Healing from an emotional trauma or extended traumatic experience is a like a long, intimate dance with reality. Or perhaps a three-act ballet. We are on the stage of our own minds, surrounded by the props of our lives, dancing to the music of our emotions. Our memories flash on the backdrop or float around like ribbons in the air. Down below the stage, in the orchestra pit, a chorus puts words to the feelings and gives us advice drawn from our parents’ rules, our church’s rules, all the rules from the movies and books and conversations that have ever colored our thinking.
And our job is to dance our way through the acts.
The first act is named “Magic Thinking.” We stumble onto the stage, stunned, confused and in pain. Our first dance is denial — the “it doesn’t matter” dance. Our second dance is bargaining — the “maybe I can persuade whoever is in power to fix this” dance. The third and last dance before the intermission is anger.
This article is about anger.
The emotional spine
Everyone here who has gone through the angry phase knows how complex it is. We are indignant, bitter, sarcastic, outraged, waving our fiery swords of blame. We are also — finally — articulate, funny, re-asserting power over our lives. We are hell on wheels, demanding justice or retribution. We are also in transition between bargaining and letting go, so all this is tinged with hope on one side and grief on the other.
Anger really deserves a book, rather than a brief article. It is the end of the first act of our healing, because it really changes everything — our way of seeing, our thinking, our judgments, the way we move forward. Like the element of fire, it can be clarifying, but it can also be destructive. To complicate the situation further, many (if not all of us) tended to repress our anger before we entered this healing process.
So it may be helpful to discuss what anger is, where it comes from. What we call anger is part of a spectrum of reactions that originates in the oldest part of our brain. The brain stem, sometimes called the lizard brain, oversees automatic survival mechanisms like breathing, heartbeat, hunger, sleep and reproduction. It also generates powerful emotional messages related to survival.
These messages travel through increasingly sophisticated layers of our emotional and intellectual processing. One of those layers, the limbic system or mammal brain, is where we keep memories of good and bad events, and work out how to maximize pleasure and avoid pain (often through addictive strategies). The messages pass through this layer on the way to our cerebral cortex.
There in the thinking layer, we name things and organize them. We maintain concepts of community and identity (right and left brain), and we manipulate them continually to run our lives as thinking, self-aware beings. Beyond the thinking brain is the even more advanced area of the frontal cortex, which maintains our awareness of the future, interconnectivity (holistic thinking), and the “high level” views that further moderate our primitive responses into philosophic and spiritual meanings.
What our thinking brains name “anger” is actually a sensation of physical and emotional changes caused by the brain stem in reaction to perceived danger. The spectrum of those danger-related sensations roughly includes alertness, fear and anger. While our higher brain may see a purpose in separating fear and anger into different categories, our lizard brain doesn’t make those distinctions. It just keeps altering our hormones and brain chemicals for all kinds of situations, depending on its analysis of what we need to do to survive.
The point of this long digression is this: alertness-fear-anger responses are a normal part of our ability to survive. They travel “up” into our higher processing as the strong spine of our survival mechanism. There is nothing wrong with feeling them. In fact, paying attention to them is better for us in every way than ignoring our feelings (denial) or trying to delude ourselves about what is happening (bargaining).
The many forms of anger
One of the most interesting things about the English language is its many verb forms, which express various conditions of timeliness and intent. I can. I could. I could have. I would have. I might have. I should have. I will. I might. I was going to.
Those same factors of timeliness and intent can be found in the many facets of anger. Bitterness and resentment are simmering forms of anger related to past and unhealed hurts. Likewise sarcasm and passive-aggressive communications are expressions of old disappointment or despair. Frustration is a low-level form of anger, judging a circumstance or result as unsatisfactory. Contempt and disgust are more pointed feelings associated with negative judgments.
When anger turns into action, we have explosive violence, plans for future revenge and sabotage. When anger is turned on ourselves, we have depression and addictions. The judgments associated with anger foster black-and-white thinking, which can be the basis for bias and all kinds of “ism’s,” especially if the anger is old, blocked for some reason, and thus diffuse or not directed primarily at its source. This typically happens when we feel disempowered to defend ourselves.
All of that sounds pretty terrible and toxic. But, in fact, the most toxic forms of anger are the ones in which the anger is not allowed to surface. The lizard brain does not stop trying to protect us until we deal with the threat, and so we live with the brain chemicals and hormones of anger until we do.
Anger can also be healthy. The anger of Jesus toward the money changers in the temple is a model of righteous anger. In response to trauma, righteous anger is a crucial part of the healing process. Anger has these characteristics:
• Directed at the source of the problem
• Narrowly focused and dominating our thinking
• Primed for action
• Intensely aware of personal resources (internal and environmental)
• Willing to accept minor losses or injuries to win
Anger is about taking care of business. At its most primitive level, anger is what enables us to defend our lives, to kill what would kill us. In modern times, it enables us to meet aggression with aggression in order to defend ourselves or our turf. We expect to feel pain in these battles, but we are fighting to win.
