Dissociation Makes for Scary Anger

I know you: You don’t want to hurt anybody, ever. But you grew up around someone who behaved irresponsibly when they were angry. You’d prefer take it out on yourself than be anything like that person. That person showed scary anger dissociation.

Maybe it looked like this . . .

Indirectly Scary
  • Passive-Aggressive: inwardly holding you responsible but not telling you; sending you on guilt trips or doing things to hurt you indirectly. The passive-aggressive person got sick all the time and held the whole family hostage with their health problems. She/he criticized you in subtle ways, pretending it was loving advice. Sometimes, this person fawned over you to your face but tore you to shreds behind your back.
Directly Scary
  • Physically Violent: lashing out in physical ways, at living beings or objects. The physically violent person hit, choked, grabbed, pushed, or threatened to do so; you were the target or you witnessed someone being the target. This person abused your pets; they kicked the dog or threw the cat. When this person got angry, they destroyed property if there was no living being to attack. They broke dishes or doors, drove dangerously with passengers in the car. In this situation, you learned to feel unsafe, unprotected.
  • Verbally Violent: attacking with words, either directly at a person or indirectly, around people. This person scared you by yelling or saying mean things; they puffed up and got loud when they were angry. Sometimes the actual words cut you; the insults stayed with you for decades. At other times, the words faded but the tone of them still makes you queasy: a derisive sound that left you feeling unworthy and unlovable. Thinking about his/her verbal abuse triggers deep shame or fear: you halfway believe what they said about you was true.
Confusingly Scary
  • Sadistic: seeming to enjoy hurting others. This person confused you. When they were triggered, something about them changed in a scary way. They hurt you, with words or physical aggression, but their demeanor seemed satisfied, gleeful, getting a rush from your suffering. You felt absolutely terrified in the presence of this person because no reasonable approach had any helpful impact. He/she became a different person when angry. Having a sadistic parent left you believing you were flawed, unsafe, and unable to trust your instincts or your attachments. We see this sadism in some police brutality of late, particularly looking at what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd. One detects enjoyment in causing pain. I’ll say more about this complicated anger presentation in an upcoming post.

It’s all about anger numbing.

Even though they’re complicated, each of these scary behaviors involves anger dissociation or numbing. Evidence from EMDR research suggests the part of the brain that lights up when we feel strong emotion gets dampened in dissociation. That sounds backwards, but trying not to feel anger puts us at more risk of bad behavior than actually feeling anger. Your parent, step-parent, grandparent, or other related adult dissociated or diverted their anger. Perhaps they started dissociating because someone’s anger scared them when they were growing up. Numbing leads to scary behavior, instead of alert problem-solving.

But YOU are not your ancestor: YOU have the ability to do something very different with your anger. As you become more familiar with it, you can feel it more directly and choose how you want to respond. You have the resources to be a very different kind of parent, teacher, officer, leader. You can evolve into anger wisdom.

Homework: Share a story about someone whose anger scared you.


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