Anger – The Backbone of Healing
When I’m angry, it’s because I know I’m worth being angry about.
Shama, 25-year-old survivor
Few women have wholeheartedly embraced anger as a positive healing force. Traditionally women have been taught to be nice, conciliatory, understanding, polite. Angry women are labeled man-haters, castraters, bitches. Even in new-age psychotherapy circles, anger is usually seen as a stage to work through or as something toxic to eliminate. And most religious or spiritual ideologies encourage us to forgive and love. As a result, many survivors have suppressed their anger, turning it inward.
I’m albino and I get severe sunburn whenever I’m exposed to the sun. As a kid, I’d get really pissed about what was happening at home. But you weren’t allowed to get angry at my house. So rather than say anything, I’d purposefully go out on a sunny day without a hat or any other protection. I’d Come home blistered and with a fever.
Other survivors have been angry their whole lives. They grew up in families or circumstances so pitted against each other that they learned early to fight for survival. Anger was a continual armoring for battle. And sometimes the line between anger and violence blurred, and it became a destructive force.
I saw men and women angry and rageful when I was growing up. Both of my parents, and other relatives too. I remember my mom slapping the shit out of this woman in the bar because the woman said, “We don’t allow dirty Mexicans in this bar.” But then my parents would turn it on each other, and on us. Anger, violence, and self-defense are all mixed up for me.
But anger doesn’t have to be suppressed or destructive. Instead, it can be both a healthy response to violation and a transformative, powerful energy.
DENYING AND TWISTING ANGER
Anger is a natural response to abuse. You were probably not able to experience, express, and act on your outrage when you were abused. You may not even have known you had a right to feel outraged. Rather than be angry at the person or people who abused you, you probably did some combination of denying and twisting your anger.
One way survivors cut themselves off from their anger is to become so immersed in the perspective of the abuser that they lose connection with themselves and their own feelings. This approach is enthusiastically endorsed by most of society. Many people find it easier to sympathize with the abuser than to stand up as a staunch advocate for the victim. This is particularly true once time has passed and the abuser is an older man and the child a grown woman. People will feel sorry for him, perceive even weak attempts toward reconciliation on his part as major efforts, and blame the survivor if she continues to be angry.
But if you are unable to focus your rage at the abuser, it will go somewhere else. Many survivors turn it on themselves, leading to depression and self-destruction. You may have wanted to hurt or kill yourself. You may feel yourself to be essentially bad, criticize yourself unrelentingly, and devalue yourself. Or you might stuff your anger with food, drown it with alcohol, stifle it with drugs, make yourself ill. As Adrienne Rich writes: “Most women have not even been able to touch this anger, except to drive it inward like a rusted nail.” 
Having been taught to blame yourself, you stay angry at the child within—the child who was vulnerable, who was injured, who was unable to protect herself, who needed affection and attention, who experienced sexual arousal or orgasm. But this child did nothing wrong. She does not deserve your anger.
Many survivors have also turned their anger against partners and lovers, friends, coworkers, and children, lashing out at those who (usually) mean no harm. You may find yourself pushing your child against the wall or punching your lover when you get mad.
I had a lot of physically abusive relationships. I didn’t know how not to fight. My first impulse when I got angry was this [she smacks one hand hard on the other], because that’s what I saw growing up. Whenever I started to get upset with someone, I would literally feel the adrenaline running up and down my arms. My muscles would get really tight, my fists would clench, and I would break out into a sweat. I’d be ready to smack the person around. I’d want to fight.
If violence has been part of your life and you find yourself expressing your anger in abusive ways, you need to get help right away. It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to be violent.
If you don’t physically fight, you may pick verbal fights or look for things to criticize. You mean to tell your son to do his homework and you find yourself yelling or calling him names. Your husband forgets to put oil in the car and you tell him he’s a stupid idiot. Even though it isn’t physically violent, verbal abuse is destructive.
DIRECTING YOUR ANGER WHERE IT BELONGS
It is time to direct your anger accurately and appropriately at those who violated you. You must release yourself from responsibility for what was done to you and place the responsibility – and your anger – clearly on the abuser.
I had a hard time directing the anger at my Dad. My therapist would say, “Well, how did you feel when your Dad picked you up and threw you against the wall?”
And I’d say, “Well, I pretty much felt like he was an asshole.”
And my therapist would Say, “Hmmm.”
One time, after years of therapy, when he asked me something about my father, I was holding this pencil, and I just threw it across the room and said, “That bastard!”
It was the first time I was ever clearly angry at him. Sure, I’d been mad at my Dad. But it was directed in all the wrong directions. And this was the first time in all those years that I was just mad at him, period, without laughing about it, without being sarcastic or defensive. Just full on, “That shit!”
GETTING IN TOUCH WITH YOUR ANGER
If you’re willing to get angry and the anger just doesn’t seem to come, there are many ways to get in touch with it. A little like priming the pump, you can do things that will get your anger started. Then, once you get the hang of it, it’ll begin to flow on its own.
It’s often easier to get angry for someone else’s pain than for your own. That’s fine for a beginning. Imagine a child you love being treated the way you were treated. Read the writings of other survivors in anthologies and feminist journals. You can listen to their stories at conferences, workshops, and in small support groups. You can look at the expressions of grief on their faces and be touched.
WORKING THROUGH MOTHER BLAME
Although our culture usually criticizes women for being angry, it does not hesitate to direct anger toward women. Women, and specifically mothers, are frequently designated as the recipients for whatever anger needs a target. This is sometimes evident in the extreme, as when a mother is blamed for the father’s abuse of their child.
Fathers have habitually blamed their wives for the fact that they abused their daughters. Many psychologists and sociologists have endorsed this position as well. They cite the wife’s failure to meet the husband’s needs for nurturing or sex. They refer to her drinking, illness, working nights, or being otherwise unavailable. “And so,” the father pleads, holding up his hands in a gesture of helplessness, “1 turned to my daughter.”
This is preposterous. It is never anyone else’s fault when a man abuses a child. Regardless of how inadequate a mother may have been, no behavior on her part is license for any man to sexually abuse a child. It’s time to stop blaming women for what men have done.
The role of mothers in father-daughter incest has traditionally been misunderstood and misrepresented. It has been assumed that the mothers knew the abuse was going on – and if they didn’t, it was because they didn’t want to. Mothers have been labeled collusive, contributing, weak, passive, withholding, and inattentive.
And certainly some mothers have been. More than one survivor has described literally being handed over for sex by her mother.
But not all mothers are the same. Some genuinely didn’t know the abuse was going on. And sometimes even a mother’s best efforts are insufficient to stop it. Mothers have lost custody cases, been dismissed as vindictive, paranoid, or unfit by judges and social workers. Against what can be formidable odds, some mothers have succeeded in protecting their children. A number of mothers have gone underground with their children to shield them from abusive fathers. And a few have gone to jail rather than comply with court orders to hand over their children.
Children have a right to be protected. And you have a right to be angry if you weren’t protected. If your mother did not listen when you tried to tell her, did not leave an abusive or alcoholic man, did not offer the warmth, attention, or understanding that you needed, you have a right to hold her responsible.
Although some women direct all their anger at their mothers, others are afraid to get angry at them at all. You-may identify so much with your mother’s oppression that you minimize or negate your own. You may feel allied with her as women in a patriarchal society and think that acknowledging your anger would threaten that bond. But if your mother didn’t protect you, looked the other way, set you up, or blamed you, you are inevitably carrying some feelings of anger. It is necessary to experience, validate, and express those feelings. This is not only your right; it is essential for your healing.
However, unless your mother was your abuser, you must not direct all of your anger toward her. Remember: the abuser always holds the ultimate responsibility for sexual abuse, and thus he deserves your legitimate anger.
You can hear their fury and be incited. Know that any time you cry or get angry for someone else, it taps your own grief and anger as well.
Getting into an angry posture also helps. Physically taking an angry stance, making menacing gestures and facial expressions, invites genuine anger to rise. One woman, who described herself as much more prone to feeling hurt than angry, was quietly weeping during a therapy session.
As she relates:
My therapist scooted her chair toward me so that her knees almost touched mine. Then she put out her hands, palms facing me, and instructed me to put my palms against hers. “Push,” she said. “Push against me.” I pushed against her palms and she pushed back. As I pushed harder, she met me with equal pressure. It took all my strength to maintain. Within seconds I was angry. The tears were long gone. I was mad! And it felt powerful.
Therapy and support groups can be ideal places for stirring up anger:
I felt incredible anger, but I never allowed anger my whole life. It was really a difficult thing to let out. One day my therapist got up out of her chair, and she said, “Your father’s in that chair.” And she handed me a rolled-up towel and she said, “I want you to hit your father.”
It took me a long time to psych myself into doing that, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I pounded and screamed until I couldn’t move anymore. It was such a relief.
