NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 2, 2018

Fear of Anger is Often Coupled With Shame and Guilt - Part 1

In a prior article about fear of anger, Overcoming Fear of Anger, I began a discussion about how this fear is usually rooted in childhood where parents were intolerant of expressions of healthy aggression.  In this article, I'll expand on this topic (also see my articles: Anger as a Secondary EmotionUsing Your Anger to Mobilize Yourself to Make Positive Changes in Your Life, and Healing Shame in Psychotherapy).

Fear of Anger is Often Coupled With Shame and Guilt

What is Healthy Aggression and How Does It Relate to the Separation-Individuation Process?
Healthy anger is a form of healthy aggression, so before addressing fear of anger, I think it would be helpful to define healthy aggression because this concept is often misunderstood.

Healthy aggression begins on the day you're born (possibly, even before).  Similar to chicks who experience the impetus to leave the egg, healthy aggression is what also causes the infant to leave the womb.  As a child, healthy aggression is what enables a young child to want to feed herself and, later on, learn to tie her own shoes.

Throughout child development, healthy aggression helps a child to want to learn to walk, learn to say "No!," get dressed on his own, and go through a healthy separation-individuation process with his parents.

At each stage, as the child develops, he learns that he is a separate individual from his parents and that she can take age-appropriate steps to make decisions and act more independent.  For a child of three or four who is with parents who allow the separation-individuation process, this might involve making decisions about what she will wear.  This might mean that the child chooses to wear a sweatshirt with a ballet tutu with mismatched patterns.

Even if the parents wouldn't have chosen this combination of clothing for the child, they know that it's important for the child to start making some independent decisions for herself in this way.  Over time, this will help the child to have confidence to make other decisions for herself as time goes by--rather than the parents insisting that they make all of the child's decisions.

The Negative Impact of Healthy Aggression Getting Short Circuited
What if, instead of the parents allowing the child to make her own decisions, they intrude on this process from the time the child is young through adulthood?

If parents have difficulty allowing their child to exercise healthy aggression from a young age, this has negative consequences for the child in terms of psychological development.

For instance, when a newborn wants to get his parents' attention, he will cry--a form of healthy aggression.  If the parents don't come to attend to the baby's needs, he will get even angrier and cry even louder until he works himself into a rage.  If the parents still don't come, he will exhaust himself and, with enough experiences like this, he will eventually learn that to stop crying to get his parents' attention.  He will go into a dissociative state as a survival strategy.

Fear of Anger Often Begins at a Young Age
Even at this young age, an infant learns to adapt to his parents' needs in order to survive.  Under those circumstances, dissociation is adaptive is an instinctual survival strategy so he does not alienate the parents.  But this adaptation has serious negative consequences later on because the child is learning that he has to put his parents' needs before his own.  He will also probably grow up to be an adult who will continue to dissociate and not know his own needs.

Another example is if a young child has the urge to feed himself, when his parent tries to feed him, he might say, "No, I do it!"  If he has never done it before, of course, he's going to make a mess, but this is part of the way he learns.  If a parent can't tolerate seeing the mess, she might interfere with the child's healthy urge to learn to do it himself and insist that she continue to feed him.

Since this child's urge to feed himself is a natural part of developing, this child and parent will probably have a power struggle on their hands with the child insisting that he wants to feed himself and getting angry when the parent insists that she will do it.  In fact, it's probably the first of many power struggles if the parent doesn't realize that this is an important part of the child's development.

But what's going on here?  Why wouldn't a parent allow her child to feed himself (or choose his clothes or tie his shoes later on)?  When asked, the parent might say that she doesn't like the child to make a mess or she can do it faster or more easily, but if someone continued to explore the issue beyond the surface, what probably would come to the surface is that the parent has a fear of allowing the child to grow developmentally and become more independent.

This parent's fear is probably related to her own early family history and fear of eventually being "abandoned" by the child.  Even when a parent knows objectively that children do grow physically and psychologically and that this is normal developmentally, on an emotional level, it can be difficult to accept, especially if a parent has emotional issues that she hasn't worked out for herself.

A parent might see this reluctance to allow the child to grow and separate in age-appropriate ways as her being "protective."  And, while there might be an element of this, it usually has more to do with the parent's own fear of allowing the child to be more independent.

This can go on through the stages of child development so that the child learns that separating and becoming his own person is "bad."  In these kinds of situations, most children learn to sacrifice their own developmental needs in order to maintain an emotional tie with his parents (see my article: Is Fear of Being a "Bad Person" Keeping You From Asserting Yourself?).

Often, in an unspoken way, the message for this child has been all along that meeting his parents' needs is more important than meeting his own needs.  In effect, he learns that if he will maintain a less conflictual relationship with his parents if he ignores his needs.  In this case, healthy aggression is perceived as "bad" because it threatens the bond with the parents.

Healthy aggression, including anger, becomes coupled with fear, shame and guilt:  fear of losing his parents, shame for having his own needs, and guilt for wanting something that is different from his parents.

Fear of Anger is Often Coupled With Shame and Guilt

Instead of learning over the course of his psychological development that there is such a thing as healthy anger, the child learns that all anger is "bad" and he shouldn't feel it.  As a result, he will have an unhealthy relationship to his own anger.  Either he will learn to dissociate his feelings of anger, deny that he ever feels angry or project his anger onto someone else ("I'm not the one who's angry.  You're the one who's angry").

So, for instance, the child who isn't allowed to engage in healthy aggression (or healthy anger) and who grows up to be an adult that has a negative view of anger won't realize that he can use healthy anger to assert himself or to set healthy boundaries with others.

Instead, this individual develops a fear of anger, which includes shame and guilt.

In my next article, I'll provide a fictional clinical vignette to illustrate these points and how psychotherapy can help.

Fear of anger (or fear of healthy aggression) usually begins at a young age.

If parents, who have their own unresolved emotional issues, cannot tolerate the child's healthy aggression, the child will often grow up fearing his own healthy aggression (or fearing anger) and feeling ashamed and guilty for having his own needs.

Fear, shame and guilt related to anger often results in a person splitting off his awareness of his anger, which can be done through various defense mechanisms.  Also, it often results in the person being afraid to assert himself or set healthy boundaries with others.

Getting Help in Therapy
Fear of anger, which is coupled with shame and guilt, is a common problem for many people, especially women, who are raised to believe that being angry is "bad."

If you're struggling with your own fear of anger or an inability to know your own emotional needs or an inability to assert yourself, you could benefit from psychotherapy.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to understand and accept your anger and learn to assert yourself in a healthy way.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.