way, anger often arises when your needs, rights, or deepest wants are threatened, violated, or ignored. This, in turn, makes anger not a “crazy” emotion but rather an emotion that is trying to stand up for you—an emotion that is trying to assert, protect, or attain that which you both need and hold dear.
There also is a quiet statement of worth within such anger. Anger that arises to protect is rooted in a notion that, “I am worthy of having my needs met, my rights respected, and my desires deemed legitimate.” Recognizing that within the fury of your anger is a quiet statement of your needs and worth can be liberating.
Rather than judging your anger as inappropriate, you can validate the genesis of your anger. Yes, it was wrong that I was mistreated; yes, my inherent human needs ought to have been met; no, it was not OK that my rights were denied; no, my wants should not have been manipulated, etc. Claiming allegiance to the validity of your anger can free you from acting out your anger and can aid you in beginning to claim your worth.
By taking on this perspective, you shift your relationship with anger—rather than connecting with anger’s urge to action or anger’s bodily feelings, you now relate to its message of legitimacy and worth. This shift, in turn, frees you to grow through your anger; because you have understood the message within the anger, the anger may not need to arise as often or as intensely.
I will be the first to recognize that transforming your relationship with anger is not an easy task, but I encourage you to at least reflect on the possibility that there are grains of wisdom and truth within your fiery anger. I also encourage you to reach out to a trained therapist so that you can receive all the support, guidance, and assistance you deserve and might need in understanding, listening to, and healing through the anger related to your trauma(s). As always, I encourage you to heal, to grow, and to claim your inherent right to lead a peaceful and meaningful life!
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, Posttraumatic Stress / Trauma Topic Expert Contributor
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