Anger Management Problems
Dealing effectively with anger is part of dealing effectively with strong emotions. Research shows that abuse survivors have trouble dealing with strong emotions, leading to emotional overwhelm and inappropriate responses to emotions. Anger outbursts are just one sign of this. Researchers like Allan Schore suggest a brain development problem from abuse in controlling emotions, including anger, in addition to destructive lessons we learned about handling our feelings from our abusers. In any case, the problems that come from difficulties in anger management go beyond just anger outbursts.
Expressing Anger as Children
As children, we learned not to express anger. Anger brought all kinds of negative consequences, such as rejection, guilt trips, or ridicule. We were told we had no right to feel angry. The emotional consequences were worse than a physical beating, and we wanted to avoid feeling bad so we avoided what triggered them.
Sometimes we imposed the suppression of anger on ourselves. Being angry at the people who take care of your every need is a scary thing. What if they abandon you because of it? Abusers, unlike healthy parents, don’t make their kids feel like it’s safe to express any emotion. Or perhaps we felt responsible for keeping our parents happy. Knowing that anger made them unhappy, we didn’t dare to express it.
Then there are those of us who used anger as a way to get attention. Temper tantrums were an effective way of getting what we wanted and of feeling loved. So we got used to expressing anger a lot. The more extreme, the more effective. It became a habit that’s hard to break, expressing anger over everything that goes wrong in our lives.
Neither of these situations reflects a healthy relationship with anger. When we suppress anger, we’re not getting rid of it. It comes out in various ways, damaging our relationships and our health. When we use it to get attention, we make it a tool for something else. Regulating it becomes about getting that other thing, so we’re not really dealing with the anger or with what prompts it.
Expressing Anger as Adults
Since we don’t learn to deal with anger effectively and anger won’t be suppressed for long, it comes out in other ways that can really hurt us and those around us. Uncontrollable anger outbursts are one obvious way. They make it unpleasant to be around us and can damage our relationships.
Anger, however, can also be turned inward and camouflaged as other problems. Addictions can be a way for us to avoid dealing with a strong emotion like anger and any accompanying unpleasant emotions such as guilt and self-disgust. Rather than process the anger we feel against those who abused us, we numb ourselves to it so as not to deal with the complex and often conflicting emotions we feel, such as the desire for their acceptance and love against the anger for the way they treated us.
Mismanaged anger can also lead to negative health effects. This is true whether you express the anger or suppress it, according to Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology Today. Anger gets the nervous system going because it’s one of the “fight or flight” emotions. That can lead to heart problems, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and anxiety. Note that studies have been done to show a link between childhood abuse and chronic headaches, and anger mismanagement is possibly one factor to support this.
Anger mismanagement is also linked to depression by some researchers. The relationship is complex, and it’s not clear whether anger causes depression or depression causes anger or there’s an inter-relationship between both. In any case, research has linked the experience of child abuse to depression, so it’s not a stretch to see anger issues as related to that.
Because the expression of anger is often taboo in abusive families, we may have learned to feel guilty for even feeling it, let alone expressing it. We may also feel helpless in expressing anger towards are emotional abusers if they’re still in our lives, which fuels depression. If we do express anger towards them, they often make us feel bad about ourselves, further contributing to our depression.
Anger from abuse, past and present, can also come out in more subtle ways. We may sabotage our efforts to achieve some goal as an expression of anger. If, for instance, our abusive parents wanted us to get a college degree and made us feel like we were stupid until we got one, we may sabotage a number of attempts to get one as an expression of the anger we feel for being put down for not having one.
The opposite thing can happen as well. We may express anger against our abusers through over-achievement that’s not rooted in authentic growth. We may, for instance, find ourselves with a degree in the subject of their choosing, a high-paying job that they pushed us to get, and a lifestyle that pleases them while we feel empty inside. Rather than express our anger and stand up for ourselves, we fulfill their desires with a kind of frantic energy that really hides the anger within. It often comes out, though, in one of the other destructive ways, such as physical problems, addictions, anxiety, or depression.
We can’t blame ourselves for not being taught to manage our anger effectively. This is something that goes back to a time when we were learning coping skills and weren’t in control of the lessons we were taught. Learning to deal effectively with anger is certainly possible, but I believe it’s important to recognize the role our emotional abuse plays in making it difficult for us to handle this strong and potentially destructive emotion.