Healthy Anger as Part of Healing from Emotional Abuse

A while ago I wrote a post called “If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship…” It describes many aspects of emotional abuse and what victims typically experience.

Reading it again, I realize that I wrapped up the post in a somewhat tentative way. I wrote how one of the first steps towards healing is to understand the abuse and its dynamics – to maintain distance and recognize what’s going on. And that’s true. You need to do that to experience some healing. But of course it isn’t enough.

What else can you do? What’s a key part of the process of finding yourself again, waking up, and gaining strength?

Healthy Anger

Anger is a natural reaction to abuse. However, when you’re living in the midst of abuse, your anger may have no healthy outlet.

For example, a child in a dysfunctional home often gets punished for showing normal emotions, including anger. What happens then? The anger turns inward. It rips into the psyche and digs into the body. It helps create depression and self-loathing, and possibly gastrointestinal complaints and other health problems.

The anger may leap outwards at various targets. The victim may also take up addictive behaviors, like drinking or eating too much, to help cope with these overpowering but buried feelings.

Often, victims of abuse aren’t aware of just how angry they are. They don’t always connect their ravaged psyche or destructive behaviors with their suppressed emotions.

That’s why expressing anger is such a critical part of healing. When you’re healing from abuse, you need to let out the anger and understand it.

Letting out anger doesn’t mean destroying other people or harming yourself. The anger may come out in sessions with a therapist, hopefully a space that’s safe for you. It may involve screaming in a room. While remaining in the present, you might confront the past, naming the abuse out loud and explicitly placing the responsibility for it on the perpetrator. It can mean just letting yourself feel the anger – knowing what it is and where it comes from and riding it out as it pours out of you. Maybe you can find additional outlets for it in vigorous exercise or artistic expression.

I don’t think our culture deals with anger in a healthy way (where I live, in the U.S.). More often, what I see is a pressure on abuse victims to quickly forgive. In the name of being virtuous, in the name of “moving on,” victims are urged to resolve everything with speed and minimal fuss and then act as if it never happened. But that isn’t how people heal. You can’t force people to forgive their abusers. If forgiveness comes, it must be natural. (I also don’t think forgiveness will look the same for different situations and offenses.)

People are afraid even of healthy anger, because it isn’t tidy and neat. It doesn’t lead to simple resolutions and to problems getting swept away and blissfully ignored. Even as it heals you, it’s harrowing. It’s painful and potentially overwhelming. It doesn’t come out all at once. Maybe it never fully leaves you. But it can be put to good use. It can motivate you, remind you of your mental, spiritual, and emotional needs, and help you assert your boundaries and defend your dignity.

As a victim of emotional abuse, you may never have learned to understand, feel, or express anger in a healthy way. In recognizing it and finding a way to express it that doesn’t destroy yourself or others, you may find yourself experiencing other effects: less guilt and self-loathing, a more vivid inner life, a painful but necessary awakening, a need to change the way you live. It can generate an urge to locate yourself when you think the abuse has weakened or demolished you. You’re finding yourself in the rubble and pushing your way out.

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Synaptic Sunday #8 – The Internet Anger edition

1) A Scientific American article asks: Why is Everyone on the Internet so Angry?

Is everyone angry? Sure, there are regular “flame wars” online, but from what I’ve seen, all it takes is a relatively small number of very angry hateful people to leave a nasty taste in your mouth if you’re reading through a comment thread. Sometimes they pile on in greater numbers if they’re targeting someone (usually for political or religious reasons) or on certain sites that seem to welcome them or encourage their anger, but all it takes is one or two to derail a comment thread (and some of them don’t do so out of anger).

Anyway it usually isn’t anger alone that’s the problem; it’s anger channeled into an aim to attack and destroy. It’s anger that defies all attempts at reasoning or having a real conversation (which, as the article points out, is difficult enough to do on the internet). But there are many civil people too who can disagree without frothing at the mouth or inflicting deliberate hurt, and there are also quite a few people who rarely or never comment on sites or post anything of their own so it’s hard to tell what state of mind they’re in as they surf the web; people who comment regularly are only a part of the huge population of internet users.

The internet is great for letting people get on a soapbox and deliver an angry rant. Is this always psychologically destructive? I think it depends on the rant. Sometimes ranting can feel good and be beneficial to your health, especially if the anger is gotten over with quickly and you haven’t damaged anyone else with it. The question is – why are you ranting publicly where anyone can see you? Why do you need the audience?

I can see people doing it to get support or open up a real debate, without necessarily being nasty. But other times these angry rants are just vile foaming-at-the-mouth attacks on others, done to slander, demean and misinform. Some people take joy in spreading misery (and in knowing that they’re out of reach of people who’d want to sock them for it). Or for whatever reason they don’t care. Maybe they underestimate the impact of their words; people often don’t consider the ramifications of what they do, and you can publish anything on the internet, instantly, without pause for reconsideration.

I agree with the point in the article in how staying anonymous yourself and not interacting face-to-face with others is a situation that encourages more verbal abuse and less accountability. It’s also a great way to get attention: saying over-the-top things drives traffic to sites and generally gets people to respond to your comments more (including with nasty comments of their own). To some there’s the satisfaction of knowing they can say or do things they’d hesitate about in everyday life – and people will listen! It’s out there. You have a voice, even if it’s shrill and hateful and rude.

A lot of the angry hateful people behave abominably when coming up against people with viewpoints or lifestyles (or biological makeups) markedly different from theirs. Online and offline they might inhabit their own enclaves of like-minded people, but inevitably they come across others and, unlike strangers offline, they get exposed online to the thoughts and feelings of these “Others”; this can be threatening and upsetting, too much to take in and too much of a temptation not to try and crush. These ‘Others’ are the enemy and must be torn down; they must be schooled and scolded and screamed at and insulted to within an inch of their life.

Do you think people are ever completely different online than they are offline?

2) Here’s a related link, with a business angle:Why We Get So Angry Online and How to Deal with the Rage

There’s a standard saying online that time passes more quickly, a lot can happen in an Internet minute. Part of the issue with rage online is that it may pass very quickly for a person who is angry, but the effects of their actions may last longer.