Childhood Sexual Abuse: What do you do when you are so angry that you could …..?

“I am so angry that I could [fill in the blank]” is a statement commonly expressed by female survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their husbands. Some of us are scared of our anger, some of us salivate in our anger, and some of us are scared while we salivate.

I was so enraged at my wife’s perpetrator that I eventually became frightened of my own inner vengeance and the risk of life changing – and life ending – consequences. You can read about it in Rage at My Wife’s Abuser. For me, “I was so angry that I could murder my wife’s abuser.”

I know I’m not alone. Nikki was sexually abused by her older brother. After Nikki got married, her husband Dan and her brother went hunting together. As Dan related the bizarre experience to me, he recalled thinking of his brother-in-law, “I’m going to shoot you in the back of the head. I’m going to blast you out of here and that’s it.”

Fortunately for Dan, and his brother-in-law, he unloaded the gun. But while it is one thing to unload a gun, it is another thing to unload our anger.

We can also salivate in our anger. Frederick Buechner, in Wishful Thinking, dissected the human soul in regard to anger by stating,

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

Our attempts at anger management can be described and categorized in many ways. Les Carter and Frank Minirth identified three types of destructive management.

  • Suppressive Anger: Denying and/or stuffing anger
  • Open Aggression: Blaming others and/or flaming at others
  • Passive Aggression: A smile on the face with a dagger in hand

I’ve talked to many husbands who suppress their anger. I have done the same. The suppression peeks through in statements like, “I get frustrated.” A common tendency is to say, “I’m a little angry.” The truth in both cases is that there is anger. But rather than acknowledging the anger, we either minimize it or call it something else.

Open aggression leaves a lot of damage behind: frightened kids, embarrassed friends, and irreversible words, tones, and gestures. Even then, some don’t see the existence of their anger within. One husband stated, “I’m not an angry person. I mean I have a temper, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not [angry].” There are others who commend themselves as though aggression is a positive attribute. Their contention is, “Yes, I’ll explode for a brief time, but then it’s over.” Such a statement is as rational as saying, “I dropped a nuclear bomb, but then it was over.”

Passive-aggression is not alternating between passive behavior and aggressive behavior. Rather, the two behaviors occur simultaneously, combining both behaviors into one. Passive-aggressive behavior is deliberate, though maybe unconscious. It is a masked expression of hidden anger. Whereas open aggression is easily identifiable, passive-aggression is insidious. Passive-aggressive behavior can be equally destructive to relationships as it inflicts uncertainty, unrest, and distrust upon the recipient of the anger. One example of passive-aggression would be fulfilling a requested favor for a spouse but then not speaking to the spouse. The recipient of the passive-aggression lives in a continual state of guessing motives because of the manipulation to which they are subjected by the passive-aggressor.

Anger is a rational emotion in situations affected by childhood sexual abuse. To be angry at injustice is not irresponsible or irrational. God is angry at injustice. God is angry when childhood sexual abuse occurs. However, justified anger does not justify thoughtless, explosive, or manipulative expressions.

Here are some steps for dealing with our anger constructively rather than destructively. These steps are a process. Your pace through these steps cannot be predicted. What you are responsible for is intentional progression through these steps.

  1. Aim the anger accurately

The first step is to determine what we are angry at. In other words, there is an initial blank to be filled into the sentence: “I am so angry at [fill in the blank] that I could [fill in the blank].”

Our inner, gangrenous anger is often aimed at the wrong entity. Those in closest proximity to us are often the recipients of our anger when, in fact, they are the innocent party.

Healing for the survivor of childhood sexual abuse depends upon their anger not being pointed toward themselves as the abused. Husbands of survivors sometimes aim their anger at their wives who are experiencing the effects. We get angry with them for being anxious, distrusting, shamed, etc. But if our eight-year-old is innocently subjected to the effects of viruses in the air and gets viral pneumonia as a result, we don’t get mad at our child. Neither does it make sense to get angry with our wives who have been innocently subjected to the effects of childhood sexual abuse.

Anger needs to be directed at the injustice done against an innocent child. Anger, in that sense and aimed in that direction, is Godlike. It is not for us to hold anger long-term against the perpetrator of the injustice. Our anger needs to be redirected to anger at the sin of injustice for how it has wounded others. The redirection of anger frees us from the perpetrator’s control over us.

  1. Admit the anger honestly

Admitting our anger has multiple dimensions: admitting our anger to (a) ourselves, (b) a trusted other, and (c) to God. Admitting our anger to ourselves begins when we examine our behavior and stop minimizing and renaming it with suppression, aggression, or passive-aggression.

When I was consumed with rage, I asked some trusted friends to pray that I might be able to forgive. By truthfully acknowledging my condition to others, I was accepting responsibility for my feelings and acknowledging that I could not remain enraged without endangerment to others and myself.

God waits for us to have a conversation with Him about our anger. When we admit our anger to Him, He invites us into the third and ultimate step of constructively dealing with anger.

  1. Let go of the anger unconditionally

These three steps do not occur in a day. Again, it is a process. And if you are like me, every part of your being will fight against this act of grace. My physical gut wrenched as I wrestled spiritually and emotionally with what it would mean to forgive.

For both my wife and I, it comes down to the awareness of what it meant for God to forgive us through Christ. There are no exemptions to God’s command to, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Someone reading this is crying out, “Unfair!” or “Not in my case!” I know. But here’s the incredible thing I discovered. Since then, I have not been “wolfing down myself” in the self-consuming anger. Extending the grace that had already been extended to us has restored joy and freedom.

In my next blog, I’ll go into more detail regarding forgiveness.

Resource Cited:
Buechner, F. (1993). Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Carter, L. & Minirth, F. (1992). The Anger Workbook. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

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