Why It’s Normal for Emotional Abuse Targets to be Angry
“You are an ANGRY woman.”
A statement commonly used against a Christian abuse survivor when she finally comes forward (often in excruciating pain and anger) in order to neutralize her.
It looks like a cat in a corner with a big, scary dog staring her down. The dog barks a lot. Toys with her now and then. But when the cat snarls, the lookers-on gasp and point. “Look at how ANGRY she is. She’s got an ANGER problem. Oof da! She’d better take care of that. Maybe if she wasn’t so ANGRY, the dog would be nice.”
All sorts and kinds of pity and love and forgiveness and grace for the abuser, but that angry woman? Shame on her.
You know, it kind of makes me angry.
Anger is just a vibration in our bodies caused by the thoughts we have in our heads.
Let me give you an example. When we hear about injustice—children being molested, babies being murdered, women being beaten, men being used as slaves—we should be angry. Why? Because we should have thoughts about how those kinds of things are destructive to human lives made in the image of God.
If we belong to the Righteous, Just, Living, True God, our thoughts will be aligned with His, and those thoughts will cause our bodies to experience the emotion of anger.
For me, I WANT Injustice to inspire this particular emotion, and if it didn’t, I would believe there was something seriously broken or dead inside. (For mercy lovers, the justice of God IS merciful. It is merciful to the innocent.)
Anger provides the energy necessary to fight for life sometimes. It can be the fuel that inspires courage and initiative to right wrongs, stand up for the weak, and defend the helpless. Everyone gets angry when there is an injustice, either real or perceived.
“Be angry, and do not sin.” Ephesians 4:26
This is possible. Jesus was angry and didn’t sin. Does that mean it’s easy to keep on top of our anger and not cross those lines into sin? No. This is difficult for human beings. We are weak. We are dust. We sin. We don’t always understand our own hearts.
But I think it is also wrong to err on the other side and make blanket judgments about all of anger being bad.
One Way to Alleviate Sinful Anger
When you live with someone who is never wrong, never sorry, and never emotionally connected to you in any way, it is easy to have thoughts that cause you to feel angry.
When you try to fix the problem, and you hit the same wall over and over again, it is easy to have thoughts that cause you to feel angry.
When you feel that nobody listens, believes you, or cares, yet expects you to be perfect, it is easy to have thoughts that cause you to feel angry.
When half-truths and accusations and injustice and neglect and hypocrisy swirl around you day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, it is easy to have thoughts that cause you to feel angry.
When you see your kids suffer, it is easy to have thoughts that cause you to feel angry.
So I did.
I had lots of thoughts, and I felt lots of anger about all those things.
And the more time went by, the angrier I felt.
I was angry because it was my belief at the time that I could do nothing about my situation. I’m a proactive, type-A problem solver.
God knows I tried to fix it in a thousand different ways, but I was as stuck as the earth’s core miles beneath the surface.
In my anger, I spoke angrily. A lot.
When the spin started, I felt dizzy, and in my panic and desperation to be heard, I raised my voice. Okay, I yelled.
The conversations got so convoluted and nonsensical at times, that I felt like I was going insane.
When I was done driving myself into yet another wall, I would beg God, with snot, tears, and blood-shot eyes while rocking on my bathroom floor, to help me. Help me not be angry at the insanity I lived with. Help me be forgiving. Help me forget. Help me be good.
I wanted so badly to be a good girl and just take it, but I couldn’t hold it together when the spin started and the blame-shifting kicked in. I am a fighter, and I argued with deep indignation and passion. A sprinkle of sarcasm here and there.
But it was pointless. It got me nowhere. And I lost my dignity and self-respect, I believe. I was a cornered child who needed to put my big girl pants on and make some grown-up decisions.
In The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. Lerner writes:
If feeling angry signals a problem, venting anger does not solve it. Venting anger may serve to maintain, and even rigidify, the old rules and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring that change does not occur. When emotional intensity is high, many of us engage in non-productive efforts to change the other person, and in so doing, fail to exercise our power to clarify and change our own selves. The old anger-in/ anger-out theory, which states that letting it all hang out offers protection from the psychological hazards of keeping it all pent up, is simply not true. Feelings of depression, low self-esteem, self-betrayal, and even self-hatred are inevitable when we fight but continue to submit to unfair circumstances, when we complain but live in a way that betrays our hopes, values and potentials, or when we find ourselves fulfilling society’s stereotype of the bitchy, nagging, bitter, or destructive woman. Those of us who are locked into ineffective expressions of anger suffer as deeply as those of us who dare not get angry at all.
That was it! I was submitting to a merry-go-round of unfair circumstances and complaining about how it wouldn’t stop—when what I really needed to do was get off.
Getting off meant I needed to stop fighting the insanity. Stop hitting my head against a brick wall. Accept that we all get to make our own choices about how we live our lives. Our spouses get to decide how they live. And we get to decide how we live.
If they choose to live destructively and don’t want to get help for themselves or change, then we get to decide if we’re going to live with that.
Was being free of anger as simple as walking away from the destructive source?
That was the beginning of the end of the old me. It was not an easy path, and at first I wasn’t sure what it would mean for me to get off. It was terrifying. The merry-go-round was all I had ever known.
But God was calling me to trust Him and strike out into the unknown. I felt a bit like Abraham. I had no idea where I was going, and I had to limp, crawl, and claw my way along, but many years later, I’m a different person.
And over time, my anger lessened because the vast majority of it was rooted in my belief that I was hopeless and helpless, and that I couldn’t make my own choices. I felt like a caged animal.
