Childhood Anger and its Effect on Adult Personality Disorders
Nathan Ackerman was the first to coin the phrase "dysfunctional family." He said:
"The biggest difference in the degree of personal dysfunction is the degree of discord between his/her parents."Matthew McKay, who researched dysfunctional families and focused on the effects of anger on children found the following 4 functions of anger.
- Painful Affect - a function of anger because it blocks other emotions that result from traumatic experience
- Painful sensation - Anger is used to discharge stress or overcome fatigue
- Families under stress create children under stress - This is where we learned to deal with stress.
Frustrated drive - Anger occurs when you cannot express what you want or need. (i.e. a two year old
cries when he does not feel understood).
- A prerequisite to working through feelings is, knowing how you feel.
- Numb is a feeling.
- The abused child has a mind body separation, i.e. "this isn't happening." "I don't exist." The child says to himself ,"I'm being treated like an object therefore I must not exist."
Creating angry children
- Lying to our children
- Promising to read a story and then recanting
- Giving in on previously stated consequences, i.e. "if you don't eat your vegis…" then letting them go to the movie anyway. This creates anger in the child. Also teaches mistrust and people aren't honest or dependable. Teaches lack of motivation. Why try if you aren't going to get the reward?
- When we deny their feelings, (i.e. "Mom I'm hungry." "No you're not; you just ate.")
- Children become angry when they are expected to engage in age inappropriate behaviors, experiences and responsibilities. Although adults may praise them for their supposed maturity, they are robbed of part of their childhood. As they grow into adult hood they become aware that something is missing in their life but they can't figure out what.
- Children become angry when they realize they come 2nd or 3rd to a bottle of alcohol, or to drugs or to mom's new boyfriend. They begin to feel insignificant, unimportant, invisible. Something is missing in their life.
As they become adults they still carry the feeling of missing something. They may engage in unhealthy relationships. They may feel that what is missing is another person in their life and feel incomplete until they are coupled. The therapist needs to help the client realize that what is missing is them. They are what is missing in their life, their feelings, their needs, their goals. Ask them - what have they missed.
Robert Ackerman Ph.D. says "Ones greatest pain as an adult is when they realize what's missing, what they missed as a child because of victimization." The victimization in many cases, is having to forgo childhood lifestyle because of having to act like an adult.
Treatment: For these clients, we need to help them label what it is they have missed. Help them to grieve and help them to understand their power as an adult to choose to live according to their best interest.
Unintended lessons learned by Boys
- His spirit gets crushed (his "maleness" is belittled or ridiculed)
- He shuts part of himself down (made to feel helpless or weak)
- Grows up too fast (expected to act like an adult or take on adult responsibilities)
- Too much pain (effects of humiliation, neglect and/or abuse)
- Victim of emotional incest - ( information typically shared with a spouse is shared with child)
- Loss of self esteem (feels invisible or hopeless, told he is incapable)
- Loss of self worth (made to feel "worthless")
- Carries painful secrets of father's violence toward his mother. (He is helpless to save her or to stop him. He cries inside forever).
- Crushed identity - Fails to live up to another's idea of what a real man is
Unintended lessons learned by Girls: As a woman she still believes:
- If I can control everything I can keep everyone from becoming upset
- If I please everyone, everybody will be happy
- It's my fault when trouble occurs
- Those who love you cause you the most pain
- If I don't get too close, you can't hurt me
- It's my responsibility to make sure everyone gets along with each other
- Nothing's wrong, but I don't feel right
- Expressing my anger is not appropriate
- Something's missing in my life
- I'm unique and my family is different than all other families
- I can deny anything
- I'm not a good person
- For something to be acceptable it must be perfect.
Treatment: These people don't see themselves clearly. The therapist needs to work from a strength model: i.e. "You survived that and you're still here!" "How did you do that" Never ask why questions. Why questions are a waste of time. They cause the client to feel defensive and puts them into a thinking mode instead of a feeling mode. Answering a why questions often leads the client to blame rather than reflect on their own process. Inevitably they say "I don't know." Instead, Ask "How?" "How did you do that?" "How can you get better?"
