Get Mad: How Anger Can Help You Heal
Jane never yells. She doesn’t ever “make a scene.” She doesn’t explode with rage or break dishes on the kitchen floor. Mostly, she’s quiet. If anyone asks Jane how she’s doing, the answer is always “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” She does snap at people occasionally, even over small things. Especially over small things. In fact, she spends most days feeling irritated—annoyed over all the little things people say and do. But Jane never yells.
Lately, she just doesn’t have the patience or energy she usually does. Memories of her child sexual abuse have started resurfacing, sharpening into focus. And with those memories has come something else—something she pushes away, something she’s certain is too toxic to have in her life. Anger.
Because anger can’t be a good thing, right? Anger makes you hard to be around. It leads to tension, arguments, and hurt feelings. It’s loud and hostile. It ruins everyone else’s good time. Doesn’t it?
The solution? Jane keeps to herself. No one will have to deal with her anger—no one, including Jane. But even after Jane isolates herself, she’s still angry. When it becomes clear her anger won’t disappear, she feels ashamed. No matter how hard she works to push her anger away, it’s somehow still the emotion she experiences the most. But Jane never yells.
One day, Jane realizes what angers her the most is that she’s always angry.
Anger Is Normal and Natural
Like Jane, many survivors of child sexual abuse experience anger toward their abuser, their families, or the justice system, and the trauma that was caused. This anger is a legitimate reaction. It’s a rightful response toward what was, ultimately, a severe violation of her safety, health, and well-being. Survivors like Jane may even feel anger toward themselves. They may feel the abuse was their fault, even though at some level they know it wasn’t.
Still, it’s common to view anger as a negative emotion—something we need to hide or be ashamed of, or something we need to rid ourselves of completely.
But anger is important. Like each of our emotions, anger provides us with information that helps us investigate the environment around us. Anger sends us needed messages such as “I perceive injustice” or “Something is blocking me from achieving my goal” or “Someone is making me feel unsafe.” These messages embolden us to protect ourselves, motivate us to take needed action, and give us courage to correct what we perceive as unjust. Ultimately, anger can prompt us to assert our independence and define our personal boundaries.
Despite this, you may be afraid to express your anger. You may have perceived at a young age that the expression of anger, especially toward your perpetrator, was dangerous. Anger may have led to escalated abuse, admonishment, violence, or threats of harm toward your loved ones. Such punishments may have driven you to associate the expression of anger with terrifying consequences.
Survivors may feel they are not entitled to their anger, believing the abuse they suffered was somehow their fault or even deserved. So instead of allowing themselves to feel angry, they may deny their anger, push it away, or channel it toward themselves rather than toward the person responsible. Such coping strategies will likely send the survivor down a painful road of isolation, numbness, and self-blame.
As a survivor, you shouldn’t have to carry the burden and exhaustion of continuously locking your anger away or pretending it never existed. In fact, the complete elimination of anger is “neither possible nor desirable” according to renowned therapist Sandra Thomas. Anger is meant to be felt, not to be stamped out and invalidated.
Embracing the Feeling of Anger
You have a right to your anger. There is nothing shameful or toxic about feeling it. It’s a valid emotion you’re entitled to experience and process. Feeling or expressing anger doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a human being with natural responses to pain, terror, loss, and feelings of betrayal.
Knowing this, you may be unsure of where to start when it comes to examining your anger. A suggested first step is to mindfully acknowledge the anger you are feeling. You may have convinced yourself that you’re not actually angry because you’re not yelling or being hostile toward others. But anger doesn’t equal explosive rage. It takes on a wide variety of forms. Like Jane, your anger might cause you to shut down and become closed off from others. But quiet anger is still anger. Even if you never yell.
To become mindful of the anger you are currently feeling, take time to be fully present. Remember, you are not a passive victim of your anger but a mindful agent in control of your response. Think about the anger you’re experiencing and allow yourself to truly feel it and observe it. As an observer, watch your anger while, just for a moment, letting go of shame, guilt, or self-judgment about the anger. What sensations are you feeling? How is your anger manifesting physically? What is your anger a response to? What is it protecting you from? What is it motivating you to do? As you examine your anger, recognize it as an energy that is trying to tell you something. This energy is not inherently good or bad. It’s simply energy—energy you are allowed to feel.
Using Your Anger to Help You Heal
You might think, “Okay, so I’m angry. Now what?” Take that energy and decide what to do with it. What will you channel this energy toward? You could channel it into other parts of your healing journey—things that will be positive for your life. You might channel your energy into protecting others, bringing justice, or taking steps to heal. You might channel it into physical fitness or doing something good for someone else or committing yourself to a new skill.
Researchers have repeatedly found that most people are able to improve their mental and physical health after writing about deeply troubling experiences. According to James Pennebaker, PhD, putting traumatic memories into words can help ease emotional turmoil and defuse anger. Writing about a stressful event helps you break down overwhelming and troubling memories, thereby enabling you to make better sense of them, rendering them more manageable.
Habits, goals, and long-term planning aren’t the only things your energy can help you achieve. It can also help you in the here and now—not just with how you act, but how you react. On a day-to-day basis, you can direct this energy toward identifying red flags and managing your reactions to those red flags. An example of a red flag might be a triggering situation. In this instance you can use your energy to plan ahead on how to cope or avoid the situation entirely, thus protecting yourself from the pain it poses. Another example of a red flag might be distorted thoughts, or thoughts that don’t align with reality, like negative self-talk. You can channel the energy of your anger toward not only recognizing when your thoughts are distorted but to counteract them with thoughts that are calming and filled with self-compassion.
Another option might be using your energy to manage your body’s responses to red flags. For example, if you notice your heart rate is increasing, your muscles are tensing, and your stomach is tightening with panic, you might try slow breathing, relaxing your shoulders, and clenching and unclenching your fists. Maybe you will want to stretch or go for a walk. The options are endless, but they all demand some measure of energy. Take wherever you are in your healing process and channel the energy of your anger into a way that will help you.
Don’t be ashamed of your anger. Don’t try to hide it or push it away. It’s important for you to feel it. Then, once you’ve acknowledged the full extent of your anger and its purpose, decide what you will do with it.
Jane decided to stop suppressing her anger. She could see and embrace her anger without acting on it in a destructive way. She allowed herself to feel the emotional responses and the messages they were communicating. She was angry. And it was okay. Anger tells her she was wronged, she didn’t deserve what happened to her, and she does deserve to heal.
As she accepted these messages, the guilt and shame Jane experienced toward her anger began to fall away. Her anger is part of her recovery. It’s an energy she can use. It motivates her to take action, to move forward. Using the energy her anger provided, Jane was able to raise awareness to help protect others, devote time to her support group, and to take care of her body. As she does, the anger is replaced by a different kind of energy—hope.
At this point in her healing, Jane knows she can’t force herself into a state of peace and calm acceptance. And she certainly isn’t ready to think about forgiveness just yet—toward her perpetrator or even toward herself. But one day she will. And, in this present moment, she can use her anger to kick things into gear. Her anger is not bad. She needs it. Because it will help her get to a place in her recovery where, eventually, she can let it go.
- Kennedy-Moore, E., & Watson, J. C. (1999). Expressing emotion: Myths, realities, and therapeutic strategies. New York: Guilford Press.
- Courtois, C. A. (1988) Healing the incest wound: Adult survivors in therapy. New York: Norton.
- Scott, R.I., & D., H. (1996). Association of Abuse-Related Symptoms and Style of Anger Expression for Female Survivors of Childhood Incest. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 11(2), 208–220.
- Thomas, S. P. (2001). Teaching healthy anger management. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 37, 41–48.