Throughout my stays at the Clinic I attend as an inpatient when I need hospitalisation for safety or respite. Many of those like myself, suffer from Complex PTSD with comorbid Dissociative Identity Disorder and Bipolar and the associative suicidality and self-harm that comes with that for some. Anger is a recurring theme both for themselves or for their partners. I’ve met with many individuals whose anger was very much precipitated by their experience of others as being controlling or manipulative. “He’s always correcting me.” “She’s so overbearing!” and “He has to have his way!” are just a few of those commonly voiced complaints.
It is certainly natural to feel a variety of feelings, from uneasiness to frustration, to annoyance, or to outright rage when we experience others as trying to manipulate us. We feel it as a threat to our autonomy, our sense of agency in living our lives in accordance with our own beliefs and values. We may experience both pressure and an imposition to change our thoughts, behavior, and even our feelings—all to satisfy the needs of another person. These reactions are equally evidenced in our national culture wars as they are in our personal relationships.
It is understandably frustrating and annoying when your friend or spouse routinely contradicts your beliefs and values. Your partner may frequently question your feelings with a devaluing or even a dismissive tone. Or, he or she may make you feel guilty or devalue your plan to enrol in a class or your desire for solitude. Similarly, your spouse may be controlling when she criticises how you manage the tasks involved home maintenance.
Others may attempt to control or manipulate you in order to reduce their anxiety, gain power, or address a heightened need for security. Or they may attempt to control you in reaction to an intense sense of slight they experience when your thoughts, feelings or behaviour don’t exactly align with how they believe you “should” be.
Yet, while certain individuals are controlling and manipulative, you may be especially sensitive to feeling controlled—even when that is not your partner’s intent. You may be overly sensitised to be on high alert to never be controlled. When this is the case, you may experience, just agreeing with your partner as a form of self-betrayal.
Jolene, thirty-two-years old, often evidenced these tendencies in her relationships. She frequently experienced her husband as controlling. Yet, when questioned, she indicated that he never threatened her expressed any anger toward her or devalued her when she did voice her beliefs. He never behaved in any way to actually control her even though she sometimes experienced it in his tone of voice.
She had these reactions in spite of the fact that she actually made most of the decisions in their relationship—whether with regard to choosing a movie, selecting a restaurant, or how to spend time together. In fact, often requested that he take more initiative in making suggestions and decisions. And, yet, when she did agree with his choices, she often felt that she was “giving in,” as if doing so reflected weakness on her part.
Addressing sensitivities to feeling controlled requires that you ask yourself several questions. These include:
1. Does your partner respect rather than devalue you?
2. Does he or she encourage and support your growth as an individual?
3. Does he or she behave in ways that treat you as an equal in the relationship?
4. And, does he behave in ways that help you feel safe in your self-expression?
5. Does she have an understanding of your mental health condition and is she/he support of you?
If you answer “Yes” to these questions but still feel controlled, you may have a tendency to feel controlled that can make you vulnerable to anger in the relationship. The following are areas to explore to better understand and reduce this tendency.
Being connected with yourself involves having access to your feelings, your desires and your values. Without this self-awareness you will invariably feel subject to self-doubt and the sensitivity to feel controlled. The anxiety of lacking such awareness can often serve as the foundation for anger even when your partner is simply voicing his or her belief. Such knowledge provides a solid foundation for responding to, rather than reacting to, any efforts deemed as being controlling.
Lack of Confidence
For many individuals, lack of confidence is the fuel for self-doubt. Such doubt may support your tendency to question yourself and give greater credibility to others—whether with regard to how to raise your children, what color to paint a wall, or how to celebrate holidays.
To the degree that you experience both clarity and trust in your beliefs, you’ll less frequently experience the sense of threat that is the hallmark of more intense anger. Your friend or partner could do cartwheels in their attempts to convince you otherwise, but you could more easily brush off such attempts as simply reflecting a difference of perspective–a perspective that you need not embrace.
Look to your past
Sensitivity to feeling controlled may be a derivative of unresolved issues regarding childhood and adolescence. Throughout these years we didn’t have full control over our lives. To varying degrees, we were told how to think, feel, and behave. Some of us may have been more fortunate than other to have caretakers who supported our growing independence. By contrast, others had more overbearing parents, which can seed feelings of anger and guilt that clash with and fuel each other.
As an adult, even a simple suggestion made by your partner may lead you to feel as if you are once again a child or teen, with those same mixed feelings that you experienced in your earlier years. As such, you may once again experience those feelings of being trapped that you experienced in your earlier years. The challenge, at such moments, is to be aware that you are no longer that child. The challenge is to be mindful of your emotional brain’s tendency to overly influence your thoughts and reactions in the moment.
