Have you noticed a veritable tidal wave of anger around this last little while? I certainly have. Right now, the world seems to be awash with triggers for all the different gradations of anger, from mild peevishness to near homicidal fury.
I can’t say that I am enjoying it. I doubt whether you are, either. But since there is so much of it around, this could be a good moment to unpack your own feelings about anger, from a positive perspective.
This week, I wanted to focus on what we have the most chance of changing in a positive way: our own feelings around anger.
Being in the orbit of an abusive person tends to mean that you live in a very explosive environment – unless of course, you live with a passive-aggressive abuser or covert narcissist who, artfully, has you tearing yourself apart with their unspoken, but oh-so-present, anger.
How can you not end up with a terror of other people’s anger and your own?
You know, from bitter experience, just how destructive anger can be.
Anger has been one recurrent theme of my week. I have been in the path of other people’s fury at the world. I have become incensed – again – with someone on Instagram – who plagiarized my work and then lied about doing so. Plus, at odd times during the week, circumstances have left me feeling… fashionably scratchy.*
Anger – or, more specifically, a lack of anger – has also kept coming up in my client work.
How abusers harness anger
All abusers speak in splendid generalizations most of the time. That is one compelling way in which they establish themselves as experts on whatever they choose to talk about.
They use sweeping generalizations with so much conviction that you get emotionally swept away by them. I know that I do and listening to my clients I can clearly hear that they do. Perhaps nowhere more so than when it comes to anger.
Most abusers deliberately harness their anger to traumatize and control you.
They roll out those weasel words “always” and “never” to remind you what a poor excuse for a human being you are.
They bludgeon you into emotional submission.
So you learn that anger is a bad thing and not having anger puts you on the side of the angels, to some degree.
Unfortunately, there is a problem when you try not to have, feel or express your anger. From a toxic person’s point of view that makes you a pushover. You lack the defences provided by legitimate anger.
This is where it gets important for you to let go of some of the generalizations that you may not have altogether registered.
The Anger Spectrum
There are undoubtedly different degrees of anger. Some of them are, I believe, more unpalatable than others.
In my world, at least, anger looks something like this diagram.
I have different levels of anger – some of them useful, others decidedly less so.
At mildly put out/peeved/irritated, I have no trouble being funny about whatever the cause is. I can laugh myself, as well as the other person, out of it. Whatever the cause was, it really isn’t that important.
At annoyed/cross, I don’t feel terribly good-humored about it. Something is inconveniencing me. I would rather it did not. But it might not be significant enough to goad me into action.
Royally angry/outraged/out for blood occurs when I get mad about a perceived injustice that needs rectifying – like, say, someone stealing my intellectual property. This is the point at which I will get on my high horse and take the necessary measures to set things to rights. That is what out for blood means in my world.
Furious/enraged is the point at which I just storm around the place, too angry to think clearly. Chocolate, ice-cream or cake may be in order. I have to regain control of my feelings before I can set about sorting out the situation to my own satisfaction.
Fuming/incandescent is when I know that I am out of order. I may retreat to a shopping mall – not to shop but just to distract myself – until this unsavoury degree of ill-temper passes.
Volcanic fury is a very ugly mood indeed. I might rise to it once a year. When it happens, I feel very savage indeed – and possibly could hurt a fly but that is as far as it goes. At this point, I know I have completely lost the plot. Very little thinking actually goes on. I am feeling momentously aggrieved and just have to wait for myself to come back down to earth.
In this state, I feel that my opinion is the sole legitimate one – but, equally, I know that I am no state to communicate effectively with anyone. I tire myself out, in private, with my volcanic fury.
Now, my language and terms of reference might not be your language and terms of reference. Plus, you might not have those different levels of anger. The important point is this, the bottom three levels all serve some useful purpose.
Mildly peeved prevents me from putting up with micro-aggressions/injustices/abuse of my – habitually – easy-going temperament. I speak out for myself, straighten things out in a fairly elegant, good-natured way and ensure that neither the situation nor my feelings of resentment escalate.
Annoyed /cross is where I start to feel like going on the warpath. This is where I was at the start of The Great British Neighbor debate of recent weeks. Someone was trying to establish a lack of respect and I was assessing how best to react in order to put an end to the problem.
