This is part 2 of a 4-part series on anger, a thing most people with disabilities deal with to some extent. Disability often means loss, and anger is part of the normal grieving process. There may also be frustration from new limitations, and resentment if the disability was inflicted by someone else (for example, a drunk driver). Many people have anger toward God for allowing this to happen. Last week I introduced the topic of disability-related anger with how it’s handled in the entertainment world. https://blogs.psychcentral.com/hidden-disabilities/2018/09/the-anger-series-post-1-tv-and-movie-tropes/ This week I talk about the different ways this anger manifests in different people.
A few years ago I took a great seminar on conflict resolution at the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center. This local nonprofit offers training for mediation skills that can benefit you anywhere. I took it to be a better condo board member, and honestly, to better stand up to bullies in my own building.
I had only ever explored anger in the context of other people’s anger, never my own. At the WDRC, they had us write a bit about how anger was dealt with in our childhood homes. We learn to deal with anger as children, both our own and that of others, and the dynamics of our homes influence that. My response was simple and shared by many others in the room—anger wasn’t allowed. As children my sisters and I were not allowed to use the word “hate,” we were forbidden to say “shut up,” and forced apologies were common. Anger and love could not coexist. While my parents, along with many others in that era, surely sought to raise kinder, gentler children, an unintended result was the tendency to bottle up my own anger and never express it.
In homes where anger was expressed freely and sometimes abusively, the class was split between adults who had grown up fearing and avoiding anger, and ones who also expressed it externally and often, the way it was modeled to them. What was conspicuously missing was a single person with a healthy coping strategy.
I wish I could find my notes from the Dispute Resolution class; I like to lend them to new condo board members and I have no idea who has them now. I remember, though, that there were style groupings for how people were raised in relation to anger and how they handle it as adults. The research I found online is similar, and I offer a framework I found here: http://stress.emszone.com/instructor/anger.html It’s loaded with great information and I’ll paraphrase the 4 unhealthy anger handling types they defined, with the note that the categories created by these models are never all-encompassing—they’re meant to help you understand, not put reality into an arbitrary framework. We all have a dominant style that emerges from a mixture of behaviors. Somatizers and Self-Punishers are considered passive styles, while Exploders and Underhanders are more active styles.
Somatizers: Somatizers internalize anger because they’re afraid of making others angry or losing their approval. All this internalized anger leads to physical ailments (soma means body). Jones and Bartlett (the source of this information) say that this style “promotes the martyr role for those who choose it.” I take issue with that phrasing; I don’t think somatizers ever really choose to handle anger this way, they just don’t know a better way and it’s often a response to fear, which implies coercion rather than choice. A somatizer’s disability may have an emotional component.
Self-Punishers: Self-punishers turn anger inward where it becomes guilt. It’s personal responsibility run amok—they blame themselves for everything and force themselves to do penance in the form of weird rules they must follow, like denying themselves things that bring them pleasure if they don’t measure up. Self-punishers might fail to make a physical therapy session goal, assume it’s because they didn’t try hard enough (even though the therapist may have pushed it too soon), then deny themselves their customary stop at Starbuck’s on the way home because they don’t deserve a treat.
The Exploder: Everyone who’s ever watched a cartoon knows the Exploder. We’ve seen Exploders in real life too. These outward displays of rage may provide catharsis for the Exploder and command instant control of a situation, but these meltdowns also affect everyone around them. The fallout can damage relationships and erode respect. Exploders are more prone to heart disease, as they are associated with the “Type A” personality. They tend to be exceptionally difficult patients, as they are overtly uncooperative and often abusive to those who are trying to help them.
The Underhander: Underhanders are passive-aggressive masterminds. Underhanders don’t directly confront the people they’re angry with; rather, they sabotage them in many ways. They’ll belittle their targeted people in front of others and disrupt their plans to keep them from meeting their goals. Underhanders see themselves as victims out for revenge, striking out because they don’t believe any constructive resolution is possible. Underhanders are also difficult patients to work with, and they’d likely be their own biggest barrier to progress.
For our purposes, the message is that while anger is fairly universal to people with disabilities, it manifests in different ways for different people. Writers of the overplayed therapy meltdown scenes assume that all of us are Exploders, when that’s not the case. Some people become sullen, some belligerent, some apathetic. Some people can compartmentalize and process their anger away from its source; they are the most successful in therapy and in life outside the rehab center. The ideal is to process anger in a healthy way and use that energy to achieve a goal. If you meet anyone like that, I’d sure like to meet them. Anger is a universally difficult emotion and few of us process it as well as we’d like. Think about your history with anger–how you learned to relate to it when you were young, whether it affects you now, whether your coping style serves you, and what it would take to change it if it doesn’t.