The “terrible two’s” and adolescence are both times when a child begins to make bids for autonomy. The ability to say “No” helps us to feel a new sense of empowerment that is an essential element in building a foundation of identity and autonomy. Adolescence is also a time to try out different identities, some aspects of which may even include internalizing certain aspects of our parents.
By contrast, some develop a “negative identity,” a term first described by Erick Erickson (Erickson, 1968). In the extreme, an adolescent may become exactly the opposite of what his parents expect of him. For example, the son of a minister might become an atheist, the daughter of a college professor might drop out of college, and the son of a police officer might be involved in drug use or robbery. In effect, such adolescents respond to the challenge of developing their identity that communicates, “I don’t know who I want to be—but I sure don’t want to be anything like you!”
A heightened sensitivity to feel controlled may also derive from severe wounds experienced in earlier years, as a child or an adult. In this case, the sensitivity to feel controlled may help protect you from experiencing similar wounds again. It is difficult to embrace trust if doing so in the past has led to intense emotional or physical hurt.
Unhealthy dependency may also contribute to being sensitive to feeling controlled. If you seek a partner to provide unconditional love, to take care of and fix all of your wounds, or to somehow “make up” for previous suffering, such dependency may only further your disappointment and anger. In effect, you may be “parentising” your partner, maintaining unrealistic expectations that may only foster hurt and anger. Surely, part of a healthy relationship entails mutual support, nurturance, and caretaking, but unhealthy dependency leaves one continually looking outward for comfort and to define one’s self-worth.
It is inherent in our nature to want to please others, in an attempt to achieve the safety of feeling part of the pack. This desire is rooted in the need for connection and acceptance, by parents, peers and later as an adult. However, to the degree that we feel overly compelled to please because of fears of rejection or abandonment, we soon to feel invisible in a relationship. This same compulsion may foster an increased tendency to feel controlled.
A sense of not deserving
Our parent’ rigidity about how we should feel, think or behave; their unavailability, whether due to self-absorption regarding a physical or emotional illness; physical or emotional abuse; or neglect are just a few examples of experiences that may culminate in a child becoming an adult who feels undeserving of voicing or asserting his or her will.
Many other factors can contribute to this same tendency. Even growing up with a sibling who had some form of physical or emotional illness can leave a child with tremendous guilt about even wanting attention, yet alone expressing his needs or desires.
The “anxiety of being”
Because we all seek certainty, trusting ourselves—looking inward to define our identity, including our values—can be extremely anxiety provoking. “Will I risk criticism, punishment or even abandonment for being true to ‘myself’?” “Am I making the best decision for myself?” and “What if I am wrong?” are often part of the underling dialog that may accompany and fuel such anxiety. This is often the anxiety that accompanies our freedom of choice.
Fear of self-assertion
Whether rooted in a lack of confidence, past wounds, dependency, a deep sense of not deserving or the anxiety of being, the fear of self-assertion lays the foundation for a tendency to feel controlled. The inherent need to please others may dominate and compete with your motivation to assert yourself. Ultimately, however, you get to decide whether you deserve to “be”—to embrace your beliefs, feelings and your values.
Addressing the tendency to feel controlled requires courage to experiment with becoming more true to yourself. The following are strategies to help with this process.
1. Learn skills in assertive communication.
2. This may include practicing saying “No” when you mean “No” and “Yes” when you mean “Yes.”
3. Being attentive to and savouring the sense of empowerment you experience in asserting yourself.
4. Take small steps by being assertive regarding less threatening issues.
5. Voice your perspective in a discussion, even if you’re not absolutely sure of yourself.
6. Recognise in your inner dialogue those motivations that compete with being assertive and expressing yourself—the need to please, a sense of feeling selfish, or an overall sense of not deserving to have your will expressed or acknowledged.
7. If you’re in a relationship, share with your partner your intent and desire to work on this challenge. Doing so will inform you whether or not your partner is really controlling. Note whether he is supportive of your efforts or appears anxious, dismissive or even angered by your discussion.
8. Remind yourself that developing any new habits will feel uncomfortable for a while until you more completely cultivate this ability.
9. Work on gaining self-awareness: Recognising your feelings and values.
10. Work at being more uncomfortable with uncertainty—as this can further undermine your commitment to your beliefs and values.
11. Perhaps the most challenging strategy is to address old wounds that may impact your tendency to feel controlled. This may require professional help.
Practicing these strategies can assist you to foster a deeper and more honest connection with yourself. Doing so can reduce your sensitivity to feeling controlled and, consequently, vulnerability to anger arousal.
Above I have referred to general anger now I would like to discuss it in relation to Complex PTSD or PTSD. Why is anger a common response to trauma? Anger is often a large part of a survivor’s response to trauma. It is a core piece of the survival response in human beings. Anger helps us cope with life’s stresses by giving us energy to keep going in the face of trouble or blocks. Yet anger can create major problems in the personal lives of those who have experienced trauma and those who suffer from PTSD.One way of thinking is that high levels of anger are related to a natural survival instinct. When faced with extreme threat, people often respond with anger. Anger can help a person survive by shifting his or her focus. The person focuses all of his or her attention, thought, and action toward survival.
Anger is also a common response to events that seem unfair or in which you have been made a victim. Research shows that anger can be especially common if you have been betrayed by others. This may be most often seen in cases of trauma that involve exploitation or violence.
The trauma and shock of early childhood abuse often affects how well the survivor learns to control his or her emotions. Problems in this area lead to frequent outbursts of extreme emotions, including anger and rage.
How can anger after a trauma become a problem?
In people with PTSD, their response to extreme threat can become “stuck.” This may lead to responding to all stress in survival mode. If you have PTSD, you may be more likely to react to any stress with “full activation.” You may react as if your life or self were threatened. This automatic response of irritability and anger in those with PTSD can create serious problems in the workplace and in family life. It can also affect your feelings about yourself and your role in society.
Researchers have broken down posttraumatic anger into three key aspects, discussed below. These three factors can lead someone with PTSD to react with anger, even in situations that do not involve extreme threat:
Anger is marked by certain reactions in the body. The systems most closely linked to emotion and survival — heart, circulation, glands, brain — are called into action. Anger is also marked by the muscles becoming tense. If you have PTSD, this higher level of tension and arousal can become your normal state. That means the emotional and physical feelings of anger are more intense. If you have PTSD, you may often feel on edge, keyed up, or irritable. You may be easily provoked. This high level of arousal may cause you to actually seek out situations that require you to stay alert and ward off danger. On the other hand, you may also be tempted to use alcohol or drugs to reduce the level of tension you’re feeling.
Often the best response to extreme threat is to act aggressively to protect yourself. Many trauma survivors, especially those who went through trauma at a young age, never learn any other way of handling threat. They tend to become stuck in their ways of reacting when they feel threatened. They may be impulsive, acting before they think. Aggressive behaviours also include complaining, “backstabbing,” being late or doing a poor job on purpose, self-blame, or even self-injury. Many people with PTSD only use aggressive responses to threat. They are not able to use other responses that could be more positive.
Thoughts and Beliefs
Everyone has thoughts or beliefs that help them understand and make sense of their surroundings. After trauma, a person with PTSD may think or believe that threat is all around, even when this is not true. He or she may not be fully aware of these thoughts and beliefs. For example, a combat Veteran may become angry when his wife, children, or coworkers don’t “follow the rules.” He doesn’t realise that his strong belief is actually related to how important it was for him to follow rules during the war in order to prevent deaths. If you have PTSD, you may not be aware of how your thoughts and beliefs have been affected by trauma. For instance, since the trauma you may feel a greater need to control your surroundings. This may lead you to act inflexibly toward others. Your actions then provoke others into becoming hostile towards you. Their hostile behavior then feeds into and reinforces your beliefs about others. Some common thoughts of people with PTSD are:
- “You can’t trust anyone.”
- “If I got out of control, it would be horrible, life-threatening, or could not be tolerated.”
- “After all I’ve been through, I deserve to be treated better than this.”
- “Others are out to get me,” or “They won’t protect me.”
How can you get help with anger?
In anger management treatment, problems with arousal, behaviour, and beliefs are all addressed in different ways. Cognitive-behavioural treatment (CBT), a commonly used therapy, uses many techniques to manage these three anger problem areas:
For increased arousal
The goal of treatment is to help the person learn skills that will reduce overall arousal. He or she may learn how to relax, use self-hypnosis, and use physical exercises that release tension.
The goal is first to look at how a person usually behaves when he or she feels threat or stress. The next goal is to help him or her expand the range of possible responses. More adaptive responses include:
- Taking a time out
- Writing thoughts down when angry
- Talking with someone instead of acting
- Changing the pattern “act first, think later” to “think first, act later”
Clients are given help in becoming more aware of their own thoughts leading up to becoming angry. They are then asked to come up with more positive thoughts to replace their negative, angry thoughts. For example, they may learn to say to themselves, “Even if I don’t have control here, I won’t be threatened in this situation.” Another example would be, “Others do not have to be perfect in order for me to survive or be comfortable.” Role-play is often used so you can practice recognising the thoughts that make you angry and applying more positive thoughts instead.
There are many ways to help people with PTSD deal with the high levels of anger they may feel. Many people have all three of the anger problem areas listed above. Treatment aims to help with all aspects of anger. One important goal of treatment is to improve your sense of flexibility and control. In this way, you do not have to feel as if you’re going through trauma again each time you react to a trigger with explosive or excessive anger. Treatment may also have a positive impact on personal and work relationships. If you ever want to contact me to discuss anything in this article just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime.