Why Am I Still So Angry After All These Years?
Understanding persistent anger and what you can do about it.
Posted May 30, 2020
Has anyone ever said to you, “Why are you still angry about that sexual trauma? Didn’t it happen years ago?” Although this question in itself is discounting (and inaccurate), you may also wonder why anger persists, and whether it will ever go away.
The first part of the answer has to do with the fact that you have a legitimate reason to be angry: You were terribly wronged. This may include being betrayed, lied to, blamed, and violated. Anger is a healthy, appropriate, and reasonable response to an injustice. Sexual trauma is an injustice. It is an illegal, immoral, unethical criminal act, and very wrong.
Even though it is a criminal act, many, if not most, cases of sexual trauma are not handled well. Many perpetrators are never charged, held accountable, or properly punished, contributing to an unsatisfying lack of closure for victims.
To add fuel to the fire, many, if not most, victims do not feel supported. This includes responses of family, friends, or of professionals in the reporting or treatment process (if reporting or treatment occurred). Victims may find that attempts to talk about it in order to get closure may be met with annoyance, impatience, minimization, and victim-blaming. This only continues the anger and invalidation.
Perpetrators are getting away with committing a crime without consequences, and victims are not supported. Yet, the burden is on the victim to magically let go of the anger?
Part of you knows that it doesn’t feel good to be angry and it would be nice not to be anymore. Part of you may also believe that you need to be angry, because to not be angry would somehow diminish the injustice. As if to say, “Oh well, that’s OK” when it is not OK and never will be. Even if you are working on forgiveness as a path to free yourself, there may be a part of you that doesn’t want the perpetrator to get off the hook.
Other reasons for persistent anger could include a belief that in a way anger protects you by keeping others at a distance, or by creating a shield around you. Or it may even be an odd but familiar companion available to validate your experience when you need it. Anger is also a natural component of grief because it acknowledges what happened. And anger can toggle between other reactions such as shock, disbelief, and depression.
There may also be layers of anger, not only about what happened and how it was handled, but also as a result of the multiple consequences and losses that were incurred because of the trauma. This may include a thwarted career, health issues, consequences in relationships, and difficulty with sexual intimacy. Therefore, there are many reasons why you are still angry after all these years. The events that happened were and are terribly wrong, most likely were not handled well, and lack a fitting closure. Who wouldn’t be angry? It is absolutely justified.
There are also different types of anger. Rage is the most recognizable as an outward display of anger typically loud, big, unpredictable, and dangerous. It is like a large bonfire which can easily get out of control. Everyone knows rage. However, there is another type of anger, not as readily apparent but equally concerning, and that is resentment. Resentment is like the smoldering coals after the flames are gone. This type of anger is held inward. It tends to linger and can churn inside for years. Resentment is caused by unresolved anger. Something happened and there was no acknowledgment, apology, restitution, or closure. Resentment-anger just sits there, and you are left holding a bag of heavy rocks.
Sexual trauma is an injustice, but so is persistent anger. Why should your past continue to rob you of your precious time, recalling negative events, feeling toxic emotions of anger, and knowing that it can take a toll on your health and relationships? It is unfair to think you are stuck holding a bag of consequences from anger that could be weighing you down, and zapping your happiness.
How dare the events of the past continue to grip your present and interfere with your future?
Now we have a puzzle. On the one hand, your anger is absolutely valid and justified. On the other hand, you deserve to be happy and free of nagging anger. Understandably, the anger is very deep and well justified. But if you find that anger is creating a barrier to your happiness, then it might be worth considering another path.
Several strategies can help. The first task is to work on a way to get closure. Although you may never get the satisfaction to witness it, if you knew justice would be served, would this help with getting closure? If you knew the perpetrator would carry consequences, would you be willing to wipe your hands of your anger and let the perpetrator hold the bag of rocks instead of you?
I offer the concept of poetic justice. This is the concept that somehow, somewhere, someway, people reap the natural consequences of their own behavior. What the perpetrator did was intentional. This person planned, prepared, and knowingly took something that was not given. People who act with malicious malintent toward others will invariably have consequences…even if they lie and seem to get away with the crime. That person knows what was done, you know what was done, and others also probably know. Somehow life has a way of finding justice. These consequences are not only inevitable, but it is that person’s journey, his or her life lessons. You no longer need to be stuck in anger-jail waiting for the other person to get punished. You can be free knowing that somehow, somewhere, some way, justice will be served. You don’t have to do anything. They will do it to themselves.
Your challenge is to release your bond with this person that hurt you. Poetic justice gives you a way to release your anger without minimizing what happened. It gives you permission to free yourself of the past, and from constant thoughts about what happened. This makes room to think about new things, and for new things to come into your future.
Visualization Exercise: With practice, anger can subside, release, and fade away. Imagine a theatrical stage in a large venue. See the character Anger dominating center stage of your life, taking a disproportionate amount of your attention and energy. You are the director. Thank Anger for its performance and imagine guiding it to the side of the stage. Now imagine Anger going further and further away. Now Anger is sitting in a single seat at the back of the theater. It is not even on stage anymore, but rather a passive member of the audience…Notice that there is room for something new to come on stage. Imagine something wonderful on your stage.