But I did have choices. I could choose to stay in the cage and hope it would be worth it someday (although trying to predict the future is not helpful), or I could open the door and leave.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here because only you know your situation. There are Christian women who will choose to stay and stay well. Because it is their choice, driven by conviction from God, there will be grace for them in the staying.
Some Christian women will choose to leave. And because it is their choice, driven by conviction from God, there will be grace for them in the leaving.
Both choices are hard, there’s no way around that. Both choices carry responsibility and consequences. You will have to manage your mind in both circumstances.
So what’s my point? I guess I wanted to encourage you in your anger. You read that right. It’s easy to hear all the pious, judgemental voices of the people living and moving and regularly breathing in fresh, clean air who don’t have even a mustard seed-sized clue of what it is to breathe poison every day and think you are unworthy of love, life, hope, and healing.
Anger is part of the grieving process, too. Underneath that anger is deep sorrow and loss. If you live with injustice, and if you are grieving the loss of a normal life, you are not alone. And you are not unworthy.
There will be justice one day. Justice that is complete. Justice that will make us dance and sing in exultant wonder and joy. All the things that are hidden, all the lies that are told, will be revealed for what they are.
And then my second point is that we do have choices. They may not be choices we like or choices others want us to have. But we do have them. And they are ours, given to us by God.
Part of being an adult is taking responsibility for our choices and being okay with making mistakes sometimes. Do you think God doesn’t get who we are? He gets us. And He loves us SO completely.
Here are some more of my favorite quotes from The Dance of Anger:
When our anger lets others off the hook:
Obviously it requires courage to know when we are angry and to let others hear about it. The problem occurs when we get stuck in a pattern of ineffective fighting, complaining, and blaming that only preserves the status quo. When this happens, we unwittingly protect others at our own expense. On the one hand, an angry woman is threatening. When we voice our anger ineffectively, however— without clarity, direction, and control— it may, in the end, be reassuring to others. We allow ourselves to be written off and we provide others with an excuse not to take us seriously and hear what we are saying. In fact, we even help others to stay calm. Have you ever watched another person get cooler, calmer, and more intellectual as you became more infuriated and “hysterical”? Here the nature of our fighting or angry accusations may actually allow the other person to get off the hook.
Each of us belongs to larger groups or systems that have some investment in our staying exactly the same as we are now. If we begin to change our old patterns of silence or vagueness or ineffective fighting and blaming, we will inevitably meet with a strong resistance or countermove. This “Change back!” reaction will come both from inside our own selves and from significant others around us. We will see how it is those closest to us who often have the greatest investment in our staying the same, despite whatever criticisms and complaints they may openly voice. We also resist the very changes that we seek.
On making the choice:
If Barbara gives up her fantasy that she can change her husband and starts using that same anger energy to clarify her choices and take new actions on her own behalf, she will be less troubled by the “anger problems” that spring from her de-selfed or underfunctioning position: headaches, low self-esteem, and chronic bitterness and dissatisfaction, to name just a few. The price she will pay is that her marriage, at least for a while, will likely be rougher than ever. Underlying issues and conflicts will begin to surface. She may start asking herself some serious questions: “Who is responsible for making decisions about my life?” “How are power and decision-making shared in this relationship?” “What will happen in my marriage if I become stronger and more assertive?” “If my choice is either to sacrifice myself to keep the marriage calm, or to grow and risk losing the relationship, which do I want?”
On how to use anger to good purpose:
When a woman vents her anger ineffectively (like Sandra complaining to Larry about his parents, which surely wasn’t going to change anything), or expresses it in an overemotional style, she does not threaten her man. If anything, she helps him to maintain his masculine cool, while she herself is perceived as infantile or irrational. When a woman clarifies the issues and uses her anger to move toward something new and different, then change occurs. If she stops overfunctioning for others and starts acting for herself, her underfunctioning man is likely to acknowledge and deal with his own anxieties.
On the paradox of the dance:
A good way to make this break is to recognize the part we play in maintaining and provoking the other person’s behavior. Even if we are convinced that the other person is ninety-seven percent to blame, we are still in control of changing our own three percent. So the central question becomes: “How can I change my steps in the circular dance?” This is not to say that we don’t have good reason to be furious with the other person. Nor is it to say that our current sex roles and gender arrangements, which breed these sorts of dances, are not at fault— they are. Rather, it is simply to say that we don’t have the power to change another person who does not want to change, and our attempts to do so may actually protect him or her from change. This is the paradox of the circular dances in which we all participate.
On guilt and self-blame:
Why is the question “Who is responsible for what?” such a puzzle for women? Women in particular have been discouraged from taking responsibility for solving our own problems, determining our own choices, and taking control of the quality and direction of our own lives. As we learn to relinquish responsibility for the self, we are prone to blame others for failing to fill up our emptiness or provide for our happiness— which is not their job. At the same time, however, we may feel responsible for just about everything that goes on around us. We are quick to be blamed for other people’s problems and pain and quick to accept the verdict of guilty. We also, in the process, develop the belief that we can avert problems if only we try hard enough. Indeed, guilt and self-blame are a “woman’s problem” of epidemic proportion.
The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner played an important role in my journey as a survivor to understanding my anger rather than shutting down with shame about it, and then ultimately dealing with my anger by taking responsibility for the power God had rightfully given to me over my own life. Of course, this made controlling, abusive people angry, but their anger is not, and has never been, my responsibility. That’s their work. And I’ll leave them to it.