That was an important turning point for me. After that, I did a lot of pounding on beds and screaming and writing angry letters to my dead father. I even worked with a punching bag.
Another way to get in touch with your anger is to role-play’ a situation that make you angry in the past. A therapist, friend, or group member can play the part of the person with whom you are angry. You describe the body language, gestures, and words that made you angry originally, and then you recreate the scene. This time you can respond with your genuine anger, and experience release and relief.
In order for this kind of exercise to be safe, the people involved have to be trustworthy and able to handle strong feelings. There must be guidelines for the expression of anger – for example, no hurting people, no hurting yourself. Also there should be an agreement that you can stop whenever you’ve had enough.
If you prefer to work with your anger alone, there are a number of writing exercices that can rouse your ire. Make a list of all the ways still affected by the abuse. If you do this in detail, you can hardly avoid at least some anger. You can also write letter to your abuser. Try beginning with “I hate you.”
Eva Smith arranged a satisfying outlet for her anger :
I had a friend who made ceramic things, and if they were cracked or whatever, he’d set them aside for me. I’d come around at midnight. I’d go around the back and throw them against the fence. It was a miracle no one called the police because I’d be out there throwing stuff.
Piggybacking your anger at your abuser to more accessible anger is a good, sneaky way to bring it past your internal censors. If international issues like apartheid in South Africa easily inflame you, let yourself get worked up over those problems, and then, when you’re really angry, remind yourself that the mentality that allows whites to torture blacks is the same mentality that allowed your abuser to vent his twisted, uncontrolled needs, fear, and ruthlessness on you. You can slide your own trauma in with the rest of the ills of the world, and you’ll find yourself finally angry.
FEAR OF ANGER
Many survivors are afraid of getting angry because their past experiences with anger were negative. As one survivor put it, “I don’t get the difference between anger and violence yet. When I hear loud noises, I think they’re coming after me.” In your family, you may have witnessed anger that was destructive and out of control. But your own anger need not be either. You can channel your anger in ways that you feel good about and respect.
Even women with no history of violence are often afraid that if they allow themselves to feel anger, they’re liable to hurt or kill someone.
I know the anger is there. I’m too scared to let myself experience it. I’m scared that I won’t be gentle with myself. That I’ll turn the anger on myself.
And I’m so used to watching other people hurt people. I don’t want to be a perpetrator. I don’t know how to discharge my anger in a way that’s safe.
It is extremely rare for women to violently act out their anger toward the people who abused them as children. And for women with no history of violence, the fear that you might hurt someone with your anger is usually unrealistic.
Anger is a feeling, and feelings themselves do not violate anyone. It’s important to make the distinction between the experience of feeling angry and the expression of that anger. When you acknowledge your anger, then you have the freedom to choose if and how you want to express it. Anger does not have to be an uncontrolled, uncontrollable phenomenon. As you welcome your anger and become familiar with it, you can direct it to meet your needs – like an experienced rider controlling a powerful horse.
ANGER AND LOVE
Another aspect of anger that is often misunderstood, and thus keeps women from releasing their dammed emotion, is the relationship between anger and love. Anger and love are not incompatible. Most of us have been angry, at one time or another, with everyone we love and live closely with. Yet when you’ve been abused by someone close to you, with whom you’ve shared good experiences, it can be difficult to admit your anger for fear that it will eradicate the positive aspects of that relationship or of your childhood.
But getting angry doesn’t negate anything you want to retain of your history. What’s good can still remain in your memory as something from which you’ve benefited. You forfeit nothing of your past by getting angry, except your illusion of the abuser as innocent.
Often survivors are afraid of getting angry because they think it will consume them. They sense that their anger is deep and fear that if they tap it, they’ll be submerged in anger forever, becoming bitter and hostile. But anger obsesses only when it is repressed and misplaced. When you meet your anger openly – naming it, knowing it, directing it appropriately – you are liberated.
I’D LIKE TO KILL HIM
At one point or another, many survivors have strong feelings of wanting to get back at the people who hurt them so terribly. You may dream of murder or castration. It can be pleasurable to fantasize such scenes in vivid detail. Wanting revenge is a natural impulse, a sane response. Let yourself imagine it to your heart’s content. Giving yourself permission to visualize revenge can be satisfying indeed.
If you start to think about acting on your fantasies, you need to consider how your actions would affect your own future. It’s not wise to seek violent revenge in this society; you’d most likely perpetuate your own victimization.
