Anger and Sexual Abuse
In The Guilt of Sexual Abuse we looked at the issue of guilt and how it is such a common phenomena as to be almost expected after an incident of sexual assault. In this extended article, we will look at the issue of anger that is also associated with this insidious crime.
Anger and guilt are the flip sides of the coin of sexual abuse. They are the daily currency for many victims of sexual crimes. But while guilt often appears soon after the abusive incident, anger can take much longer to come to the surface.
Guilt, that is, taking responsibility for the abuse upon yourself rather than the perpetrator, can sometimes be all consuming. Recovery stalls because the victim of sexual crime believes that they somehow contributed in a very significant way to the incident.
Guilt is a powerful emotion that needs to be dealt with before any significant recovery can take place. I have worked with clients who have been carrying the guilt of their assault around with them for twenty or thirty years or even more. Looking at the root cause of this guilt is my first priority in getting a client back on track.
However, in defusing the guilt that is part and parcel of having been sexually abused, we next have to deal with the anger and rage that then comes to the fore. Of course, this anger has already been in existence the entire time, but depending on the strength of the guilt, it may have been well held in check.
Alternatively, the anger associated with sexual assault may come out in a diffuse form, directed at everybody, including loved ones and the world in general. When the anger is unfocussed, that is, it is not directed at the root cause (i.e. the person who committed the assault) it can be aimed at all and sundry. It can also be quite destructive, as the person struggles with their rage at the violation they have suffered but feels unable to do anything constructive with that rage.
Family relationships can break down at this point as the victim of abuse cannot control this undirected rage. Workplace relations can also be strained. Marriages can fall apart. The fallout of sexual abuse can be enormous.
Techniques for dealing with the anger surrounding sexual abuse.
The anger may have two origins: anger directed at the self as a result of sexual assault and anger directed outwards.
The anger directed at the self is particularly destructive. Shawna was a very strong person, but she did not view herself that way. Her particular incident of sexual assault involved being held prisoner and she feared not only that she would be raped, but also that she would be killed. Amazing she managed to emerged physically unscathed by her ordeal. But emotionally she was distraught and suffered a complete breakdown due to the incident.
Shawna had problems with guilt which we were able to deal with in therapy but she was also extremely angry at herself. In her own words, she said she should have behaved differently during the whole incident. She mentally invoked two of the world's most powerful and hard-hitting women as potential role models to illustrate how she felt she should have behaved.
She picked Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, and Germaine Greer, the women's rights activist prominent for her book The Female Eunuch. Somewhere in her mind, Shawna felt that she should have been "stronger" and behaved like these two women portrayed themselves. She was angry with herself and felt she had let herself down by not being more in control of the situation.
With therapy, Shawna came to realize that she was imbuing both Thatcher and Greer with powers they may not have actually possessed. Shawna almost died during her ordeal. Who is to say how Margaret Thatcher and Germaine Greer would have behaved if the same incident had occurred to them. They may not have behaved as cool-headedly as Shawna herself. In time, Shawna came to see that she had unrealistic expectations of herself and that these false beliefs were preventing her from seeing her own unique strengths. These false beliefs and self-directed anger were also stalling her recovery.
Shauna has now dealt with her anger in a more realistic way and has let go of the false beleifs that were keeping her locked into a powerless position, unable to get past the horror of her assault. Today she lives a happy and successful life, the scars of her assault still present but well and truly healed.
Dealing with anger at the world
We will now examine the phenomena of "anger at the world", a behavioral trait that is often exhibited by victims of sexual abuse.
Jenna had been sexually abused by her stepfather from the ages of 8 to twelve. Her own natural father had died when she was 3, and her mother relied on her stepfather for a decent standard of living. Now 35, Jenna was consumed with rage at anything and everything.
She had never told her mother about her stepfather's conduct. As a child she had been too afraid to, and as an adult she told herself it was too late to do anything about it. Besides, she didn't really want to hurt her mother.
So she kept the secret and the anger inside. At times she was successfully able to use the anger to propel her in her career - she was a successful lawyer. Yet the rage she felt towards her stepfather continued to build within her and spilled over into all areas of her life.
For one thing, she had never had a successful long-term relationship with a man. Once she fell out of the "honeymoon" stage in each relationship, she started to find fault with her partners. We all do this to a certain extent, but with Jenna it was quite malignant. The well-balanced men left her because of her rage and the doormat types put up with it, which only enraged Jenna further.
She had a poor relationship with her mother because she was still trying to protect her and yet incensed that her mother hadn't protected her all those years ago. But with no real target to aim her anger at, the world copped her rage. She shouted at taxi drivers, she insulted waiters, she infuriated her co-workers and she hated her neighbors.
Yet in the quiet of her bedroom, she would weep. Sometimes for hours. She would weep just like the little girl that still lived inside her. The hurt and angry one.
When Jenna lost her job, she came for counseling. She wanted to fight and argue with me over everything, from the price of the sessions to the work she had to do in order to recover. "Why should I have to pay out money and do work on myself? It was my step father who assaulted me. I didn't do anything wrong!"
And so she hadn't. One of the injustices of this world is that is the victim of crime and the victim of abuse who has to do the hard work. And this naturally makes people very angry. They have suffered enough and now they must suffer the pain of therapy. It is not fair, but there is little choice. I tell my clients that in doing the work required in order to get better, they will ultimately be happier with their new life in a way they could never imagine.
Jenna had never told her mother of the abuse; she was too frightened to do so as a child and, now as an adult, she didn't see the point in raking up old wounds. Yet Jenna was in enormous pain. She couldn't maintain long-term relationships due to her anger problem and she was temporarily out of work for the same reason. It was time for change.
During therapy Jenna let out her unfocussed rage at me, simply because she had to aim it somewhere. Her anger was completely unfocussed. This is basically what she had been doing since she was a teenager and had worked out that what her stepfather had done was wrong. The abuse had even influenced her choice of career - the law. She wanted justice, but in letting this free-floating anger control her life she was only causing herself more unhappiness.
Fortunately for Jenna, her perpetrator was still alive. She had a chance to confront him personally. Jenna fought this idea as she didn't want to hurt her mother, she wanted to protect her. This is a very common phenomenon among victims of sexual abuse (see Victims of Sexual Assault Protecting Others). However this act of protection was not only ruining Jenna's life, but it had almost destroyed her relationship with her mother anyway.
Jenna decided to confront her stepfather. She gave him the ultimatum that if he didn't tell her mother, she would. Just in taking this initial step, Jenna's rage subsided considerably. She decided she was no longer going to wear the guilt and anger that truly belonged to her stepfather.
Her stepfather told her mother and her mother went into a state of shock. Her stepfather became defensive but he also was placed in a position of being powerless against the women in his life. Jenna's parents went into counseling themselves, but Jenna was not really interested anymore in the outcome of that counseling. She had taken control of her life for the first time and she felt a sense of peace that she hadn't known since before the assault. Her mother ultimately ended the marriage, thus heralding a closer relationship between mother and daughter.
At last, with the rage out of the way, Jenna could begin the road to
complete healing, beginning with grieving her lost childhood.
Note: This article was originally posted on Families.com, under
the following four titles:
Anger and Sexual Abuse (1), Anger and Sexual Abuse (2), Anger and Sexual Abuse (3) and Anger and Sexual Abuse (4)