When an abuse victim comes to me, she usually does not start off with accusations. In fact, she makes excuses and provides justifications for her abuser.
When someone comes to me and starts off with accusations, they are usually the abuser, not the victim. (I should say, they are usually one of the abusers. Never assume that there is only one abuser in an abusive relationship.)
In the movies, self-righteous anger is often the mark of the hero. But in real life, it is more likely the mark of blame and resentment.
Anger was necessary 10,000 years ago when we needed the adrenaline rush to fight off danger or run like hell. It was also useful to avoid violence with other human beings. We got angry to show we could fight, and that display might prevent an actual fight.
But it is no longer 10,000 years ago, and our emotions now exist in a world of social hierarchy and complex relationships. And within a social context, anger is often used as a method of dominance and control–a threat that keeps others feeling like they are walking on eggshells.
I’ve noticed that abusers are always very big on being “offended” and talk a lot about “disrespect.” When asked to show actual harm, they don’t have as much to say. And what they usually mean when they say “disrespect” is that the person they are complaining about refused to submit to them. When they say there were offended it often just means they lost an argument and can’t get over it.
Here is a secret I use when analyzing my own behavior. The person I’m bending over backwards for, trying every method I can to excuse their actions? That’s the person who was abusive to me.
The person I still feel lingering resentment towards, the person I get angry at in my head when I imagine conversations, that is the person I am trying to “win” against. And just because I am trying to dominate them, that does not necessarily mean I am being abusive. But it does mean I have a problem. I am letting myself get stuck in the past, and I am probably being toxic.
Now the people I’m angry with may very well be toxic too. But “he did it first!” is an excuse that stops being adorable at about age Zero.
For many years, while deeply mentally ill, I was absolutely addicted to anger. When I was depressed, anger felt like living. Depression felt like death. It was easy to latch on to the adrenaline rush and confidence boost that comes with rage. And you know what? Maybe I even needed it. Maybe, in the depths of my most serious depressions, anger was better than nothing at all.
But I don’t need it now.
It has never worked for me to try to eliminate an emotion, no matter how toxic. And I have never tried to get rid of anger. Instead, I do these things:
- Admit that if I’m the one who’s angry, I’m probably the one being abusive. Anger is so seductive because there is always someone or something to blame.
- Remind myself that, in the past, anger has literally made me physically sick.
- Remind myself that most of the people who have been enraged with me were angry over things that never happened except in their own heads. I ask myself, “am I making the same mistake?”
- Remind myself that anger is often about trying to “win”, and if I “win” this battle, really, what will I have “won”?
- Ask myself who I am really harming other than myself by clinging to revenge or past arguments.
- Sometimes, and I’m not ashamed to admit this, I just have to use my “parent” voice with myself and say, “No more of this!”
- When all else fails, I just try to distract myself.
The hope is to get to the point where anger is just an emotion that lasts an instant and then I let go of it. I noticed a long time ago that when I get angry I use the same words in my head. I go down the same ruts in my brain. And I tend to escalate my emotional intensity in the same way. So I figured, “this looks like a habit.” I tried to get in a new habit of interrupting those words and interrupting that emotional escalation. Replace old habits with new ones.
This has worked a whole lot better than trying to get rid of an emotion as deeply biological as anger. And I wouldn’t want to get rid of anger because sometimes I really need it! Anger is often the first emotion that anyone experiences when faced with unfairness, and we often experience it even when we see someone else being treated unfairly. In that way, anger can be a socially powerful, connecting emotion. And even in today’s society, anger can still serve it’s purpose of reducing violence or giving me an adrenaline rush and confidence boost on the rare occasions that I actually need such things.
Now, if only I was capable of being this enlightened while driving….