Client complains of a problem with procrastinating and you say, "How do you procrastinate?" "How do you wait that long?" "How could you not procrastinate?"
Client says their miserable and you ask, "How are you miserable?" "How could you not be miserable?"
Self Defeating Behaviors
Self Defeating Behaviors (SDB) develop when we grow up angry. They develop as ways to protect ourselves from chaos, disappointment, the inability to express our anger at the unfairness of our life. SDB at the time of trauma, made sense. It protected us from psychic discomfort and helped us deal with the intolerable or confusing situation. Some children reduce their fear and anger of the situation by learning to organize. They attempt to make sense out of the chaos by developing some sense of control over the situation. They organize their wardrobe, or their school supplies, their diner plates, whatever they find to organize.
As they become adults, they develop a "Disproportionate Need For Control." They develop counter controls; they become overachievers, they may become sweet and helpful to everyone around them, doing more than they are expected to do, always willing to do for others. They may imagine themselves to be sensitive, caring people when they secretly know they are flawed. They may become managers or administrators or mental health professionals because secretly they have the need to feel superior, to have control over their work environment or over the lives of others. They blame others for relationship problems and are often unable to look at how they are contributing to the downfall of a relationship, because that would mean shattering their facade of perfectionism. They make terrific employees because they are hyper-focused. But as a boss, their employees often resent their demanding need for everyone else to live up to their standards.
Young clients with a developing, disproportionate need for control are often heard saying "if I tell you will you promise not to tell anyone? The therapist needs to refuse to play the game. If the therapist says "It depends on what it is." The child will leave without disclosing. No trust has been established and the child feels frustrated that they cannot control the therapist as hoped. However, if the Therapist says, "How about if you tell me, and if I have to go somewhere with it, you can come with me." This lets the child or teen know that you are indeed interested in him/her, and want to develop trust, but you are unwilling to be controlled in the relationship. It lets the youth know that you will not take the information and run with it without him/her being by your side. This gives the youth the feeling that s/he is not going to loose control of, or loose touch with, the information after s/he has shared it with you.
Children who are growing up angry are often the ones at school who are picked last for the team. They have learned that acknowledging their anger and expressing it is unacceptable and so they develop self-defeating behaviors that allow them to save face. For instance they say say, "That's OK I can't play anyway, I hurt my foot climbing Half Dome last Saturday."
Perfectionism, like the over achiever, is another self-defeating behavior that can be developed while growing up angry. Looking just-so all the time. Your house is always clean. (Your progress notes are always up to date. :) These are all just defended behaviors intended to keep other's from seeing how afraid of failure they are. These people either children or adults, often feel like frauds. They often feel so inferior that they are attracted to occupations that make them feel or at least look successful so that the world won't notice their fear and their anger.
Treatment: With these kinds of children, the therapist needs to help them reframe their self-defeating thought processes. For instance, the child who feels put down because he has to play right field in little league might be introduced to a story about a great professional right fielder whom they can watch on T.V. and collect cards of.
Process of changeUnderneath the facade of being all together and successful is an angry little child who is paralyzed by his/her fear of being discovered for the imperfect fraud they believe themselves to be. This defense mechanism becomes stronger as they grow older until they cannot imagine their identity without the defense.
In treatment it is essential that the therapist understand that change means giving up their identity as the perfectionist, which often leaves the person with a fear that there will be nothing left of them. How can we ask them to change before we have helped them form their true self, so they have something left when they shake off their self-defeating behaviors. They Ask "How can I know if I will like the new me as well or better than this me?" or "Maybe the real me is some awful person, a slob or a couch potato."
Helping them focus on the parts of them that are already significant. This takes patience on the part of the therapist because the client has to come to those conclusions on their own or else it won't feel real to them. Don't try to convince them to accept your assessment of them. Symptoms of Healing Often teen or adult clients are still angry, realize their anger but cannot explain it. They say, "My life is great but I'm still so angry all the time." Often people become angry because they have raised their level self respect or self worth. It is only after they have made this step that they are finally able to realize their anger. As children they may have been taught that anger was wrong or bad, or they may have been punished for being angry. Now they are strong enough to feel safe enough to let it surface.
