Processing Anger Without Creating Trauma
I am afraid of men who yell. It’s a visceral reaction for me, and one that my ex-husband used to be very offended about. He’d ask me to defend it, and tell me it was unreasonable that I reacted the way I did when he had never hit me. And I can’t defend it in logical terms. I have no memory of a man ever striking me in anger. The abuse that happened in my childhood took a different form.
My ex accused me of policing his feelings with my fear. If I was going to react with fear to his anger, then I was being an unsupportive wife and limiting his ability to express himself in an authentic way. That seemed reasonable to me, and I did my best to suppress my fear response.
The problem is, while I have never had a man strike me in anger, I have been in situations where my physical vulnerability was exploited to harm me. In my case, these situations were mostly sexual. Men (or boys, because this happened to me in class in junior high, as well as in dark corners in other places in my life as a kid) groping me when I couldn’t do anything about it. I was very clear that if they wanted to do other harmful things to me, there wasn’t going to be anything I could do about that, either.
And then there are the media stories. Women who are murdered for declining to give a strange man their phone number. Women who are murdered by domestic partners everyone says good things about after he murders his wife or girlfriend. A huge percentage of mass shootings are committed by men who are targeting their lovers for some slight, often for trying to get away. Men who don’t lose control until they lose control, and then it’s too late. Men whose friends and neighbors describe them as “a good guy” even after they’ve done terrible, violent things.
For me, then, both the real trauma I’ve lived through and my empathy at hearing about trauma that could happen to me if I encounter the wrong person are frightening. The raised voice of high emotion is a signal that things might be getting out of control, and that can be terrifying.
Not all men are going to lose control. But the stakes when one does are often devastating. When doing risk analysis in business, risks are evaluated along two axis - the probability and the severity. Even when the probability is low, if the severity is high enough the risk still deserves formal mitigation. The severity of being assaulted or murdered counts as pretty high.
There’s also the reality here that trauma rewires your brain to be more sensitive to these sorts of threats. Once someone has that sort of trauma, their sensitivity is heightened. And every woman I know has an experience of trauma in her history. That’s not to say every woman on the planet does, but the percentage is astonishingly high. The percentage of men who create that sort of trauma is much lower. So while not all men create trauma, those who do tend to do so to many people, so nearly all women have experienced trauma at the hands of a man.
It’s also true that even if the angry person doesn’t intend to cause additional trauma, slamming doors or punching walls is an implicit threat. I have been around men who have learned that anger is the way to get people to be compliant. They notice it works, and never get around to thinking very hard about why it works. In which case they never notice that they have frightened the people around them into complying by subtly threatening them.
It isn’t fair that men who have never been violent towards anyone might be feared because of the actions of other men. But, as my mother used to tell me, a lot of things on this planet aren’t fair. The question is, how are you going to respond when you are feared by someone you know you would never hurt.
It seems from the people I’ve talked to about this that one of the natural responses is to become angry with the person who is afraid of you. That’s not fair, either. This fear isn’t coming out of nowhere. It’s most often coming as a reaction to having been hurt in the past. The person who created that hurt and trauma isn’t still around for people to be mad at. And they probably didn’t intend to create the trauma in the first place. But sometimes they did so anyway.
It’s very possible to hurt people with no intent to do so. When your actions run across someone else’s baggage in a certain way, you’re likely to do them damage whether you meant to or not. It’s like stepping on someone else’s foot. Just because you didn’t mean to hurt them doesn’t mean you didn’t hurt them, and your intention doesn’t heal that hurt on its own.
We have to get past the idea that only evil people hurt other people. Hurt happens for a lot of reasons. Someone who enjoys intentionally hurting others we get to call evil. But every single one of us has had a bad day, or misunderstood something, or simply not been capable of doing the right thing for one of a million reasons, and has hurt someone else in the process.
When we run up against this reality, we can approach it in a couple different ways. One option is that we might blame the other person for being too fragile, or putting their foot under us, or not forgiving us for our unintentional actions. Another option is to beat the crap out of ourselves for doing the wrong thing. Both of these options are partly right and partly wrong - and neither of them focuses on looking to see what could redress the harm that has been done.
What if, instead of being angry that someone is afraid, we focused on how we could calm or address that fear. We aren’t going to eliminate strong emotions from our world, nor do we want to. But what if we recognized that sometimes someone who is feeling those strong emotions needs to go process them away from those who are likely to have a fear response in the face of those emotions. My current husband sometimes has to go process his emotions alone, not so much because he’s likely to be openly angry about it these days, but because he knows when he takes the time to clear his head, the outcomes get better. I hate it when he does that - I want to be there for him in processing these things. At the same time, I completely support him doing it, because I respect that he needs to have the feelings he has without concern that he’s going to do damage to me or our relationship.
What if we allowed people to create and maintain boundaries about being exposed to strong emotions. Something along the lines of “I’m going to leave the room while you deal with this. When you’re ready to approach it more calmly, I would like to talk to you again about what’s going on here.” We say these things to kids who are learning to deal with their emotions, because it’s a good practice for them. Why can’t we give adults who are experiencing strong emotions the same opportunity?
Toxic monogamy practices play into this dynamic sometimes as well. Toxic monogamy says your spouse or primary partner should be able to help you process all of your experiences and emotions, and considers it an active failure if one of you needs another place to process and work out strong feelings. What if, instead of that model, we realized that working through strong emotions might require someone outside of that primary partnership for the emotional safety of everyone within that primary partnership. This might be a paid therapist, but it could also be a friend who is able to hold the strong emotion because they are one step removed from the situation. Once the emotions have been processed, then, the people within the primary partnership can go back and talk about those emotions in a calm and non damaging way. The angry person gets to be angry, they simply direct that anger at someone who is not going to respond with fear.
Many people will tend to think a situation like that represents a failure within the primary partnership. I think being able to process emotions with others is a toolset that should be used to accomplish the goal of processing strong emotions safely.