As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and neglect, I recently discovered that anger was nearly absent from my emotional vocabulary. Not only was I struggling to be appropriately angry in my day to day life, I was struggling, and still struggle, to be angry at my abusers.
Along with many survivors, I relied on self-blame in order to understand my experience. I sometimes still believe that I was responsible for the abuse. Instead of getting angry at my abusers, I get angry at myself or contain my anger inside.
Although anger is scary territory for many, especially survivors of abuse, it can be used as a force for healing. Once a survivor feels safe exploring and expressing these feelings, it becomes a cathartic exercise.
It's healing to recognize that the anger you feel toward yourself is false. And it's healing to feel, process, and integrate the anger that you should have been feeling toward your abusers all along, but couldn’t express.
This post is for other abuse survivors out there, who, like me, may have struggled to get angry in their lives. The following suggestions are based on my own healing work done with my psychotherapist. You don’t have to do this work alone. Bringing in a mental health professional can help you get in touch with your anger and manage it healthily.
1. Realize you're safe now and you can be angry.
As an abused child, it’s difficult or impossible to express anger about the abuse. You may have learned to turn anger off. In my case, my abuser was my stepfather. He told me that I was responsible for keeping everyone in the family together by quietly cooperating with him. Because he was the one that ought to have been taking care of me, expressing anger would have been deadly.
Containing my anger was linked to my survival. Your task as an adult is to reassure yourself that it’s OK to be angry now. Anger is a useful, healthy emotion and it’s OK to feel it. Repeating “It is OK to be angry” and, “I won’t be in danger if I am angry” can help affirm anger positively.
2. Establish boundaries and allow yourself to feel and express anger when those boundaries are crossed.
Anger is supposed to be felt when a boundary has been crossed. In my own case of abuse, I had very little personal time or space. My abuse happened everywhere, including public bathrooms, parks, the car, the couch, and my bedroom.
For me and other abuse survivors who have experienced a lack or the complete obliteration of healthy boundaries, it can be really challenging to learn to set them as an adult in our day-to-day relationships and social interactions. Mindfully checking in with yourself throughout the day can help you tune in and figure out where boundaries are needed. Stay conscious of the red flag of self-blame — if you are blaming yourself for something, check to see if you’re actually at fault or if you ought to be getting angry at someone. When needed, start expressing your anger. A good prompt is, “It makes me angry when …”
3. Get angry at your abusers.
You may not have been able to be angry during the abuse. It was more important to survive after all. One of the times that I told my mother about the abuse, she called me a liar and forced me to tell my “false accusations” to my stepfather, my abuser, so he could deny it. I ought to have been angry at one parent for sexually abusing me and at the other for neglecting to protect me. But only being 6 or 7 years old, I needed my parents to take care of me.
I couldn’t be angry at my abusers back then, but I can be angry now. With the support of a mental health professional, you may be able to think back to the abuse and how you were not allowed to get angry. For every memory or moment, try to allow yourself to be angry at the abuser. It’s their fault. They were wrong. They are guilty. Getting angry at your abusers can free you from guilt, shame, and feelings of worthlessness that you may be holding against yourself.
4. Practice tapping into your anger, even if it doesn't feel readily available.
If you struggle to be angry, it’s not because you don’t have anger. You do have anger, it’s just bringing it to consciousness and expressing it that needs help.
This is easier said than done, because allowing anger can feel like you’re out of control, you may be fearful of what might happen, or it may even trigger a feeling from your past, of your life being threatened. Ease into anger by finding a good anger releasing exercise. I find yelling, hitting a punching bag, throwing bricks and rocks at the ground (at a safe distance) can all help me discover the anger that I’m withholding. For me, it’s easier to imagine the abuse happening to someone else and then claiming that anger for myself too. What would you be angry about if you saw a little child being abused?
5. Recognize the depression-anger connection.
If you're feeling depressed, it may be anger turned inward. It could be anger from the present or anger from the past. I often have felt anger toward myself for the abuse, thoughts like, “I am so angry I didn’t do more to protect myself” or “I must have caused the abuse” are types of anger that are not only based on false beliefs but also types of anger that ought to be directed at the abuser instead of at myself. Sometimes when you’re depressed, you may be able to recognize the pattern of misdirected anger.
Once this is conscious, it’s already a step in the right direction and you may feel some relief. Next, try to direct anger at your abusers instead. Doing so may ease your depression. Life as an adult survivor of child abuse is not easy and anger is one of the many emotions that are challenging. However, with some practice we can manage our anger so that we are healthier and happier.
You are safe now. You deserve to have healthy boundaries and stand up for yourself. You deserve to express your anger in a healing, productive way and especially express anger toward your abusers.
Anger can help you heal. Now go out there and get angry.