When it comes to healing from trauma, there are a lot of emotions an individual may feel. One of these emotions is anger. Anger is one of the emotions I see invalidated the most. For example, I’ve been told that being angry is “letting the person who hurt me win.” I’ve been told that I’m only hurting myself with my anger and that it’s holding me back from healing. All of these assumptions were wrong.
Anger is often viewed as a bad thing because it can drive a lot of unpleasant behaviours but it can be used for good. While anger can hurt you and others, it doesn’t have to. There is a difference between destructive anger and constructive anger. Destructive anger is often expressed in a way that causes harm to yourself or others whereas constructive anger can be used to better understand your situation and figure out your needs. Constructive anger can be a way to show respect for yourself.
For example, if you’re in a situation with a friend where they do something that makes you angry (for example: cancelling plans, forgetting an important date, etc), constructive anger may involve you stepping away from the situation to figure out the cause of your anger (for example: you feel their actions imply you’re not important to them) so that you can then sit down with your friend and communicate in a calm manner. This may allow your relationship to grow and build with a better understanding of each other. Destructive anger in this situation may involve you yelling at your friend and insulting them, which will likely damage or destroy the relationship. If the hurt your friend has caused makes you want to re-evaluate your friendship, this is valid and there are still constructive ways to end a friendship that will cause the least amount of hurt for all involved. It is also important to note that ignoring the anger and bottling up is likely to cause a bigger blow up down the line or cause “overreactions” to other circumstances.
If anger is bottled up, it can end up coming out unintentionally. You might find you’re getting much angrier at everyday annoyances and disagreements than you might think reasonable. People might push you away or respond badly to your anger, because they feel they do not deserve it - and looking back later, you might feel they don’t deserve it, either. However, because of the anger you’re holding back, you can’t see that in the moment. This is why it is important to think and consider your anger, and listen to what it’s trying to tell you. I have found asking questions of myself to analyze my anger can help, such as in an anger inventory like this one.
While many people see anger as an emotion that causes people to lash out and destroy things, anger can also help to motivate people to create new things. Marches to “Take back the night”, or for “gay pride” have much of their motivation based in anger at injustice and oppression. New laws to better protect survivors of domestic abuse or otherwise help society are often driven by people feeling a huge amount of anger. Properly harnessed, anger can help to take action to change things for the better.
On a more personal level, anger can also be a motivator to improve one’s own life. Many people have used the anger they felt at those who put them down as a motivation toward success. That success might be completing schooling, winning an international athletic competition or publishing a novel. One thing all of those have in common is that they are rarely possible to do with only a little time or a little effort. They are time-consuming tasks which usually require months if not years of work. They can be easy to give up on without motivation - and for many, anger is a big help to keeping that motivation.
It took me years to feel anger. For the first while, I felt ashamed, guilty and like I deserved the abuse I’d endured. Feeling angry at the people responsible for this was a step in my healing. I began putting the blame on those responsible and not myself. I was realizing that I did not deserve to be treated in the harmful ways that I was. This was huge to me as someone that had spent years thinking I deserved my trauma and as a result, future trauma and abuse as well.
There were instances where my anger was destructive, mostly to myself. I engaged in self-harm as a way to vent my anger and it also caused problems in my relationship at the time because I held my anger in and would get really frustrated and project my anger onto my relationship which was not fair to my partner.
Over the years, I’ve learned to cope with my anger more efficiently. What works for someone is largely dependent on them and their needs. For me, it was a literal punching bag to vent out frustrations and journaling. It was sitting down with my anger and treating it like a friend trying to protect me (because it was in a way). It was listening to it and finding the cause. My true anger came from those who hurt me, and in a way, took a part of me. My anger largely came from grief and betrayal. Understanding where it came from did not make it disappear, but it did offer me perspective and allow me to better manage it.
For some, anger is a cover up for other emotions. It becomes a defense mechanism against feeling the sadness, hurt and other emotions that a person does not want to feel. The anger is just the first layer and understanding where that anger comes from, and that the anger is a cover up is a great step in moving beyond it. Feeling the emotions beneath it will play a big part in moving beyond the anger.
Anger is a valid and understandable emotion when it comes to healing from trauma, even if your trauma does not have a specific person to blame (natural disasters and death of a loved one are examples). If the person who hurt you did not mean to or did not know better (like another child), anger is still a valid emotion. You’ve been hurt and you should not have been and it is reasonable to feel angry at this.
For a lot of us, anger plays a part in our healing. And that’s okay! You’re allowed to feel angry. Anger becomes an issue when you allow it to consume you and hurt you or others. The feeling itself is not inherently bad, and it can actually be a good thing. Your anger can be used to help you. It’s what you do with your anger that decides whether it’s helpful to you or not. When I was first told that my anger was “letting the other person win,” I believed that and felt invalidated. I have since realized that my anger has been an important part in understanding my pain and my needs. My anger is not letting someone else win, but letting me win, by helping me to heal.