Growing Up, Whose Anger Frightened You the Most?
We all harbour fearful memories – some of these memories are distant while others intrusively haunt our psyche. The anger, or even episodes of rage, that we grew up observing, usually from our members of our immediate family, imprinted on us and formed our most distinct memories and conditioned responses to anger. The anger of some specific family members may have even been so problematic that it traumatically warped our attachment style, and perhaps even malformed our personality.
In my own life, there were three people who would scare me when they would become angry or were in the midst of an aggressive outburst.
The first was my maternal grandmother who raised me and would dote upon me greatly. However, when she would get angry, it would present as a seething, cool rage that would frighten me so much I could not be around her. Her anger felt as though it would burn you like frost bite. To this day, displays of judgmental and frosty anger repulse me.
My dad was the second person: I was very close with him but, nevertheless, his very short temper had a significant impact on me. While he would not become violent when he lost his temper, he would get angry quickly and often. Being around him proved a hot and prickly experience. Even now, at 50 years old, I keep a good distance – emotional and physical – between myself and short-tempered people because of the countless experiences I had enduring my dad’s anger.
The last person is my maternal uncle, a man I am deeply fond of to this day – and love like a second father – who, when younger, battled daily with alcohol. At that time, I was a child being raised at his house with his kids – my cousins – and the grandmother I mentioned earlier. His alcohol-fuelled vocal explosions and reliably unpredictable gesticulations, when they happened, would scare me to my core. I still cannot stomach the smell of beer and have been running in the opposite direction of anyone displaying drunken behaviour since. Imagine it: a six-foot, stocky man in his twenties known by his similarly young friends leaving a bar or club early at the first sign of rowdy, alcohol-fuelled conduct nearby.
How we experienced anger in our childhood from those around us affects us well into adulthood. These repeated experiences of unhealthily expressed – or unexpressed – anger shown by the people important in our life tend to impact us indelibly, shape our responses to anger, and act as models for our own anger styles in adulthood. Some anger styles may even prove tempting to adopt, such as ‘the tantrum’ that successfully makes others give in to the angry person’s whims or ‘the steely-eyed glare’ that manages to secure compliance with minimal expenditure of energy. ‘The meltdown’ can also be tempting when it not only leads to others quickly acquiescing – similar to ‘the tantrum’ – but also to them throwing you a pity-party for good measure. Some passive-aggressive anger styles include ‘the cold-shoulder’ and ‘the silent treatment’, which may seem to deliver perceived justice with minimal loss of face or energy.
Anger patterns experienced in our childhood not only pose tempting options for modelling our own anger styles on, but they can also serve as terrifying threats that prime our nervous system with a life-long hair-trigger readiness to react (or, more likely, overreact). I have experienced this myself, as illustrated in my responses to drunkenness and alcohol after growing up with the rageful outbursts of my beloved uncle.
It has now become well-established, evidence-based psych-speak that trauma isn’t so much about what actually happens to you but more about how an event or behaviour was felt and taken in by the person being traumatised. While some people from our childhood may have served as villain fodder for our juvenile imaginations, the reality remains that everybody gets angry in life. Saints as well as sinners experience this emotion.
Anger is a difficult, uncomfortable, and hurtful emotion to be around, and to be on the receiving end of – regardless of how justified or tamed its expression may be. However, when it is undeserved, or even unhinged, being on the other side of it can prove a truly traumatic encounter. And if someone continues to be in that position over a long period of time, as is the case with survivors of developmental trauma, the effects of anger on a child or adolescent during their early years of development can prove monumentally formative, damaging and, on frequent occasion, destructive.
Perhaps now is an opportunity served warm to survey your memories of childhood and adolescence to gauge whose anger from your past had a significant impact on you; on your beliefs, attitudes and your own angry behaviour – particularly in relation to children in your life – and to examine your responses to others’ expressions of anger.
Emanuel Perdis is a trauma-informed Anger Management therapist who administers therapeutic counselling for individuals as well as couples. His key specialties for counselling are Anger, Relationships, Trauma and Anxiety. All therapy is delivered online, via Zoom, and enquiries can be made through https://www.emanuelperdis.com/let-s-talk or on the phone via +61 412 288 081