The question of anger often comes up in messages I get from readers understandably so because while anger can play a temporarily positive role as the daughter begins to really see and understand how her childhood affected her, her continuing anger becomes yet another problem for her to tackle. This is something I remember well; I was an incredibly angry young woman in my twenties, heavily armored, quick to retaliate with a sarcastic or biting quip. In hindsight, it was clearly easier for me to be angry in public than it was to show how afraid and insecure I was. I didn’t connect my anger to my childhood experiences at the time but I certainly do now.
This blog post is an edited excerpt from my newest book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. It is one of 110 questions and answers.
The Upside of Anger
A daughter’s anger surfaces at a very specific time when she begins, finally, to understand how her mother’s treatment—and her experiences in her family of origin—have affected her. When her recognition tips the scales and kick-starts her need to protect and save herself from her mother’s continuing hurtfulness, the chances are good that her initial response will be anger, which is actually a good thing in the moment. Her anger at the unfairness of her treatment helps clarify how and why she’s been in denial, and will provide the fuel for acting on and dealing with her predicament; her anger often effectively sweeps aside her avoidance of confrontation. That’s the positive part; here comes the negative
The downside to anger
Human beings are hardwired to get angry; it’s an emotion that’s part of our self-protective gear, also known as the stress response or, more popularly, “fight or flight.” There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know what anger feels like in the body— “seeing red” isn’t just a metaphor in this case—and all of us have experienced the hot flush, heart-pumping moment that accompanies anger. Our bodily sensations are the external manifestations of a process that’s going on in our brains and disrupts our ability to think, as the work of Sarah N. Garfinkel, Emma Zorab, and others made clear. The researchers wanted to test what priming for anger would do to a specific thought processes—in this case, identifying real words from non-words. During the course of the experiments, after priming the participants subliminally either with the words “Anger” or “Relax,” both blood pressure readings and MRIs were performed to see the primes’ effect on lexical ability. As it happens, the Anger prime didn’t just raise blood pressure but changed activity within the brain itself; additionally, anger increased the reaction time to lexical cues and interfered with semantic decision-making, a relatively high level cognitive process. So, if you’re trying to sort things out—as an unloved daughter must—anger isn’t helpful.
Anger is yet another tie that binds us
Alas, anger doesn’t just mess with our cognitive ability; it’s a detriment on the emotional level as well. The problem with anger is it ties us to the people we’re angry with; it’s not unusual for daughters talk about wanting to hurt back, show their mothers a dose of their own “medicine,” and even wanting revenge of some sort. One daughter confessed that:
“I did want her to hurt the way I hurt and, for a while, that feeling was consuming. I thought about her constantly, in fact—more than I had over the course of twenty years of my adult life. It was as if someone had uncorked a bottle with all this toxic, explosive stuff and I was the bottle. Finally, my husband confronted me and convinced me to see a therapist. Thank goodness he did. The anger was eating me alive. It was just as destructive as my mother, if in another soul-sucking way.”
Sadly, this kind of anger substitutes a new dance which tries to elicit a response from our mothers for the old dance of trying to wrest our mother’s love from her; this new dance keeps us effectively as trapped and as focused on her as we were when we were busy denying. Anger at those who didn’t protect you from her—usually your father or perhaps other relatives or close intimates of your family of origin—as well as siblings who may have bullied and marginalized you and followed your mother’s lead can keep you in the same kind of loop. Sustained anger just puts us on another merry-go-round with different horses and music.
Even worse in some ways is the anger the daughter often feels at having played along to get along for years and sometimes even many decades; she may berate herself for being stupid or a chump, ironically reinforcing the internalized self-critical voice that’s often a legacy from a childhood in which she was berated, mocked, marginalized, or even insulted on a constant basis. That was Amanda’s struggle:
“What kills me is that I can’t get the years back, years I could have been working on myself, being happier. My mother died ten years ago and it’s only now, at 64, that I am finally seeing the truth of it all. How could I have been so blind? How could I have been co-opted by denial?”
In answer to Amanda, it’s remarkably easy to be co-opted by denial and hopefulness, as many daughters can attest. That said, time can’t be recaptured, of course; what you have is now. If this is happening to you and you are beating yourself up, you must address it immediately. It’s holding you back. And, no, it’s not weird or strange; in the context of recovery, being angry with yourself isn’t unexpected. Unexpected doesn’t make it good, however.
Your ways of dealing with anger may be all wrong
Many of our preconceptions about how to deal with anger are, in fact, misguided. It’s a cultural trope that letting off steam—aka venting—and engaging in some physical activity (running it off, punching a pillow, etc.) s a good way of letting go of anger but did you know that it’s actually not true?
That’s exactly what a study by Brad Bushman found seventeen years ago—yes, cultural myths die hard—when he challenged the idea of anger and catharsis in a series of experiments. In his handy introduction to the subject, he traces the idea of catharsis back to its Freudian roots—Freud believed deeply that repression was the source of many of our psychological maladies—and lists research studies, one after the other, that failed to validate the claim that venting decreases anger. So, to put the icing on the proverbial cake, Bushman conducted a series of experiments to either prove the truth of the assumption or expose its falsity with over 600 participants. Anger was primed by a supposedly critical review of a paper by a peer; angered participants were told to think about the person who angered them while hitting a punching bag (rumination group), or told to think about getting physically fit by punching (distraction group); there was also a control group who were just left to chill out. After completing the punching part, they were offered the chance to administer loud bursts of noise to the people who’d angered them. Well, guess what? The people in the rumination group not only stayed angry but were the most aggressive, followed by those who just punched the bag. The least angry? The ones who just chilled.
So, is venting necessarily a good thing? Nope, the chances are good it’ll just make you angrier unless you vent and let go. Yes, right; easier said than done, especially when it comes to your mother and childhood. This is especially true for those among us who tend to ruminate. Anger does have a place in recovery and that is in the context of mourning the mother you rightly deserved.
Anger and mourning
My view of things is drawn from the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross but not her most famous one; it is a book she wrote with David Kessler called on Grief and Grieving. I have found that the argument, understanding, and advice contained in this book applies almost directly to the process of recovering from childhood as I understand it. This vision of things will be familiar to those who have read Daughter Detox: They delineate the five stages of loss—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance– though in this book they make it clear that the stages may not come in order, that some people will skip entire stages, and that the stages themselves may scramble and fade into each other. I think that’s important to remember since your anger may fade in and out—coming out with more velocity and then retreating—as you move through the phases of grief and mourning.
What does it mean to mourn the mother you deserved? Exactly what it sounds like—to grieve for love and support you didn’t get in childhood and adulthood. The mourning process includes all the interactions missed—the laughter and the sharing of experience, the loving touch, the attuned support of a mother who sees you and listens to you—as well as a cool-processed recollection of the interactions that hurt and marginalized you. Mourning not only allows us to feel compassion for the child and the girl we once were—oh, the raw need and longing! —and the women we are now but allows us to see that anger may be the emotion most available to us, as Kübler-Ross and Kessler point out, but isn’t the only one we feel. Grieving allows us to feel. It lets us parse our thoughts and emotions, seeing that feelings of loss lie just below the surface, crippling shame right beneath that, paralyzing fear that no one will ever truly love us, and—beneath that—the deep howl of great anguish. Mourning the mothering you deserved—and yes, permitting yourself to weep, scream, and keen—puts you in touch with all of your feelings, including those you learned to wall off, dissociate from, or deny as part of your coping mechanisms in childhood. The best place to do this is in the office of a gifted therapist.
For more information on self-help and mourning, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Anger plays a role in your recognition of childhood mistreatment and can, for a time, serve as fuel to propel you into therapy, self-help and awareness, and ultimately onto the path of healing. But it can also become the biggest obstacle to your recovery. It is, alas, a yin-yang thing that you must pay attention to.
Excerpted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book, Copyright © Peg Streep, 2019. Do not reprint in any form without permission.
Photograph by Priscilla DuPreez. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth, M.D. and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving. New York: Scribner, 2005.
Bushman, Brad J. “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2002)28 (6), 724-731.
Garfinkel, Sarah N., Emma Zorab, et al.,” Anger in brain and body: the neural and physiological perturbation of decision-making by emotion,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2016), 150-158.