What I say to myself is, “Wait a minute. I don’t want to go to prison. I don’t want the cops to come.” I grew up with the cops coming. I don’t want to go back to jail for being violent.
You also have to decide if you want to perpetuate abusive behavior further or if you want to break the cycle. As Soledad put it, “I’ve learned to respect human life. “
There are nonviolent means of retribution you can seek. Suing your abuser and turning him in to the authorities are just two of the avenues open. One woman threatened her abuser with the following telegram:
You have wondered why I don’t want to be in touch with you anymore. Now I know why, and I have people watching you. If you ever molest another little girl, even LOOK AT her in the wrong way, I will take you to court and win.
Your message was delivered by telephone at 2:19 PM Pst on 1/21 and was a accepted by Jack.
Thank you for using our service.
Another woman, abused by her grandfather, went to his deathbed and, in front of all the other relatives, angrily confronted him right there in the hospital.
Some survivors feel revenge is something that’s not in their hands. One woman, a devout Christian, said simply, “God will take care of him. It’s not my job.” Another woman said she couldn’t do anything to her father that was worse than what he was doing to himself. He was dying of testicular cancer.
And sometimes the best revenge is living well.
THE POWER OF ANGER: THREE STORIES
Barbara Hamilton, a sixty-five-year-old survivor who has written a book about her abuse and her healing, describes the first time she really got in touch with her anger.
I went racing back and got a hold of my therapist before she left. I started to rage and the whole mental health department of Napa heard me, because I raised the roof. Everything came up. All the obscenities and everything were connected. The male assaults of me and my kids all went together. I had been intellectually angry at my father before, but this time I just blew. I just screamed my fury all over the place. I threw my glasses against the wall. I was just beside myself. I can’t say that it felt good, but it was a turning point. It was so clear where the rage was coming from. It was the beginning of me not blaming myself.
If you’ve suppressed your anger for many years, it can be explosive. But even torrential anger doesn’t have to be dangerous. Esther Barclay was able to trust her anger with striking results:
As I regained more memories, I moved through terror to a period of such intense anger toward my parents that I fairly radiated… One night I was awakened by a loud screaming. At that moment just preceding full consciousness I was aware that I was the person screaming and that it was coming from the soles of my feet. As I became fully awake, I put my arms around myself and sobbed with relief. I did not know where this was leading, but soon after an especially heavy counseling session in which I worked intensely on anger toward my father, two things were apparent: (l) my vision changed; colors were bright and clear in a way unusual to me, and (2) for several days my back and legs were sore and tender in a way that can best be described as an enormous taproot being pulled out with all the little branches following.
And Edith Horning’s experience clearly illustrates the dramatic healing effects of anger:
I had my therapist on one side of me, and a man I was very close to on the other. My therapist had me imagine I was in the balcony of a movie theater, and that quite far away my father was up on a tiny movie screen. I did this scenario where I imagined him coming closer, getting larger and larger and larger, and as he did, the people on either side of me encouraged me to stop him, to do whatever I had to do to make him powerless. They encouraged me to say no. It took me two or three tries before I could get the nerve to shout. Suddenly I got this tremendous surge of feeling from inside. I screamed, “No! You get back! Just stop it!” And in my mind, I could see my father getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And I pounded on him until he was really tiny, just a shrimp.
That’s when my father stopped being more powerful than I was. That’s when I stopped protecting my mother or father. I no longer felt sorry for them. They made choices as they went along, just like I have. And when you make the choices, you pay the price. I did. They are. And that’s the way it is.
POSITIVE EXPRESSIONS OF ANGER
Whether you express your anger directly to the abuser or you work with it yourself, it’s essential that you give it some outlet. You can:
The list is endless. You can be creative with your anger. And ultimately, you can heal with anger.
In the introduction to I Never Told Anyone, Ellen wrote about her experience as a child being protected by her mother’s anger when a deliveryman tried to molest her:
My mother got furious at him. Then she fired him. She cared about me. Not the delivery man. She didn’t tell me to take his feelings or his bad past experiences into consideration. She didn’t care if he had trouble getting another job. She cared about me. I internalized the message that I was important, worthy of protection, worthy of her outrage.
Even if you are not yet in solid contact with your own anger, you may welcome a show of supportive anger. Although counselors are traditionally trained not to show more emotion than their clients, and parents are warned not to “overreact” when their children are abused, someone else’s anger can help you experience your own. Women say things like, “It’s still too scary for me to get angry at him myself, but it feels good to see you get so angry. “
Ellen has seen this frequently :
Anger fuels my work. The women with whom I’ve been privileged to work have felt the power of my fury and it has been a shelter, a spark, a breath of fresh air, a model, an exciting if scary possibility, an affirmation.