Treatment: These clients need to be given space to vent anger in session. They need to be given coping skills for outside the session and they need to be told that their feelings are human, normal and validated. Their relationship with you may be the only one in which they feel safe enough to express this anger and will therefore project their anger onto you, blaming you for being the problem.
The therapist must always be willing to look inside themselves to see if this blame is well laid, or if it is purely projection. Never assume that you are problem free. Your clients will notice your problems and point them out to you as they begin to feel safe in the relationship.
Self-defeating behavior - cognitive behavioral model, SDB starts with conclusions - with unwritten rules from childhood by which we live. They are like tapes in our heads that turn on during stress or crisis. The process: I'm in an experience -- I behave -- I reach conclusion -- I use that conclusion
- Your conclusion is: "hiding your emotions will keep you from being hurt."
- Your behavior will be: "I never let people know what I'm feeling." You make sure you are always in situations where you can just listen to other people.
- 2nd conclusion: "If people know about you they will hurt you."
- Behavior: "I won't self disclose."
- Final conclusion: I never have a choice.
The therapist can help these clients by helping them see that they do have choices. Ask "How" can you do it differently. Prior to therapy, the clients motivation is behind them, pushing them according to their negative experiences and conclusions. The therapist has to help them turn this process and to see the benefits in their future, something to go towards. Doing this will help the client become hooked on the idea of therapy because they will begin to feel hopeful for their future. They will want to run with you to a better place in their life. They will be anxiously working toward a breakthrough. That is until they hit their fear.
When people begin to see changes in their life, they are often temporarily paralyzed by fear, and therapy seems to come to a halt. An experience happens to the client and in their fear they automatically fall back onto old conclusions rather than to their choices. They fall back to what is comfortable and well known to them, because it is within their control, and so they experience less fear. Its chaos is somehow safe. The therapist needs to get them through this by backing them up and breaking down the experience into little segments. Ask How questions. When they are through describing the events (the outer self) help them begin to describe their inner self, (their thoughts and their choices) by asking "how" questions. "How could you not be late?" "How else can you handle that kind of situation?"
Then begin to help the client understand that their SDB's have prices, Help them describe the prices from childhood as well as the prices they pay using SDB's now. Prices generally fall into 3 categories:
- What are the emotional consequences (i.e. depression, anxiety, grief, loss)
- The physical consequences (i.e. somatic symptoms, poor health)
- The lost opportunities (i.e. lost childhood, lost ability to feel playful as an adult)
When they start to believe that the prices are greater than the fear, they will be able to make begin listening to you and to themselves. If the client says "I don't know what the price is, I'm just never happy." They have told you the price. Minimizers will have great difficulty discovering or admitting the prices they pay. We need to help them by making the prices real and behavioral.
Healing4 stages of healing
- Making peace with reality, i.e. overcoming your own fragmentation. Strength comes from overcoming your harsh realities. Admit you are an adult child of anger (alcoholic or what ever else). Say good-bye to the parent you never had and hello to the parent you have.
- Making peace with self. The first 2 steps are prerequisites to #3 and #4. Don't make the mistake of thinking you can make peace with family before you have made peace with yourself.
- Making peace with your family. Everyone has two sets of parents. The real, physical parent and the inner parent. The one you need to make peace with is the inner parent.
- Achieve positive emotional intimacy. This is the ability to self actualize. To enjoy yourself. The ability to relax easily and without guilt. The ability to receive. The ability to enjoy your life. No need to be in control or being controlled. True intimacy begins with yourself. You can tell if you or your client is healing when:
- You can respect yourself
- Willing to work through your grief
- Able to identify what's missing in your life
- when you can handle your memories well
- You trust yourself, your judgment
- You can trust others
- You can confirm yourself
- No longer are controlled or controlling
- You can experience and understand what you are feeling
- You have learned to say no without guilt
- You have learned to receive graciously
- You have embraced the healing process.
Understand that it is the willingness to embrace the spirit of the process that promotes healing, not just the expertise of the therapist.