Working With Inner Aggression

Photo of mountains through the panes of a window.

Anger is part of an ancient emotional system we share with all mammals. Although instinctual and directed towards self-preservation, anger is also conditioned by experience and altered by relationships, culture, and beliefs. In reaction to sexual abuse, as well as other types of exploitation and subjugation, the instinctual drive for survival becomes distorted. Rather than focused on external threats, one’s own emotions can begin to feel dangerous and become the object of anger. In response to sexual abuse, inner aggression is often debilitating, if not self-destructive.

Anger is altered by interpersonal trauma when the experience of helplessness cleaves us from ourselves, if not shatters perceptions of the world as someplace kind, meaningful, and fair. We not only may feel we must defend against the world around us, but also against emotions that reveal the pain of vulnerability.

Sexual abuse is frequently more coercive that violent, especially when it happens in the first two decades of life. A girl or teen who feels insecure or inadequate (who of us didn’t feel such things at least some of the time) is relatively easy to manipulate by an adult who knows how to flatter and provide a sense of belonging. The ‘relationship’ may not have felt like sexual abuse. When the manipulation ended, the tumultuous emotions, including anger (if not rage), may have been interpreted as the normal heartache of a breakup. Perhaps only later in life, after an opportunity to explore the impact on subsequent relationships, is the exploitation seen for what it was, as well as the toll taken on emotional authenticity and the capacity to trust.

For others, sexual abuse was traumatic, in the clinical use of that term, upending the instinctual drive for defense. Trauma causes emotions like anger and rage to “persist in an altered and exaggerated state long after the actual danger is over,” as described by trauma therapist Judith Herman.⁠1 In response, what structural dissociation calls a Fight emotional part (EP) of the personality typically emerges.⁠2 The Fight EP feels split off from the rest of the self. It reacts defensively to the possibility of feeling helpless again, both when feelings of vulnerability arise in relationships and in response to one’s own natural drive for attachment and intimacy.

Whether sexual abuse is coerced or forced, vulnerability was exploited and intimacy becomes complicated, if not threatening. Either you didn’t know you deserved to be protected, or you couldn’t protect yourself. Most of us blame ourselves rather than admit how vulnerable we were. Few of us want to feel we lack control of our lives. And inner aggression towards feelings of vulnerability is one way of trying to create control, and avoid getting hurt again.

Trauma therapist Janina Fisher believes, “… beneath the militant counter dependence of the fight part, there is always an attach part whose longing and hurt are being defended, who is being ‘protected’ by the avoidance of dependence.”⁠3 All humans begin life trying to protect themselves from hurt by seeking the company of others. Yet when trust has been grossly violated, vulnerability becomes a threat rather than the foundation for intimacy. Inner aggression become the solitary defense against feelings of shame, fear, guilt, grief, powerlessness, hurt, or loss — emotions that are best soothed by relational support, someone who can assure us we are not alone or as awful as we imagine ourselves to be. 

All lives are filled with empathic failures, losses, and loneliness. However, when there is an unintegrated Fight EP, or the habitual use of inner aggression to defend against vulnerability, the inevitable pain of relationships is more likely to build up like sediment blocking the flow of a river. The sediment hides the original wound of sexual abuse, and instead is taken as evidence that trusting others is the real problem. Less often do we witness how inner aggression’s relationship with vulnerability has become the source of resistance to living fully in the stream of life. 

Defensively protecting one’s heart is a painful way to live. None of us can keep our souls alive without meaningful connections, intimacy, love, and trust. For some, the pain of isolation becomes so great that self-destruction is perceived as the only way out. According to Fisher, only the Fight EP has the strength to carry out self-destructive behaviors, including suicide: “Suicidality and self-harm always reflect the role of the fight part because of its unique capacity for aggression. No other part has the physical strength and violent impulse that accompany the animal defense of fight.”⁠4

Working with inner aggression, and getting comfortable with feeling vulnerable, takes time and gentle effort. Relying on inner aggression to protect from painful emotions can go on for years, even decades. Thus the necessity of giving time for conditioning oneself to relating gently to emotions — including to anger. 

Two weeks ago, I introduced the idea of developing a compassionate Inner Observer, which has eight qualities: curiosity, compassion, calm, clarity, creativity, courage, confidence, and connectedness. Rather than relying on anger to protect the most vulnerable parts of the self, the Inner Observer must take on this role, giving the Fight part a needed break. By consciously directing compassionate attention to feelings of vulnerability, we start conditioning ourselves to associate connection with vulnerability, the emotional foundation necessary for trusting intimacy. By giving compassion to our vulnerable parts, we are better able to recognize when intimacy with others is authentic and safe. 

In practice, such self-compassion can take the form of noticing when anger is giving you an emotional bruising. Examples of this include criticizing yourself or calling yourself names when you are feeling hurt or vulnerable. When this occurs, gently tell anger, “We’re not going to be dealing with emotions that way anymore.” Then kindly say to yourself something like, “I know you’re hurting”; or “You’re lovable”; or “It’s safe to feel.” Say what softens your heart and supports that part of you that feels vulnerable or inadequate (but isn’t). 

Think of vulnerability as a strength, not a weakness. It takes courage to feel, especially when you’ve been sexually abused and with the current troubles of our world. Somatic gestures are also helpful, like putting your hands on your heart when you speak to those vulnerable parts, or even giving yourself a hug.⁠5 

Even as you commit to self-compassion, inner aggression will still sometimes ignite, like the proverbial knee-jerk reaction. In these moments, before you remind anger that you’ve got a new plan, also acknowledge that inner aggression has been a worthy ally and deserves gratitude for its attempts at safety. It doesn’t help to reject anger. Rejecting one’s natural fight response creates more inner conflict. It is far better to first accept anger, even appreciate it, and then change.

Taking the time to learn about your inner aggression, and discovering its nuances and needs, can contribute to a more integrated experience with anger. By offering compassion to anger, you begin to integrate it with more prosocial emotions. As you integrate more aspects of yourself, you also begin to feel like the past is behind you — as if you are getting back to the person you were meant to be. 

Some ways of getting to know anger include:⁠6

• Write down positive experiences with anger

• Draw pictures of what your anger looks like

• Journal a conversation between your compassionate inner observer and your fight part. What would they agree about? What would they disagree about?

• Journal about what triggers your inner aggression

• Ask anger what it feels it needs to protect

• Identify your physical signs of anger, such as clenching your teeth or holding your breath

• Diagram how internal conflicts emerge. What emotion gets tripped first? By what experience? How does anger respond?

Since expressing anger and rage can be disruptive to relationships and self-esteem, it may also help to identify ways to bring these powerful emotions into the window of tolerance (assuming there isn’t a need for self-defense) where there is more possibility of mastery. Some ways of modulating anger include:

• If you feel enraged, try pushing against a very sturdy wall — something that can withstand your full strength. Instead of thinking about what made you angry, focus on feeling the ground beneath you or the sensation of the wall’s surface on your hands. You can also focus on your breath — whatever keeps your focus away from what upset you. Give yourself time to calm down.

• Get away from the source of threat for as long as you need (a ‘time out’)

• Use your imagination to create an inner place of safety where parts of the self frightened by anger feel peace and can rejuvenate. This may take the form of an image of a quiet beach setting on a deserted island, a beautiful garden surrounded by stone walls, or an isolated mountain retreat. Perhaps imagine someone safe in your life being there with you. Give yourself time to imagine being in such a peaceful place, protected from harm. Give yourself as much time as you need to access feelings of peacefulness and safety and then savor them.

• Exercise regularly to release pent-up aggression

Working with inner aggression can be transformative. However, it can also be disruptive, since it means opening to feelings of vulnerability that have been too unbearable to feel. Please don’t engage in any activity if it feels too threatening. I also encourage you to find professional help if you haven’t already. You deserve not only to recover from sexual abuse, but also to have support of your efforts.

Questions to ponder: Have you created your own ways of befriending your Fight part? Are there exercises from getting to know your anger (above) that you would like to try?  Have you discovered your own ways of gaining mastery with anger? Do you find any of the exercises listed above for modulating anger and rage useful? 

See you next week,

Laura

References

1 Herman, Judith. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks.

2 Hart, Onno van der, Nijenhuis, Ellert R. S., & Steele, Kathy. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: WW Norton & Company.

3 Fisher, Janina. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors. New York, NY: Routledge, p. 115.

4 Fisher, p. 114.

5 See Fisher, p. 87-88 for further discussion.

6 For more examples, see Boon, Suzette, Steele, Kathy, & Hart, Onno van der. (2011). Coping with trauma-related dissociation: Skills training for patients and therapists. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).