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Drawing a Line Between Healthy Anger and Destructive Anger

You may have been told that you needed to “get in touch” with your anger to heal from childhood trauma. For some people, there is probably something freeing about that — for a while anyway. 

But if you were already angry…  If you were just barely holding in the rage or the irritability or the contempt you inherited from growing up abused and neglected… Then “getting in touch” with your feelings is not necessarily freeing.  Focusing on your anger can amplify it, and with CPTSD that can be dangerous. That’s because a common symptom  of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) is emotional dysregulation.

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When you get dysregulated, feelings can suddenly go from a normal level to a surge level for seemingly no reason. In the moment it feels like the right level of anger — but later you can see what everyone around you could see — that your anger was an overreaction.

It’s this kind of anger that can cause problems in your life, especially when it becomes a habit or when anger becomes a kind of drug that you unconsciously use to get up and out of depression. 

The Difference Between Healthy and Dysregulated Anger  

So how do you draw a line between healthy anger (an emotion we need) and destructive, dysregulated anger? 

One of the most hurtful things that anyone’s ever said to me is, “You’re a very angry woman.”  Oof. It hurts even now to say it. Because it was true. I was angry! But  I had my reasons. 

The adults in my life when I was a kid were way out of control with their anger. I grew up watching my dad rage at my mom, and my mom berate my dad. The two of them would smash things and get violent. Even after they were divorced when I was seven, anger and rage became the default way they communicated about anything. 

We had a lot of alcoholism in the family, and drunk people make everybody angry. The angry people would also make the drunk person angry, so everyone ended up angry, and this was terrifying (I know a lot of you know exactly what I’m talking about).  

I remember when I was five or so, I was angry about something — really angry. But instead of throwing a temper tantrum, I went around the house and folded a folding chair, and took a vase off the mantle, and placed it gently down on the hearth. That was my way of really making a statement — very gently, dammit! 

I couldn’t bear the roughness, the yelling, doors slamming, the sound of breaking glass… and that silence when you know something really terrible is coming.

I hated all the violence. I hated the sounds and smells of drunken people. There was no way around it, it just put me on high alert and created this weird kind of tension inside me.   

So in my teens and twenties, I figured I’d solve things by just avoiding angry people. I thought of myself as this very peaceful, loving person — and it’s not that I wasn’t. But you know what happened: I had a lot of anger! I didn’t even realize it sometimes. 

I remember before I ever learned to re-regulate my brain, my emotions were confused. When I acted angry, I was actually hurt. When I was depressed, it was because I was angry. I did passive-aggressive things like gossiping and making sarcastic comments. I had B.S.-ed everyone about what I was feeling for so long I had no idea what I was feeling.  

And then, I started therapy and had a place to talk about what happened. At first I didn’t really have strong emotions about my childhood, but boy, the therapist thought it was terrible. Almost to a fault, she’d want me to talk about it and talk about it, and soon, oh yeah, I had some serious anger going on! 

And the more I talked to her, the angrier I got.I was a real drag to hang out with, in fact! I read some books and talked to other angry people, and soon, everywhere I went — with everyone I knew, I was coming off angry

At one point, it was me raging and smashing things — not as bad as my parents, but I intentionally broke some dishes in the kitchen. And threw a ceramic mug out of the passenger window of a car. Even thinking about this now totally upsets me. So I didn’t want to do that. 

I had thought I was getting in touch with my feelings. But actually I was losing control of my feelings and learning to amp them up. It wasn’t cathartic — there was no sense of being “done” with the feeling. It just wore me out, tore me down, alienated everyone. And there is nothing healing about that. 

Why Anger Feels Great (But Only At First) 

Some anger is normal and natural. It’s a useful emotion — it’s an honest response to unfairness and hurt. It tells you when action is required. 

With healthy anger, it flashes through you like burning paper. Sometimes it lasts longer, but at a certain point — when it’s not helping you take action or solve problems — it turns into unhealthy anger. And that is something many of us were encouraged to have. Or perhaps we became addicted to anger as a solution for our pain.

It feels like that’s true, but I want to tell you why it doesn’t work. 

