Thursday, December 18, 2008

PTSD & Anger, Part 4: The Psychology of Anger

In my own experience I've found two dominant sides to the psychology of anger coin: Fear, and motivation.

First, I have to apologize to my mother. I do apologize to my mother, often now that I’m healed, for all of the abuse she absorbed during my PTSD years. She is an amazing, strong and wonderful woman; if it weren’t for her love, patience and understanding we would have stopped speaking 20 years ago because there were many days, weeks, months I couldn’t be around her without snickering, snarling and sneering.

If you’ve scrolled down and viewed the ‘Faces of Joy’ you’ve seen that my mother looks eminently fun, happy and approachable. But that’s not how I saw her when I was PTSD suffering. Instead, she was the villain and I the victim of her ‘Let’s get you some help’ anthem. She saw me struggling and wanted to talk – all the time. She saw me hurting and wanted to reach out – endlessly. She was tireless in her desire to find some way to lead me to peace. And for that I hated her. For that altruistic goal I unleashed upon her all my fury.

Why? Because the pain in which I lived was intense, and I only wanted to be left alone in it. I did not want to share, explore or study it. I was afraid doing any of those things would tip the delicate balance I had constructed and everything would fall to pieces. I was afraid going into those dark places, ideas and moments would suck me in and I’d be lost forever. I was afraid I’d be overwhelmed by the pain and the memories. I was afraid the process of healing would make me weak. I was afraid the trauma would win if I lifted it up and exposed it to light. (I was wrong about each of these things, by the way.) In order to insulate and preserve myself, I lashed out at anyone who tried to get into the trenches and help me. Most often, that was Mom.

When we research the psychology of anger, however, this behavior becomes completely understandable. Our good friend Dr. Harry Mills in his article ‘Psychology of Anger’explains that one of the functions of anger (after its use to respond to perceived pain) is as a substitute emotion. He writes, “By this we mean that sometimes people make themselves angry so that they don't have to feel pain. People change their feelings of pain into anger because it feels better to be angry than it does to be in pain. This changing of pain into anger may be done consciously or unconsciously.”

Perfect. Because of course, I didn’t sit down one day and decide to be angry at Eileen. But all of her wanting to help and suggestions of things to do threatened the security of how I felt I was coping, and so, rather than become vulnerable, I became enraged. It makes so much sense when Mills explains, “Being angry rather than simply in pain has a number of advantages, primarily among them distraction…Part of the transmutation of pain into anger involves an attention shift – from self-focus to other-focus. Anger thus temporarily protects people from having to recognize and deal with their painful real feelings; you get to worry about getting back at the people you're angry with instead. Making yourself angry can help you to hide the reality that you find a situation frightening or that you feel vulnerable.” Ahhhh, Yes.

The flip side of this negative anger perspective, however, is quite positive. In his article ‘Motivational Effects of AngerMills writes, “On the positive side, anger creates a sense of power and control in a situation where prior to anger these positive, motivating feelings did not exist.” Bingo! That’s exactly how we can use the anger we feel. That is, ultimately, how I used my anger.

Two years ago I was so sick of myself, my memories, my PTSD, my trauma – EVERYTHING. I got angry at all of that, instead of the usual suspects. I got angry my life was passing by in this horrible fog of pain. I got angry the trauma was winning. And so I took all of that angry energy and unleashed it on the trauma and PTSD themselves. I took all of that ferocious focus and channeled it into a vengeful pursuit of joy, and healing. We all know how powerful anger feels; imagine using it to create a new future instead of to lash out at the past or destroy the present.

I’m not the only one who used my anger to good effect. Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to another survivor, Kellie Greene, founder of Speaking Out About Rape (SOAR). Kellie has a strong and dynamic perspective. In our interview earlier this week we discussed anger and its uses, and also, the importance of self-perception. I’ll leave you with this one idea, which includes not only Kellie’s self-empowering thought process, but also a very good reason not to let the negative side of anger – its supposed protecting us from vulnerability – to be our guiding light:

I prefer to be called a victim and not a survivor because it all has to do with when you say it. ‘I am a survivor’ means you’re still there, you haven’t moved on. But to say ‘I was a victim’, past tense, you’ve moved on from it. There’s nothing wrong with being a victim and I think we shouldn’t be so ashamed to say, ‘I was a victim’, because in the cases of violent crimes, criminals are looking for the most vulnerable opportunity and there are people who have been through extensive self-defense training that are victimized as well. Criminals are looking for the opportunity to prey on someone who is vulnerable and you can’t live life without being vulnerable. You miss out on a lot of joy, a lot of happiness, relationships. You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable, there’s nothing wrong with that.

(Photo: dem vadda sen john)

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