Anger, Shame And Disconnection
First published in ACCORD, January 2015
I can still see the fury in my father’s eyes as he looked up at me from the street. I watched him from my bedroom window; it looked like he hated me in that moment. He slammed the car door shut and revved the car with rage, tyres screeching as he left. My mother’s anxious voice was at my shoulder. “Just say sorry. Please, just say you’re sorry.”
We never knew when he’d come back. And yes, I would say sorry to him, even though it tore at my insides because it wasn’t me who was in the wrong. Beaten into submission by the overwhelming desire for peace, we played the game of “Don’t upset your father...” right through my childhood and teenage years, leaving me with a constant low level anxiety. We never knew what would cause the next volcanic eruption of rage. If I raised my voice to him in the slightest, the repercussions were dire. It is 25 years since he died now, and I understand him a lot more and have compassion for all he carried. Would we have had a better relationship if he’d lived longer? I honestly don’t know.
The effect of an outburst of anger from a principle caretaker has been described as a “critical tear in the fabric” that bonds us (Kaufman, 1992). It rips away our security and well-being: the person we depend on for our very lives has suddenly become unsafe. Our amygdala fires in fear, the adrenaline pumps, but we are too small to fight, we cannot take flight, and so we freeze.
And in time, if it happens over and over again, we submit to the helplessness and collapse.
Anger and Abandonment
In a moment of received rage I believe we experience a primal sense of abandonment. The connection is broken and we feel utterly alone, often quickly followed by hot shame.
Phil Mollem (2002) says: “In the terrible hopeless absence when human connection fails, and in the empty yet rage-filled desolation of abuse –there in the holes and missing bits lies shame. Shame is where we fail. And the most fundamental failure is the failure to connect with other human beings.”
Brené Brown (2010) talks compellingly about disconnection being closely linked with shame. Lack of secure attachment in infancy produces the ‘false self’ (Winnicott, 1965) tragically early in emotional development. Desperate to feel safe and to belong, we adapt our behaviour to fit in with what is acceptable to our carers. As we grow older the vulnerability of ‘showing up’ as our true selves can continue to feel very risky. Brown quotes a 12-year old child who had already noted: “If I get to be myself, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in..." . We have a deep desire to belong... but often we settle for fitting in. We may pay heavily for connection at any price however. Part of what we lose is the energy of our true anger and its crucial power to identify where we have been wounded.
I recall a time when my father’s loud anger spilled over at me when my school friends had come for tea. I was mortified. I did not want him to be my father. I wanted him to leave and never come back – preferably to die. There was no safe way to express my anger towards him, there was no possibility of a rational discussion on our respective feelings. I have no longer any memory of the issue; but I can still feel the feeling. The sense of disconnection was complete.
I didn’t know what to do with my own anger, which was festering nicely beneath the surface, scared to come out for fear of the repercussions. Like an unattended pressure cooker, it was waiting to explode. As I grew older I found ways to take it out on people who ‘didn’t count’. Like someone giving me bad service in a shop or restaurant. I could be cold and cutting – as I still can be sometimes with telephone cold callers today. Invisible people. I wouldn’t dream of speaking like that to someone I was facing in person. How can I be so dismissive and angry with them? In fairness to myself, I am much kinder than I used to be. But if it’s the fifth call that day... And yes, I do know about the Telephone Preference Service, but they find ways round it! I’ve certainly learnt the power of disconnection when this happens!
Anger and Shame
Janina Fisher, in her talk, “Shame and Self-Loathing”, which I attended in London in September 2014, gave an interesting perspective on shame. “In an environment in which fight and flight are unsafe, shame enables the child to become compliant, ‘seen and not heard’, and preoccupied with avoiding ‘being bad’.” The very body language of shame, the lowered head, and stooped stance, suggest submission and this in itself may stave off further punishment or trauma. I am taken back to my mother’s plea: “Just say sorry...” Without doubt this was a mechanism designed to stem the flow of my father’s anger and restore peace. To continue the battle meant heartache and stress for us all. So I metaphorically bowed my head and went through the motions: but inside I was anything but sorry. I was seething.
