Can Anger Help You Heal From Past Trauma?
Anger's role in repairing old childhood wounds is curiously ambiguous.
Posted Jan 29, 2020
When you express anger toward someone, you give not just them but yourself the message that you don’t deserve the way they’re treating you. That it’s unfair. And in that moment, employing the invalidating language of blame is almost guaranteed to enable you to feel morally superior to your perceived antagonist. Nonetheless, you may need to stay angry with them to maintain this comforting sense of righteousness.
Anger with others for felt injustices in your past works the same way. It serves to vindicate you, affirm your innocence, and establish your victimhood—and in the face of adversity that back then you may have been powerless to oppose. And such an inability to confront acutely felt indignities is all the more probable if at the time you were still a child.
But regardless of how severe the abuse or neglect you endured may have been, the critical question remains whether the ire which, deep inside, you continue to feel toward your perpetrator(s) can heal the psychic hurts that represent part of your family legacy. Or rather, whether your lasting anger, and also your resentment, mostly serve to "cover up" these old wounds?
Anger as a secondary emotion—pro-actively yet unconsciously meant to keep more distressful emotions at bay—is a topic I’ve been exploring for some two decades now. The emotion seems almost indispensable as an (ego-protecting) way of projecting onto others negative beliefs you might, however secretly, still harbor about yourself.
Typically, anger—and the denigrating sentiments accompanying it— assist you in exonerating yourself from any wrongdoing. At the very least, they usually help safeguard you from self-disparaging thoughts and feelings going back to the negative messages you encountered originally from others, especially your caretakers. Whatever insensitive or cruel looks or words you suffered can be alleviated if later you fault them rather than yourself. In this sense, it’s much less painful to feel wronged by others than to view yourself as wrong.
In short, virtually all of us need a certain amount of anger to mitigate underlying bad feelings about ourselves or soften the blow of another’s (direct or indirect) attack on our competence or character. It hardly matters what these troublesome underground feelings might be. They could relate to anxiety, embarrassment, shame, or humiliation; a sense of ineptness, emptiness, alienation, or powerlessness; or some diffuse hurt you can’t quite put your finger on. All that’s relevant is that your anger keeps these more disturbing feelings from rising to the surface.
And I should add that even the anger you may have felt toward your parents as a child, because of their failing to meet your compelling need to experience a more secure attachment with them, could have been repressed. For if you felt dependent on their validation (and, as children, we all do), you would instinctively have realized that voicing your anger toward their lack of attentiveness, kindness, or caring could further threaten a bond that felt tenuous at best.
My answer here is not without ambiguity. For anger does play a role in recovering from whatever psychic hurts that beleaguered you as a child. But it’s hardly pivotal either, and it can trap rather than liberate you from past inequities and injustices. Moreover, anger that you don’t work through, or transcend, can “morph” into something more harmful to you.
In an earlier post, I warned readers stuck in angry feelings: “Don’t Let Your Anger ‘Mature’ Into Bitterness.” That is, if you allow anger to congeal inside you, it will harden into an attitude that not only will contaminate your relationships with others but your all-important relationship with yourself. As I stated back then: “All bitterness starts out as hurt” and that “left to fester, anger [in reaction to that hurt] eventually becomes the corrosive ulcer that is bitterness.”
You can’t achieve, or complete, any personal healing if you remain burdened by the dour or irate notion that how your family—or your childhood environment generally—dealt with you was so insidious that it shouldn’t be forgiven. It’s hardly a coincidence that virtually everyone who has written about childhood trauma talks about how important forgiving the past is if you’re to recover from its damaging effects. Still, when you were a child and without any “adult authority” of your own, you likely concluded that if you were treated badly it was because you were bad, that it must be something in you that caused others to be so callous or uncaring toward you.
All the same, in the effort to heal old wounds, experiencing anger can be a very effective first step. Why? Simply because feeling this emotion is tantamount to telling yourself that you never deserved to be treated in the harmful way you were.
But if you’re to get beyond this initial step toward healing, which involves anger-related self-vindication, it’s essential that you also transcend it. And this undertaking necessitates opening the door to painful feelings that 'till now your anger has masked. This is to say that the self-critical ways you’ve continued, however covertly, to see yourself (and even many decades since growing up) originated in feelings you had about yourself before anger came in to reduce, or reverse, your personal fault-finding.
Before the controversial Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus, pop psychologist John Gray published the book What You Feel, You Can Heal. And much more recently, many clinical neurobiologists (e.g., see Stephen Porges, Alan Schore, Bessel van der Kolk, & Daniel Siegel) have demonstrated that it’s when we’re able to get to the deepest emotional, situational, and even physical roots of difficulties we’re still struggling with that the negative feelings and sensations they left us with and—even more crucially—many of our adverse self-beliefs, are most amenable to change.
In many instances, what this requires is that we get past the reactive anger we unconsciously “installed” to keep these emotions from overwhelming our system. Yet, if in a controlled manner, we can manage to tolerate such emotions (and many people will require the assistance of a professional to do so), we can alter not only these haunting feelings from the past but also the negative messages linked to them.
There is by now ample literature on how you, with or without the assistance of a trained therapist, can “re-write” your history, not simply by returning to it but “revisioning” it. So I won’t repeat what others have already illuminated (e.g., see my highly selective Reference section). Nonetheless, I’d like to stress that regardless of any writer’s particular emphasis, they all seem to agree that what’s key is that you (re-)approach your childhood through the lens of self-compassion (not to mention, the same kindness, compassion, and generosity of spirit for those culpable—but also wounded—perpetrators).
We all have a so-called “inner critic”—and an “outer” one, too. And these most unsympathetic of authoritarian judges must be superseded by broad, overriding empathy and compassion. For only then can we gain the unconditional self-acceptance that, all too likely, has eluded us up 'till now.
© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Brandt, A. (2018, Apr. 02) 9 steps to healing childhood trauma as an adult. Retrieved fromhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/overcoming-destructive-anger/201709/how-witnessing-your-wounds-can-curtail-your-anger
Earley, J. (2012, Apr. 12). Working with anger in internal family systems therapy. Larkspur, CA: Pattern System Books.
Firestone, L. (2020, Jan. 22). Making sense of trauma. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/compassion-matters/202001/making-sense-trauma
Golden, G. (2017, Sept. 24). How witnessing your wounds can curtail your anger. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/overcoming-destructive-anger/201709/how-witnessing-your-wounds-can-curtail-your-anger
Nickerson, M. (2016, July 06). Breaking the cycle: EMDR therapy solutions for problematic anger and related behaviors. EMDR Europe 2016 Conference: The Hague, The Netherlands. Retrieved from http://www2.masterapp2.nl/assets/uploads/uploads/49406-1-Breaking-the-Cycle-EMDR-Europe-Preconference-2016-Nickerson-PP-Handouts.pdf
Robinson, L., Smith, M., & Segal, J. (2019, Nov. 12). Emotional and psychological trauma. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/coping-with-emotional-and-psychological-trauma.htm
Seltzer, L. F. (2008, July 11). What your anger may be hiding. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/200807/what-your-anger-may-be-hiding
Seltzer, L. F. (2011, Aug. 10).The Past: Don’t dwell on it, revision it! Part 1. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201108/the-past-dont-dwell-it-revision-it-part-1
Seltzer, L. F. (2011, Aug. 10). The Past: Don’t dwell on it, revision it! Part 2. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201108/the-past-dont-dwell-it-revision-it-part-2
Seltzer, L. F. (2013, June 14). Anger: How we transfer feelings of guilt, hurt, and fear. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/compassion-matters/202001/making-sense-trauma
Seltzer, L. F. (2017, Sept. 28). How is rewriting history the goal of all therapy? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201709/how-is-rewriting-history-the-goal-all-therapy