You can think of your feelings on a vertical scale. At the bottom  is death or being in a coma.  A little higher than that, you’re depressed. Obviously, there are degrees of depression, but anywhere in depression is a terrible place to get stuck. Strategies or actions that move you out of a depressed state and into anger (which is a common enough outcome with psychotherapy) can be helpful at times. But not for long.

It’s easy to help someone get angry — and it feels pretty good at first. It gets you out of bed and on your feet! When you’re hovering at the bottom of the emotional scale, anger and rage are a step in the right direction — UP! You think Wow! This is a breakthrough — I’m feeling my anger!

But it’s a mistake to think that anger is the solution. This idea that “feeling your feelings” is inherently constructive is just not true. There’s a time when we need to get in touch with our feelings. There’s  a time to be angry — and a time to move through that. Suppose the anger isn’t transformed pretty quickly into some clarity of mind and sane action. In that case, it’ll just take you right back down the vertical scale — isolated, depressed, and scary for other people to be around.

Luckily I stumbled on a new way to heal. It was the most profound turning point in my life when I was shown how to put it on paper. I quit that anger-based therapy and started using techniques that helped me very quickly get those harsh emotions out and gave me comfort instead. The techniques gave me a clear mind. I was able to take my attention from all the bad things from the past and instead focus on my present-day surroundings. And from there, it was a lot easier to start solving problems and build a happy life. 

I’ve used these techniques for years now. I continue to work on myself, and have made so much progress. I wish I could say that CPTSD anger never comes back, but it does on occasion. My progress is that I notice it right away and can change course on it quickly. 

The Daily Practice for Calming Dysregulated Anger and Other CPTSD Symptoms 

I put my fears and resentments about life — the tragedies, the injustices, the petty little things that bother my mind —  all down on paper and I ask for it to be removed. The writing is paired with simple meditation techniques immediately afterward. I call this “The Daily Practice” and if you’d like you can learn it here.

I encourage you to use the techniques in a way that harmonizes with your beliefs and that gives you a sense of relief. You can ask God to release the fear and resentment. Or, if you have a reliable higher self (which I don’t), you can try releasing it yourself. For myself, I find I get better results when I ask for it to be removed, something like a prayer.

The Daily Practice is the foundation of everything I teach. It’s how I had my transformation when I was scared and held down by CPTSD symptoms.

With these feelings out of your head and on paper, you can be emotionally free enough to see what needs to be done about the problem. Sometimes the situation is crying for you to act — to do something. Or if nothing needs to be done, it’s sometimes just an angry, stray wisp of emotion that gets dredged up, and it softens and it evaporates. 

Everything depends on you knowing the difference between what needs action and what needs releasing. So, once you’ve written and meditated, you can then ask yourself, Is this anger something I need to attend to, to act on, express? Or am I basically having a CPTSD reaction? 

When you have some freedom from the fearful and resentful thoughts (even if it’s just for a little while), you’re in a much better position to see the difference. You’re better able to discern whether it’s time to forget, or time to take action. 

Taking Action is Everything When it Comes to Healing Your Life 

When I was first using this technique, I worried that if I lost my anger, I’d have no defense against abuse and pressure from people. It’s been my experience, though, that the opposite is true. 

When my mind was tangled up with anger and resentment, and someone acted negatively toward me, I got paralalyzed or confused. I’d start flailing around trying to fix the situation without understanding what was going on. When I got free of all those racing, negative thoughts, and beliefs, I could see things more clearly. I knew when I was being attacked from the outside, versus when the disturbance was inside me.  

I got clarity. 

And with a clear mind, I am able to take responsibility. I can respond appropriately to problems — either protect myself or get away from problems and danger. I can stay and work things out when that’s the right thing. I have a choice. 

I invite you to try the techniques I teach and see what happens. You may find that you have fewer problems, and that when things do go wrong, you can work them out more gracefully.  You’ll know how to calm the inner disturbance so that you can be clear what you need to do. And most of the time all you need to do is take a deep breath and carry on.

If you want to try this technique you’ll find instructions in my free course, “The Daily Practice,” here.  

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