This article continues our discussion of anger as a stage of healing after a trauma or an extended trauma, such a relationship with a sociopath.
I have a friend who has been angry for all the years I have known her. She talks about being insulted or scapegoated at work, despite taking responsibilities well beyond her job title for the welfare of the company. She has been instrumental in eliminating several people who managed her. More people were hired and she is still talking about how she is mistreated.
I have another friend who calls me to talk about how his boss doesn’t appreciate him. He details how he has been swindled out of bonuses, how there is never a word of praise, despite the fact that his personal efforts have been responsible for major changes in the company.
Both of these two have been working for these companies for years and refuse to leave their jobs. Instead, they “practice” their resentments, gathering stories to defend their feelings, performing their jobs in ways that prove them not only blameless but deserving of praise, and sharing their grievances with anyone who will listen.
To prepare for this article, I had a conversation with one of them, who reminded me of when I was in a similar situation. Working for a CEO who refused to give me a title or credit for marketing work that put his company “on the map.” Since I left there, two other people have taken credit for my work in their resumes and public statements. Just talking about it with my friend brought up all the old stories related to the resentment and injury I felt at the time.
Although these were professional situations, the feelings that my friends and I experienced were not different from the ones I experienced in my relationship with a man I believe to be a sociopath. Beyond all the usual feelings about lack of appreciation, acknowledgment or validation, these feelings had another characteristic. That is, we lived with them for a long time.
My two friends are still living with these feelings, and when I talk to them now, at least once in the conversation I suggest, “You’re an angry person.” Though I’ve said this to them before, they usually pause as though it were the first time they ever heard it. Then they either ignore it (because they don’t think of themselves as angry, only aggrieved), or briefly defend themselves against the comment, saying they have reason to be, before they start telling their stories again.
The fact is that they do have reason to be, as I did, but their anger is a lot older than their work situations. They were practicing it before they took these jobs. They were accustomed to dealing with people who triggered their anger, and they were accustomed to living in circumstances that made them feel hurt and resentful. They “handled it” by trying to do a better job, or getting into power struggles about what is due them, or by telling their stories to sympathetic friends.
What they were not accustomed to doing was deciding that their internal discomfort had reached a level where they needed to make a change. At least not before things got really, really bad. When they got sick. Or started blowing up over small things. Or got so stressed they began making mistakes. Or got in trouble with drugs or food or shopping to make themselves feel better.
It’s not just that they were habituated to abuse. They were habituated to living with old anger. They lived as a matter of course with resentments that would have made healthier people run for the hills from the situation that was causing their distress, or to reframe the situation as a temporary necessity while they searched actively for alternatives.
Paradoxical responses to abuse
A therapist once explained to me a “paradoxical response” observed in some victims of abuse. Rather than responding appropriately — either defending themselves or fleeing — they engaged in “caring” behavior. They became concerned about the wellbeing of the perpetrator, and began providing service to cheer them up or relieve their stresses. As all of us on this LoveFraud know, this response is based on our desire — no, our need — to believe that our abuser is really a good soul or that s/he really loves us or both.
Many of us are paradoxical responders. And what happens to those feelings of anger that we are not experiencing or acting on?
Until these relationships, for many of us, the question didn’t matter. Many of us also are high performers, the “success stories” coming out of backgrounds that might have turned other people into addicts or underachievers or emotional cripples. Instead, we develop a kind of genius at survival through giving. We believe in salvation through love, and we create our own success through helping professions of various sorts.
We do the same in our personal relationships, seeking emotional security by giving generously. We deal with the paradoxes of depending on people who are needy as we are, burying our resentments at their failures to understand how much we have invested or how well we are making up for their weaknesses or how, in arguments or in careless statements, they characterize us by our weaknesses.
When we do get angry, we express our grief at not being understood or appreciated, our disappointment that we are not getting what we hoped from our investments, our frustrations that the other person doesn’t perform the simple requirements of our happiness — a little more attention, affection or thanks. It doesn’t occur to us to rebel against the structure of these relationships, to say we are sick and tired of tiptoeing around their egos and their needs, because we feel we have no right to say these things. We are asking the same thing of them.
When we finally do walk away — from the job or the relationship — we have feelings we do not feel comfortable expressing. We discuss our past in understanding terms. We understand the other people. We understand ourselves. But deep inside ourselves, the thing we do not talk about is contempt. That emotion that is so close to shame. We feel contempt for their shortcomings. And because we too were in the room with them, we feel contempt for ourselves. And this is difficult to contemplate, much less talk about it. But like a song we can’t get out of our minds, this feeling is like a squatter we have trouble shooing away.
I know why these friends are attracted to me. I am a good listener. They also think I may have answers to their situations. But the more interesting question is: Why am I attracted to them? Why are so many of my friends people who see themselves as aggrieved, but who I see as people whose lives are shaped by a deep level of buried anger they don’t even recognize?
My conversations with them tend to bring up old memories of my own. In fact, these friends like to refer to my stories. Times when I felt badly repaid for good efforts. My girlfriend, in particular, who knew me through the years of my relationship with the sociopath and employment with that CEO, likes to bring up these stories and sympathize with me or offer advice. It’s what she wants from me, and assumes it is what I want from her.
But it’s not what I want. I get off these calls feeling my anger. Seeing it all again. And I do what I do with anger. I dive into it, searching for knowledge. I value the anger, because I have the habit of forgetting it, forgiving too soon before I really am finished with learning what it has to tell me. I’ve done the exercise so often now that I know what I’m going to find. First, I am angry because of what I lost — the investments, the time, the benefits I expected to get back. Then, I am angry with myself for not standing up for myself or exiting these situations when they became predictably abusive. Then I am angry at something I can’t name — My rules? My sense of the world? What is wrong with me?
