Although many adult survivors believe otherwise, anger can be used as either a weapon or a tool. Most of us experienced anger when it was used as a weapon, in the form of abuse…yelling, hitting, threatening, overpowering. As child victims of this anger, we may learn to perceive anger as dangerous & bad—something we should not express, ever, because we might hurt someone with it. Or…we may learn that anger is a weapon we can use to keep people from hurting us…by hurting them first. The former results in depression & a variety of self-destructive behaviors, such as self-sabotage, self-mutilation, & eating disorders. The latter results in using our anger to distance ourselves from others &/or becoming abusers ourselves. “So,” you say, “how can anger possibly be anything but a weapon…how can it be a tool?”
Consider the following scenario: A female adult survivor, who was abused by her father, is working on her recovery issues & discovers that she is feeling anger toward her mother (a non-offending parent). When told (by the daughter) about the abuse, the mother expresses horror that such a thing could happen to her daughter, disbelief that her husband could have done this, & remorse that she did not know about it soon enough to stop it. The daughter, realizing that her mother knew nothing about the abuse when it was occurring, feels guilty for feeling anger toward her mother, & tries to talk herself out of doing anything with her anger because she believes it is “irrational” for her to feel this way.
Is the daughter using her anger as a weapon or a tool? If she manages to ignore her anger & stuff it away, sooner or later, that anger will come back to haunt her, in the form of self-destructive behavior. If she blows up at her mother (yelling, calling her names, hitting, etc.), she is being abusive. In both cases, she is using anger as a weapon. If she decides to talk with her mother about her anger, expressing it without becoming abusive, she is using the anger as a tool for healing herself & healing her relationship with her mother.
Let’s assume, with this particular example, that the daughter is angry with her mother for not protecting her from abuse by her father. “How could she protect her daughter when she didn’t know about it?” you ask. A seemingly logical question…but logic doesn’t apply here…feelings aren’t logical (remember Mr. Spock!).
Emotions that stem from childhood abuse are experienced from the perspective of the child at the time of the abuse—that is, when you feel angry with your mother for not protecting you when you were being abused at age 5, you are feeling your anger from the perspective of that 5-year-old, not from the perspective of the adult you are now. That 5-year-old wants “MOMMY” there “NOW” to protect her. It is that past awareness of a need for protection that results in these feelings of anger. We need to deal with them in the present in order to resolve them. They won’t just go away.
So…how can anger be used as a tool? Anger is something like a barometer—it measures the need to protect ourselves. When we feel angry or behave angrily, we need to look at what is happening in our lives & determine what it is we are needing to protect. For example, when asked to do something for someone else, an adult survivor may feel anger when she gives an automatic “yes” response &, then, at some level, realizes she did not want to do what she agreed to do. When an adult survivor pays attention to this feeling & respects its message, she can take steps to change her response to a “no” or, at least, work at becoming more assertive so she can say “no” on future occasions. Anger is also something like a battery—it provides energy that allows us to take action. The daughter mentioned in our scenario might also use her anger to provide energy for her involvement in a career or volunteer position doing child protection work.
There is an alternative to using anger as a weapon. That alternative—using anger as a tool—requires several courses of action. We must:
(1) recognize that we are angry about a particular situation/event;
(2) acknowledge our right to feel angry about it;
(3) acknowledge our right to feel angry toward a particular person, if the situation resulted from another’s actions;
(4) acknowledge our right to express the anger we are feeling;
(5) allow ourselves to express our anger, in a constructive, non-destructive manner;
(6) figure out what we will have to do in the future in order to protect or take care of ourselves in similar situations;
(7) follow through on these means of protection.
Our prisons are full of adult survivors who have expressed their anger destructively by abusing others. Our hospitals are utilized daily by those who have taken their anger out destructively on themselves. Self-protection is a necessary action—one that will lead to health & happiness. Do not assume that anger can only be used as a weapon—there is another way. Anger can be used as a valuable tool in our process of recovery—one that will serve us well for the rest of our lives.
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