Attachment Trauma and Self-Esteem
Are you harder on yourself than others would be? For many, self-judgment happens so automatically that they hardly notice it. This tendency may be linked to attachment trauma you experienced in childhood. When attachment figures (parents/ caregivers) deny kids the space to express angry, confused or negative emotions, they internalize those emotions as a coping strategy to survive. The end result of childhood trauma and internalized anger is often self-criticism, shame and low self-esteem.
Many adults today grew up being spanked, hit, accosted, put down, sent to their rooms without dinner or worse, all in the name of discipline. Thankfully, times have changed and what was acceptable a generation ago no longer is. We now recognize corporal punishment, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect as known causes of childhood trauma. Scientific evidence is clear about the foundational stability that children require in their formative years. Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegal outlines Four S’s that children need to form secure attachments to their parents or caregivers: Safety, Security, being Seen and Soothed. When these vital and rudimentary attachment needs are ignored by caregivers, children end up with an inability to process emotions in a healthy way.
Childhood Trauma and Dissociation
In the face of continuous and extreme trauma, some children quickly learn that their anger responses can subject them to more pain. Consequently, they internalize anger instead of expressing it when they feel powerless against the adults who inflict the pain. Their emotional distress escalates to an intolerable level beyond their ability to cope. The human nervous system is wired to protect itself, so it down-regulates to shut off all emotions. Psychotherapists refer to this as dissociation.
Zoning out or being on an “auto-pilot” can occur to anyone and are examples of mild dissociation. You may feel a sense of numbness when it occurs. Dissociation on a chronic basis causes children to become disconnected from their thoughts, feelings, behaviour and sense of self. A child who consistently shuts off their emotions to survive grows up to be an adult who struggles to use anger assertively when responding to situations that require constraint, such as at the workplace. Tragically, childhood trauma and internalized anger may end up making healthy relationships a lifelong struggle for some individuals.
But this problem does not stop with the traumatized child. Without lived experiences of a safe childhood, children become adults who may struggle to form strong attachments with their own children. Kids do not understand that their caregivers have limitations. So the next generation ends up either internalizing or externalizing anger when parents fail to meet their emotional needs. These children often believe they are never “good enough.” Feelings of low self-esteem, shame and self-blame now cycle down to them and become a blueprint for how they navigate future attachment relationships. This is what intergenerational trauma looks like, and one way to break the pattern is to understand and transform your anger responses.
The Physiology of Anger
Anger is often a mask to counteract and control triggering experiences that make one feel vulnerable, ignored, unimportant, rejected or worthless. During fits of anger, a powerful chemical reaction cascades through the body. The brain secretes a hormone called norepinephrine, which is an analgesic that numbs emotional pain. In addition, a second hormone, epinephrine, brings a sudden surge of energy that makes the individual feel powerful and invincible. Like a drug, people can become addicted to these chemical reactions, and to anger itself. After all, it brings instant relief and provides a defence mechanism to feel commanding, dominant and in control again.
Individuals who externalize their anger frequently don’t realize the impact they have on others. With their flight and fight response triggered, they automatically fly off the handle. Sometimes loved ones compensate by keeping the peace, walking on eggshells, hiding their own terror and choosing their words carefully. Without an avenue to fight back or stand up for themselves, their own anger becomes internalized and transformed into self-blame.
If externalized or internalized anger has created a significant negative impact on your life, then it is important to speak to a therapist. All of this may be a result of triggers from unaddressed childhood trauma and internalized anger that occurred a very long time ago. With professional help, you and your loved ones can bring harmony back into your life.
Types of Anger
Psychotherapists group anger into three general categories which determine how an individual might react to situations that set them off: Passive Aggression, Open Aggression and Assertive Anger.
Some individuals dislike confrontation completely, and in the face of it, will not express anger. Instead, they become silent, defensive, sulk and procrastinate during their experience with anger. Others will openly claim they are not mad and pretend everything is fine, while the rage continues to bubble under the surface. They avoid direct communication that could actually resolve the conflict and instead project veiled hostility and cynicism, which perpetuates it.
Individuals who project open aggression become verbally abusive. They shout, accuse and become mean and sarcastic. This creates catastrophic punctures in relationships with family, friends and colleagues. When their rage does not subside with words, it escalates to physical violence, the consequences of which can be dreadful. Almost always, at the core of these violent outbursts is the need to control underlying emotions of fear, hurt, vulnerability or helplessness, as described above.
Anger gets a bad rap as an emotion because it can be reactive and destructive. However, the best way to deal with it is to take control over the emotion and use it to help you deal with the situation proactively. Assertive anger requires you to pause and reflect before you speak. You remain confident and flexible when expressing your feelings while also taking into account other people’s feelings. It allows you to remain calm and in control of your emotions without raising your voice. Forgiveness is a very big part of the process. Assertive anger is a mature way to deal with anger responses. It allows you to respect relationships without damaging those that may be very important to you.
Healing Internalized Anger
Those with internalized anger, however, cannot magically transform their behaviour to deal with conflict assertively, as described above. Fortunately, it is possible to get there with the support of trauma-informed-attachment-informed psychotherapists who deploy evidence-based methods in the treatment plan.
The psychotherapy process involves going through a journey of recognizing the genesis of your internalized anger. These could, for example, be the shame, isolation and helplessness you felt in childhood. From there, you learn to heal and exercise self-compassion by acknowledging that you were justified in your longing for attachment. Therapy sessions focus on helping you reprocess your internalized anger to liberate them from your internal critic. Gradually, you learn to reconnect and ride with the waves of your emotions instead of becoming submerged in them.
By integrating assertive anger into your sense of self as an essential part of your humanity you can learn to trust the full spectrum of your feelings, good and bad. This can help you to recognize your boundaries and assertively cut people off when they are violated. The end goal is to make you feel safe emotionally so you can be gentle with yourself and others. These are the essential ingredients to a healthy mind and fulfilling relationships.
No one should live out their lives trapped by childhood trauma and internalized anger. Psychotherapy can help children and adults, couples and families to navigate unhealthy emotions and habits that trip them up, over and over again. The results can provide improvements in self-esteem, connected relationships and renewed quality of life.
If you need someone to speak to, contact us. We have helped hundreds of individuals manage their trauma and internalized anger using a blend of psychotherapy treatments. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.
Research for this article was contributed by Yasaman Haghighat, Counselling Psychology Intern