Finally, I am visiting a place that I need to return to, again and again. It’s where I keep my oldest stories, ones I would probably not remember at all, except that my anger leads me to them. I see these memories like home movies played on an old projector on a raggedy old screen. I watch a bit of myself as a child, dealing with some situation that changed my understanding of the world. In the background, there is a calm voice saying, “Do you remember what you learned here? Here is the new rule you made for your survival. And here is how the rule affected your life.” And suddenly I am flying through the years, seeing how that rule played out, linking cause to effect, cause to effect, over and over. Until I am finally back in my here-and-now self again, aware that another “why?” question has been answered, another connection made that makes sense of my life, another realization that I can undo that rule now. I’m not a child anymore.
Difficulties with anger
Many, if not all people who get involved with sociopaths have difficulties with anger. We don’t welcome the message from our deeper selves. We don’t recognize it as something that requires immediate attention and responsive action. We don’t communicate it clearly with the outside world. We frequently don’t even consider ourselves angry until so much emotional response has built up that it’s eating us alive. We don’t recognize irritation, frustration, resentment, confusion, hyper-alertness and anxiety as feelings on the anger spectrum — messages that something isn’t right.
This generalization may be too broad, especially for those of us have dealt with people who we think were completely plausible until the end of a long con. But most of us faced many circumstances in these relationships when our emotional systems alerted us that something wasn’t right. And instead of taking it seriously and acting on it, we rationalized it, using our intellects to talk ourselves out of our responses.
How would we have acted if we had taken our anger seriously? We would have expressed our discomfort. We would have demanded or negotiated a change in the situation. We would have said “I don’t agree” or “this doesn’t work for me.” We would have walked away. We would have made a plan to change our circumstances. We would have made judgments that something wasn’t good for us, and acted on those judgments. We would have taken care of ourselves — which is what anger is all about, taking actions to deal with a threat to our wellbeing.
Why we have difficulties with anger is something related to our own personal stories. It is a good idea to search our history for the day when we decided that it wasn’t safe to express or even feel anger, so we can undo that rule. We all had our reasons, good reasons at the time. Even today, there may be occasions when we choose not to express our anger, or to defer thinking about it until later. But eventually, if we’re going to get really well, we have to recover our ability to connect with our own feelings.
For those of us who have difficulty with anger, there are several gifts we get from the sociopath. One is a reason to get mad that is so clear and irrefutable that we finally have to give in to our emotional system, stop rationalizing and experience uncomplicated anger about what happened to us. The other thing they give us is a role model of how to do it. Though sociopaths have their own issues with historical anger, on a moment-by-moment basis they are very good at linking their anger to the cause, recognizing and responding directly to threats to their wellbeing or their plans.
Beyond that, in the course of these relationships, a kind of emotional contagion affects us. By the time we emerge, we feel ripped off and distrusting. We are at the edge of becoming more self-sufficient than we have ever been in our lives. To get there, we have to move through several phases while we overcome our obstacles to learning. One of those hurdles is overcoming our fear of our own anger.
People who have been suppressing anger for most of their lives have reason to fear it. Once we finally get angry about something, once we recognize the validity of own emotional reactions, there is a history of moments when we should have gotten angry that are ready to move to the surface of our consciousness. We are afraid that we will be overwhelmed or that, in our outrage, we will destroy everything within our reach.
Here is the truth. We will stop feeling angry when we acknowledge our right to feel angry in each and every one of these memories. That self-acknowledgement is what our emotional system wants. The message is delivered, and we naturally move on to what to do about it. If the circumstance is long gone, the simple recognition that we had a right these feelings is often enough to clear them.
The other truth is that we will not remember everything at one time. Once we allow ourselves to have these feelings, there will be an initial rush, but then the memories will emerge more gradually as we become clearer about our need for respectful treatment or about our grief at something important we lost.
Beyond recognizing that we were entitled to have our feelings, another thing we can do to clear them is have conversations with the causes of these feelings. We may want to speak to people, alive or dead, face to face or only in our journals or our thoughts, to say that we do not condone what happened to us. That we have feelings about it, and we want those feelings recognized.
We may think we’re looking for apologies, but the real benefit of these conversations is that we are validating ourselves and our own realities. We are getting real with ourselves. Eventually some of these conversations often turn out to be with God. Don’t worry about it. God can handle our feelings. Even the Buddhists encourage experiencing this human incarnation fully through all your senses and feelings.
The goal here is to clean house emotionally, so that you can experience anger in the here and now that is not tainted with old anger. So that you can plan and live your life in ways that are not unconsciously shaped by anger, fear and grief. Mastery of anger begins with the ability to link anger to cause, instead of expressing deferred anger in situations that really have nothing to do with it. Perfect anger is like the tit-for-tat strategy. It’s an appropriate and measured response that is equivalent to the threat or the trigger.
Beyond that, anger clearly felt in all its subtleties and permutations opens a new world to us. We find a new range of speaking voices — snappish, impatient, cold and unsympathetic. (Sound like anyone you know?) All things we need to deal with certain situations. We find new facial expression and body language. In allowing ourselves to become judgmental about what is good for us, we become more grounded about who we are and what we need.
Most important is that anger opens our ability to become powerful in our own lives. Without the ability to respond to threats and obstacles, we have no ability to envision and plan our lives. Anger is not only the voice of what we don’t want, it’s is also the voice of what we do want. What we want badly enough to work for, to fight for, to build in our lives.
Later we will talk about eliminating the residue of anger, learning how to forgive. But for now, our work is to link cause to effect, to honor our feelings, and to become real with ourselves and our world.
Namaste. The calm and certain warrior in me salutes the calm and certain warrior in you.