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As a Survivor of Emotional Abuse, Is My Anger at Injustice Toxic or Justified?

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I get angry a lot. While I wouldn’t say I’m a violent or abusive person (and those close to me would agree), I’m often driven to anger at small provocations. The level to which I get angry depends on the type of day I’m having. If it’s a good mental health day, I’m usually able to douse the flames before they get out of control. However, if I’m having a bad day — if my depression or trauma has been triggered — then it’s like an inferno.

The question that often crosses my mind is this: Is my anger toxic, or is it justified? At what point does a reasonable human emotion such as anger become destructive?

There isn’t an easy answer. My partner is a trauma survivor whose father used anger as a weapon to intimidate and control. He would explode into violent rages every day, screaming at her and her mother, banging cupboards, threatening people with physical violence, and even, on more than one occasion, resorting to it. He was ruled by his anger and he simultaneously used it to rule. As a result, she is terrified of anger to this day. She avoids confrontation due to her trauma; she fears her own anger, no matter how justified it may be. All anger appears the same to her, and it triggers her trauma reactions.

My mother was also an angry person, only her anger was a perpetual cloud of ridicule and belittlement. I feared her judgment, but it never amounted to physical violence. She loved to tell me I had an “attitude problem” any time I would dare talk back to her or snap at her for the way she was treating me or my dad. This, together with my experience with bullying and ostracization, means I’m now triggered by experiencing or seeing injustice.

It sounds like a good thing, right? By all rights, it is. I’m driven to defend people when they’re bullied, mocked, teased, tormented, or patronized because I know how it feels. I experienced it every day in school, and every night at home. But when that injustice comes from all sides — when I see injustice in the government’s treatment of refugees and their treatment of their own citizens, and there’s nothing I can directly do to satiate that anger, it becomes too much. It seethes and festers like poison.

Likewise, when someone I love is bullied or ridiculed, that festering anger erupts. All injustice is equal. Have you ever seen “Futurama,” the futuristic comedy from the creator of “The Simpsons?” In one festive episode, a robotic Santa malfunctions, causing his “naughty or nice” standards to be set too high and become murderous as a result. And sure, I’m not a murderous robotic Santa Clause, but it kind of feels the same way. Even slight injustice makes me furious. There is no middle ground.

Anger is a part of mental illness, sure. One of the Mighty’s most popular articles is about the way anxiety can present as anger, not fear. We have articles about “borderline rage” and “bipolar rage.” However, we haven’t talked much about anger in depression, or anger caused simply by the experience of being alive in a society and an economic system that seems determined to crush even the most resilient of individuals, no matter how hard they fight to survive.

Only yesterday, at a Starbucks drive-thru, my partner spilled an entire large coffee over herself because the lid wasn’t secured properly. She stood by the side of the road, trying to cool down her burned skin with cold water, almost crying in agony. I was already furious that this had happened to her due to the barista’s negligence, but then she told me how a stranger in the drive-thru behind us had laughed at her when I was moving the car. This only made my anger worse. How could someone laugh at a fellow human being who was clearly in agony? My anger flared, supernova. I imagined confronting that stranger, demanding he apologize to her. And, I imagined asking if he thought it was funny after throwing a coffee over him too.

I feel ashamed that I imagined this. If push came to shove, I know I wouldn’t actually do it. But is that where the line is crossed? Is that the point where anger shifts from justification to toxicity? What does that say about me as a person, that I could have these thoughts in the first place?

I know that this is my anxiety talking. I know that I’m not capable of doing something so destructive and that I would only physically fight if I needed to defend myself or my loved ones, as many people would. But it’s hard to imagine yourself doing this when, as sick as you might feel when looking back, you feel justified in that righteous fury in the moment itself.

If you can relate, then please know that I see you. In the course of healing from my traumatic childhood, it’s likely that I will also seek some anger management treatment to learn to control this feeling. Anger is a human emotion in the same way that love, jealousy, happiness, sadness, and fear are human emotions. But as I tell my partner all the time when she feels scared and upset at her own, smothered anger: it’s an emotion that everyone has. It can be used for good, or it can be used for violence. It comes in many shades, and anger is not the same thing as violence and rage. I truly believe that there is a gulf between the anger I feel at injustice and the kind of anger that drives people to do unspeakable things. One does not simply step into violence; it takes a leap, and it takes a choice.

Unsplash image by Humberto Chavez

Originally published: September 1, 2022
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