Royally angry/outraged/out for blood is the sweet spot where I move into decisive action. Instead of simply dealing with the instance, the underlying problem will be resolved – to my satisfaction. There is a principle at stake here that other people have to respect. At this point I am in fearsome warrior mode: I will NOT be crossed. Other people tend to get that message and back down appropriately fairly quickly.
I could slip into Furious/enraged and even Fuming/incandescent for a while before I dial down to Royally angry/engaged/out for blood and take appropriate action. If so, I wait until I subside before taking action.
Volcanic fury tends to happen when I hit on a major trigger from the past. I disappear to the shopping-mall in my own little bubble of ill-temper, fully aware that I am of no use to man or beast.
I know that anger never justifies bad behaviour. Using contempt to wound another because you are feeling peeved is never acceptable. I saw that way too often in my family of origin and my marriage. So, for the longest time, I thought abusive dumping was anger. In reality, it is no such thing. It is an expression of unbridled entitlement.
These days, overall, my anger and I have a reasonably good relationship. My emotional temperature might rise but I monitor it and control my words.
The fear of what anger might do
My clients, unfortunately, tend to have a less comfortable relationship with their anger – because their experience of abuse is still all too fresh. So, they live in fear of their own anger and the harm that it could do.
Unfortunately, as I hope you can understand from all of this, in avoiding their own anger, with all its gradations, they also lose out on that sweet spot of royally angry/outraged/out for blood –metaphorically speaking.
There has to be a point at which you stand up for your best interest, when you will – metaphorically – bare your teeth, stand your ground and growl assertively at anyone who tries to lay claim to your territory.
What happens in the absence of anger
If you try to assert yourself from reason alone, it can be incredibly hard. I’ve listened to so many abuse survivors who have said,
“What is happening seems wrong to me, but is it? I don’t think it should be that way. But is that just me being selfish, unreasonable or expecting too much?”
They are caught up in a strange balancing act. On the one hand, they are fighting with their feelings about how they need to behave in order to be lovable. On the other, they are weighing up how far they can safely go in expressing their own rights for fear of upsetting others.
In the process, of course, they get confused and emotionally worn out. They end up without the energy or the clarity to do anything.
Or perhaps they reckon that they will feel so bad about insisting on their own rights that it doesn’t seem worth it. They might end up making a mild request that is disregarded as soon as they utter it.
No wonder they end up feeling frustrated with themselves.
Appropriate anger can propel you past damaging blocks
Your – appropriate, justified – anger is the vehicle that gets you beyond the place of doubt, speculation and anxiety to feeling justified and clear enough to take the action that will confirm – to yourself – that you, too, are a valuable person.
One lovely client, this week, told me a story of how she was, essentially, pushed into a corner so unfairly that before she knew it, royally angry, she swatted the problem away.
That should have been a triumph for her. Unfortunately, because it was such an uncharacteristic and frightening behaviour for her, she ended up feeling ashamed of herself – when she had absolutely no cause to do so.
When we worked on that block so that she could own the fact that she had done right rather than wrong, she saw herself in a whole different light. She became a woman who could not only own her power but be proud of herself when she did so.
So, while I can’t know quite what your relationship with your own anger is, I would urge you to build that relationship in a healthy way.
Toxic people use anger in an abusive way. You won’t.
Understand that toxic people choose to use their anger in an abusive manner to do harm. They can react savagely – or not at all – to the same stimulus. It all depends on what they want to achieve and who is there to see them. It is not their anger that is the problem but their intention.
You will not use your anger to harm others. That is not who you are. But you do need to harness your anger so you can protect yourself from all kinds of violation of your life and personal and emotional space. The more you start to get clear about how your anger really works and make friends with it – yes, I did say that – the more docile and constructive that anger will become . It’s not a genie that you have to worry about letting out of the bottle. That anger was given to you so that you would have the fuel to stand your ground in the world. Use it wisely and well.
*Oh, and just to add insult to injury, my dishwasher has given up on me… Worse things happen all the time, I know that – especially in this week of weeks. And it peeved me all the same.
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.
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