Similarly, one woman’s anger can clear the path for another. At a workshop, one survivor, Patricia, was rationalizing her father’s abusiveness. Another woman kept quiet for a long time and then burst through in a passionate torrent, saying that she couldn’t understand how anyone could not be angry, that she was so angry, all the time so angry, that she felt alone in the intensity of her anger. Rather than being overwhelmed or feeling criticized by this outburst, Patricia rushed across the room and took the hands of the outraged woman. She said that by overstepping the normal bounds of tidy, well-contained anger, this woman gave her permission to reach her own hidden anger.
Patricia was grateful, receiving that strong anger as a valuable gift.
ANGER AS AN ORDINARY PART OF LIFE
As you become more familiar with experiencing and expressing your anger, it can become a part of everyday life. When it’s not so pent up, it stops being a dangerous monster and takes its place as one of many feelings.
I’m learning that I can let people know when I’m angry without it being this terrible traumatic thing. I can say, “No, that upsets me,” without feeling like the world is going to end.
Anger can be so safe that even children aren’t scared by it. In Ellen’s family, they have an enormous stuffed frog that a friend bought for two dollars at a garage sale:
When one of us gets really angry, we stomp all over it. Even as a very small child, my daughter would explain, “It’s okay to beat up Big Frog because he’s not alive. It doesn’t really hurt him.” And at times when I was crabby she would encourage me : “Go get Big Frog, Mom. You can yell all you want. There’s nobody here but me and you, and I don’t mind.”
ANGER INTO ACTION
Our task, of course, is to transmute the anger that is affliction into the anger that is determination to bring about change. I think in fact that one could give that as a definition of revolution.
Barbara Deming, “On Anger”
In Ellen’s story about her mother protecting her from the deliveryman, her mother experienced her anger, expressed her anger, and then acted on her anger. She fired the deliveryman. She threatened to tell his wife if he ever spoke to Ellen again. She demonstrated her power to take action. This part is critical.
One woman in her late thirties described her realization that action is necessary:
In the early seventies, when I began participating in growth and therapy workshops, we were encouraged to express our anger. I had, it became apparent, plenty to express. I ranted, broke chairs, pounded pillows, slammed doors, screamed and raged for a number of years. I had married a man with whom I was incompatible and we both expressed great quantities of anger toward each other, often in emotionally abusive ways. Yet none of this helped me feel better.
It took a long time for me to realize that experiencing my anger and expressing my anger were not enough. The last critical step, acting on my anger, was missing. Finally I gained the courage and clarity to act. I left my marriage and was no longer filled with rage.
Action, using the anger as a motivating force, is a critical part of healing. If you listen to what your anger is telling you, if you allow it to be a guide, then it becomes a valuable resource moving you toward positive change.
Women’s anger has inspired them to cut ties with abusers, never again to have to endure pinches, inappropriate jokes, and drunken advances while they try to chew their Thanksgiving turkey. Women’s anger has catalyzed them to quit jobs with domineering bosses, to divorce battering husbands, and to break addictions to drugs and alcohol. Focusing anger precisely – onto the abuser and away from yourself – clears the way for self-accceptance. self-nurturance, and positive action in the world.
- Courage to heal
- Ellen Bass and Louise Thornton
-  Adrienne Rich, “Disloyal to Civilization,” in Lies, Secrets, and Silence (New York : W.W. Norton, 1979), p. 309
-  One highly publicized example is Dr Elizabeth Morgan, who served tow years in jail rather than send her daughter on court-ordered visitations with her ex-husband. A resource for mothers who want to help their children who’ve been abused is Mothers Against Sexual Abuse (see p. 566 of the Resource Guide).
-  It is fine, of course, if you do not love your abuser. This should be obvious, but because many women carry a sense of responsibility for loving everyone, it is necessary to reinforce again and again your right not to love your abuser – even if he bought your food, taught you to ride a bike, read you bedtime stories.
-  Barbara Smith Hamilton, The Hidden Legacy: Uncovering, Confronting, and Healing Three Generations of Incest. See p. 538 of the Resource Guide.
-  Ellen Bass and Louise Thornton, eds. (see the “About Sexual Abuse” section on p. 538 of the Resource Guide).
-  Barbara Deming, “On Anger,” In We are All part of One Another: A Barbara Reader, edited by Jane Meyerding (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1984). P. 213