However, anger also has its exhilaration, a sense of being in a moment where we claim our own destiny. For those of us who have been living through the relatively passive and self-defeating agony of denial and bargaining, anger can feel wonderful.
As it should, because anger is the expression of our deepest self, rejecting this new reality. We are finally in speaking-up mode. We are finally taking in our situation and saying, “No! I don’t want this. I don’t like it. I don’t like you for creating this in my life. I don’t like how it feels. I don’t like what I’m getting out of it. And if it doesn’t stop this instant, I want you out of my life.”
Getting over our resistance to anger
Of course, we don’t exactly say that when we’re inside the relationship. In fact, we don’t exactly think it, even when we’re out of the relationship. And why is that? Because — and this only my theory, but it seems to be born out here on LoveFraud — people who get involved with sociopaths are prone to suppress their anger, because they are afraid of it, ashamed of it, or confused about its meaning.
When faced with a painful situation, they suppress their inclination to judge the situation in terms of the pain they’re experiencing, and instead try to understand. They try to understand the other person. They try to understand the circumstances. They try to interpret their own pain through all kinds of intellectual games to make it something other than pain. To an extent, this could be described as the bargaining phase. But for most of us, this is a bargaining phase turned into a life strategy. It’s an unfinished response to a much earlier trauma that we have taken on as a way of life.
Which is very good for the sociopath, who can use it to gaslight us while s/he pursues private objectives of looting our lives for whatever seems useful or entertaining. Until we have nervous breakdowns or die, or wake up.
We can all look at the amount of time it took us to wake up, or the difficulty we’re having waking up, at evidence of how entrenched we’ve been in our avoidance of our own anger. It retrospect, it is an interesting thing to review. Why didn’t we kick them out of our lives the first time they lied or didn’t show up? Why didn’t we throw their computer out of the window when we discovered their profiles on dating sites? Why didn’t we cut off their money when we discovered they were conning us? Why didn’t we spit in their eye when they insulted us? Why didn’t we burn their clothes on the driveway the first time they were unfaithful?
Because we were too nice to do that? Well, anger is the end of being nice. It may be slow to emerge. We may have to put all the pieces together in our heads, until we decide that yes, maybe we do have the right to be angry. Yes, they were bad people. No, we didn’t deserve it. And finally, we are mad. At them.
Anger in our healing process
Anger is the last phase of magical thinking. We are very close to a realistic appraisal of reality. The only thing “magical” about it is this: no amount of outrage or force we can exert on the situation can change it. The sociopath is not going to change. We cannot change the past, or the present we are left with.
But anger has its own gifts. First and foremost is that we identify the external cause of our distress. We place our attention where it belongs at this moment — on the bad thing that happened to us and the bad person who caused it.
Second, we reconnect with our own feelings and take them seriously. This is the beginning of repairing our relationships with ourselves, which have often become warped and shriveled with self-hatred and self-distrust when we acted against our own interests in our sociopathic relationships.
Third, anger is a clarifying emotion. It gives us a laser-like incisiveness. It may not seem so when we are still struggling with disbelief or self-questioning or resentment accumulated through the course of the relationship. But once we allow ourselves to experience our outrage and develop our loathing for the behavior of the sociopath, we can dump the burden of being understanding. We can feel the full blazing awareness that runs through all the layers of brain, from survival level through our feelings through our intellect and through our eyes as we look at that contemptible excuse for a human being surrounded by the wreckage s/he creates. Finally our brains are clear.
And last, but at least as important as the rest, is the rebirth of awareness of personal power that anger brings. Anger is about power. Power to see, to decide, to change things. We straighten up again from the long cringe, and in the action-ready brain chemicals of anger, we surprise ourselves with the force of our ability and willingness to defend ourselves. We may also surprise ourselves with the violent fantasies of retribution and revenge we discover in ourselves. (Homicidal thoughts, according to my therapist, are fine as long as we don’t act on them.)
It is no wonder that, for many of us, the angry phase is when we learn to laugh again. Our laughter may be bitter when it is about them. But it can be joyous about ourselves, because we are re-emerging as powerful people.
The main thing we do with this new energy is blaming. Though our friends and family probably will not enjoy this phase (because once we start blaming, it usually doesn’t stop at the sociopath), this is very, very important. Because in blaming, we also name what we lost. When we say “you did this to me,” we are also saying, “Because of you, I lost this.”
Understanding what has changed — what we lost — finally releases us from magical thinking and brings us face to face with reality. For many of us this is an entirely new position in our personal relationships. In the next article, we’ll discuss how anger plays out in our lives.
Until then, I hope you honor your righteous anger, casting blame wherever its due. And take a moment to thank your lizard brain for being such a good friend to you.
Namaste. The healing warrior in me salutes the healing warrior in you.