Interestingly, Kaufman (ibid) maintains that anger can also be used to deflect painful feelings. “Rage serves a vital self-protective function by insulating the self against further exposure and by actively keeping others away to avoid further occurrences of shame.” Certainly my father’s anger kept me from any close relationship with him. I also heard stories of physical punishment and shaming that he experienced in his own childhood... Did his anger give him the power to keep that from ever happening again? And yet... how did he feel in the night, when he remembered the expressions on our faces? He could not ever say sorry: but I like to think he felt it.
Time, healing and forgiveness have given me the best relationship I’ve ever had with him now. I’m sad that that could only happen after his death.
I asked a group of counsellors if, like me, they had experienced being shamed in childhood, and whether or not they were angry about it now.
Andrea told me: “My grandmother shamed me most. She took me to the hospital to see my mother and the new baby. I screamed when they said I had to leave again, clinging to my mother, begging her to let me stay. My grandmother was so angry with me, she dragged me away and refused to let me go back. I’d made such a fuss. Yes, I do get angry now when I get shamed, or see others shamed. But it goes inside, and I get a sinus infection...”
Sandra said, “We were all so afraid of being shamed at school. I’d go red when someone else did something wrong. We had constant tests to prepare us for the 11-plus. I can still hear the thwack of the ruler if you got it wrong, and I can still see the red marks on the back of one girl’s legs. I wondered to myself, what if I hadn’t been able to get the right answer? That would have been me!”
When I work with clients who need to release their anger, they are often held back by primitive feelings of being ‘bad’ or fear that they will somehow be punished. We have many creative ways of helping people find their angry feelings, but verbalising them can still be hard. Penny remembers being sent to live with a school friend’s family when her own mother had a breakdown. Penny was bullied in that family, but there was no one she could tell. She lost her voice and, when trying to express her rage in adult therapy, she once again became the silent ten-year old.
Whether we deny, somatise, bury or displace our anger onto the wrong people, the result can be a profound disconnection from ourselves. The resulting sense of shame, of being wrong, further proves to us that paying any attention to this fearful energy is dangerous.
Anger and Fear
As a child I was raised in the Plymouth Brethren where I was introduced early on to an angry and demanding God. Of course I was told that He was loving too, but my job was to serve Him and be obedient. Or else...
From the start, for me faith was linked with fear, which was linked with shame. It didn’t take much for me to feel condemned as a pretty useless Christian. Then I’d read in the Bible that there is “no condemnation” (Romans 8 v 1) for those who belong to Jesus. Fear: maybe I don’t belong to Jesus? Shame: I’ve been listening to the devil again, and not reading the Bible enough. A neat little neurotic package. And so the thought of being angry with God was way beyond me. It took me more than fifty years to find full expression of rage with Him.
The average church pays little attention to being angry, other than to tell the congregation not to be. As counsellors we constantly have to deal with angry clients, whether they are aware of this emotion or not. The alexithymic lack of self-awareness in many depressed people will make them deny any anger is present: but it’s usually the case that they have simply not identified it, and instead have transformed this powerful energy into profound unhappiness. The way in also gives clues to the way out: finding and expressing their anger in safety will be one of the routes to healing.
As Christians we believe Jesus when He tells us that the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Facing the truth that we are perhaps very angry inside can feel like a step too far, not just for clients but for some counsellors too. And if I cannot face my own anger, might that mean I can’t handle my clients’ angry feelings?
Now that would be a shame...
Brown, B. (2010) http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability
Kaufman, G. (1992) “Shame: The Power of Caring”. Schenkman Books
Mollem, P. (2002) Shame and Jealousy: The Hidden Turmoils . Karnac Books
Winnicott, D.W. (1965) "Ego distortion in terms of true and false self," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc