People who walk the PTSD healing journey know that anger issues frequently flare up. When interacting with a PTSD-afflicted loved one we may see them respond to us with what feels like irrational anger. At times the PTSD anger response may appear to us as an overkill response: The stimulus was small, but the anger was huge! PTSD-Identity often exacerbates our anger as a means to ruin our relationships and further isolate us. But what made us so angry to begin with? Was it an actual situation of injustice that gave us righteous indignation, or do I feel that my identity is threatened, that is to say, have I been rendered insecure and I lash out? Is my ego, disguised as “honor,” provoking anger?
Anger Over a Particular Harm or Injustice?
Anger is often kindled by a specific harmful or unjust act. While in the very largest sense every act affects us in some way, somehow, in this case something happens that is not directly impacting me or my immediate relationships. In this case, whatever the action is that produces our anger does not immediately influence our lives. It does not stop us from being able to work, getting paid, worshipping as we prefer, or harm our important relationships. The incident is distant, but still burns as if it were nearby.
An example of this kind of harm/injustice can be seen in how some people responded when it became clear that a particular media organization that is prominent in the United Kingdom and the United States manipulated the parents of an abducted and murdered child. In order to generate stories, get the “scoop,” and seek higher ratings, this news organization hacked into private phone accounts and convinced the parents that their now-dead child was still alive. The news organization also withheld information from the police about the child. The news organization did all of this to get higher ratings. Higher ratings mean their advertisers can be charged higher rates. By prolonging the parents’ misery and withholding evidence from the police, this news group got more money.
Most Americans and members of the English Commonwealth did not personally know the murdered child or her parents. But when the awful truth of how this news organization was doing this type of activity on a regular basis people became outraged and indignant – they became angry.
Anger Over Our Personal Honor, Ego?
Even though we are in the 21st Century, people still fight over their personal honor. If someone says something that makes us look bad, or suggests that we have acted dishonorably, we may grow angry. Each of us carries a certain “sense of self” that can be mature or immature, that can be secure or insecure.
Many folks may lash out with anger when someone points out something negative about them. Even if the observation or accusation is true, an insecure or fearful person will become angry. Even if they are “guilty” of whatever is said, they cannot let the accusation stand unchallenged or they will lose honor and gain shame.
In anthropological terms, the more tribal a society is, the more likely they are to operate on an honor shame basis. They cannot stand anything to be said about them which would bring them shame, even if that thing is true. Their honor is really their ego.
When this type of person’s ego is affronted or exposed as hypocritical, they yell that their honor has been impinged and protest with anger. They are indifferent to how true the observation or accusation may be, they are so insecure they have to lash out against the truth with anger.
At our most primal level the amygdala in our brain operates on a fight or flight basis. In some ways this is a tribal level. We will lash out at what we perceive as threatening to our honor – even if it is true.
The Apostle Paul talks about becoming a New Man or a New Person in Christ and leaving the Old Man or the Old Person behind. For a Christian the transformation into a New Person in Christ means we try to mature and leave the Old Man’s honor shame paradigm behind us. But, even if we have become a New Person in Christ, we still have the Old Person habits to and insecurities to mature out of.
Thus, even if I am a New Person in Christ and someone says something that puts my honor at risk, I may lash out with anger. The more mature I become the less likely I am to become angry over an assault on my honor.
Over the course of our lifetime’s sanctification journey, we strive to put off the chains of tribal honor and shame paradigms and begin to live more for others. When this happens we will become less judgmental and vindictive, we will become more compassionate and healing to others. There will be times when we discover that we are still harboring some deep set tribalism. But over our lifetimes if we actually try to mature in our relationship with God and others, our tribal honor will become less important to us and disable us less.
Jesus tries to help people leave this tribalism behind when he says that our real families are formed around our doing the will of God. Jesus made loyalty to God the primary concern, not blind loyalty to the family honor. When we get blinded by family honor we engage in pointless duels and honor-killings. To state the obvious, those activities do not promote life.
This crux over acceptable life-affirming honorable conduct versus anger-producing tribal honor can be tricky. While we desire to be an honorable person, we don’t want to be enslaved into a tribal sense of honor where I cannot accept the truth being pointed out. The truth should set us free, not make us hide our actions with anger.
Over time, if we make it one of our goals, we will spiritually and emotionally mature. This maturation means we are less susceptible to an anger that is based upon our ego or tribal honor. Usually, egotistical personal honor is not worth the anger it generates. Indeed, one might say that in a Christian sense, that of being a New Person in Christ, that the more concerned we are with our tribal honor, the less concerned we are with the truth. In such cases, a person chooses the pretense of honor as opposed to actually striving for honorable conduct.
Having said all of that: Sometimes we may claim to have some sort of righteous indignation over an injustice, but we are really being angry because we feel our honor is at stake. When angered we need to ask what motivates our anger. Is it our ego or tribal sense of honor?
Anger Over Our Personal Identity?
My identity is often tied into my employment, my relationships, and the things I do. Changing those circumstances can cause me to feel unmoored, lost and confused, angry. Society often defines us by what sort of employment we are in, how much formal education we have, and how much money we earn. Our real worth, however, does not lie in our diplomas, job titles, and financial wealth, but it can be difficult to assimilate that so we truly believe it and not know it on an intellectual basis.
When I was a teenager and later as an Army officer, my identity was wrapped up into my physical abilities. When I lost those physical abilities and it appeared that I might be homebound for the rest of my life, not finishing my doctorate, never becoming a professor, I frequently became angry.
My memory used to be pretty sharp and academics came easy to me. Now having had some minor strokes and being worn down with other health issues, I am easily frustrated by how long it takes me to find information that I used to have in my head. Writing is painful and no longer easy. That portion of my identity has also been assaulted.
One of the results when a person’s life changes physically, intellectually, their marriage becomes a divorce, their employment changes, is an assault on their sense of self, their identity. It is not uncommon to wonder “why me?” or “what did I do to deserve this?” when we have undergone fundamental life changes. This is a painful experience in the best of times and frequently produces anger.
When we feel our identity is being forcibly changed or under attack, it is not uncommon to become angry. People who are diagnosed with terminal, or otherwise catastrophic, illnesses often go through and anger phase as they adjust to this new reality.
When I experience something that generates an anger response in myself, one of the questions I should ask myself is WHY am I becoming angry? Do I feel my identity is being threatened?
In some sense this is an opportunity. If I am self-aware enough to notice I have become angry and then ask myself why I am angry, then I am on the road to healing from PTSD anger. Part of the PTSD journey is finding out just who we really are, not letting the PTSD-Identity take us over. The more I know about why I become angry, the more I learn about myself and this empowers me to not become a slave to anger. Over time, the more often I do this self-assessment, the less frequently will I be crippled by PTSD anger. Remember, the goal is be in control of our anger and not allow it to drive us into despair like a lemming to the sea.
Anger Over the Vacuum of Love and Right Relationship?
In a divorce or death of a loved one or the loss of a favored job, or one’s physical ability, we often end up harboring some anger about it. Often, unknowingly, we felt we were “whole” because of our relationships. Losing our relationships to our work, a spouse, a church, synagogue, etc., can inflict an ache and suffering upon us that is very difficult to articulate. But if one or more of those are removed from us, we will experience a tearing vacuum in our identity that is painful and confusing. This change can also be one that produces anger in us.
Transferring Our Anger to Others
At times, if we are angry because of our losses we may be like a powder keg waiting to blow. It only takes a spark to light the fuse and from there all of that pent up anger explodes.
Pity the person who kindled that spark, they got way more anger than they bargained for. We transferred to them a whole lot of anger that had little to do with them. We probably need to apologize to them and other innocent bystanders after we have taken some deep breaths and remember that we want to actually live out the personhood of being a New Person in Jesus Christ.
Will I Ever Be 100% Anger Free?
I doubt it. As long as news organizations are exploiting the death and agony of others to make more money, I will probably be susceptible to anger.
But I have noticed over the years that if I can lower my investment in my own honor, my own ego, then the freer I am to pity someone who causes harm. If I pity them I can more easily pray for them and their victims. Anger does not want me to pray or forgive. If I pray or forgive, I am forging healthier relationships. PTSD hates healthy relationships so it will want to keep us angry.
If we get addicted to anger we become unproductive (who would want to work with us?!) and we become more isolated and subject to the self-harm that PTSD loves so much.
If I Find Myself Angry, What’s Next?
So, when something happens that generates anger in me, then I need to ask myself why? If it is because my ego and honor are at risk, then I know the anger is selfish and destructive. Just like I should self-assess what my PTSD triggers are and how sensitive I am to them, I must also self-assess why I have become so angry.
If I am angry because of damage to my identity due to the loss of a job, spouse, or an arm, then I know that I am probably in a stage of mourning and that the anger will eventually pass. All the while, however, I need to make sure I do not alienate others with my anger. Even when I am angry, I still have a responsibility to not harm or antagonize others.
The sooner I regain control of myself after being hijacked by anger, the sooner I can get back on the healing journey. I ought to pray about it, and I ought to write in my journal what I think happened and why I became angry. I must always ask if my anger is being driven by my own selfish honor and ego.
PTSD generates a lot of anger. The anger is destructive and alienates people from us. If you find your anger causes isolation and alienates others from you, then you may have PTSD anger and not any sort of righteous indignation.
A Long Healing Journey
PTSD is a long journey. It is not easy. But we learn more of ourselves as we analyze our anger triggers and find out why we are actually angry. I used to be always angry because of my PTSD, how people treated veterans, the loss of my physical and intellectual abilities. It was not a period where I was making many friends. Anger and lashing out will not bring any of my losses back. Anger will not make coping with those losses any easier. Anger does not make me productive. But, even with the various triggers, and my ego, the sooner I can step back and ask why I am angry and what is it doing to my relationships, then the sooner I take control of myself and free myself from the coils of anger.
Anger can be very hard to deal with. Sometimes we may need to be on meds or meet with a therapist to help us get back to a baseline. Regardless of the meds and the mind-medics, we can always think about it, pray about it, try to learn from it, mature spiritually and emotionally and move on. We need to consciously shift ourselves to the New Person in Christ Jesus. On the one hand, we need to avoid self- isolation, and on the other hand, we need to engage those activities and attitudes which heal our soul and do not harm it.
As always, remember that you have value – you really do! If you have PTSD or care for someone with PTSD you are never absolutely alone. You are part of a larger – much larger – group of people who suffer and bear similar wounds to your own. And, most importantly, God is with us then, now, and forever. If we risk actually believing that, we will heal faster.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z