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Anger That Won't Let Go
Understanding the Connection Between Emotions and Abuse
Natasha Santos

For about five years I went to therapy along with the abusive foster mother I lived with. She’d spend 30 minutes complaining about me. That didn’t help me at all.

But recently I started thinking I needed therapy—with a good therapist—and I found a counselor through my school. But to understand how therapy is supposed to work, and how to trust a therapist, I spoke to Elizabeth Kandall, a psychologist who runs the Children’s Psychotherapy Project in New York City.

Elizabeth is a short, brunette woman. She was dressed in dark clothes and had a tranquil, patient air about her. Like many other therapists she refused to give me any definite answers. I felt she wanted me to figure out things by myself, which was cool.

When I asked her to explain the connection between anger and abuse, she acted just like you’d expect a therapist to act, asking me, “What do you think it is?”

I surprised myself by telling the truth clearly. I said, “I think anger’s a symptom of abuse. Severe anger—it’s uncontrollable. It doesn’t help you, it hurts you, it messes you up.”

“So you see it as uncontrollable, unfocused, self-destructive anger?” she said.

I was like, “All right. I know that. So what can I do about it?”

Elizabeth said it might be helpful to think about the unconscious. That’s the idea that part of our brains remembers how we felt in the past, even when our conscious mind has forgotten it.

image by Kat Morris, image by Katherine Morris

Past feelings—like helplessness or fear—that we have in our unconscious minds can affect how we feel in the present. For example, even if you’re out of a dangerous situation, like an abusive home, your unconscious might still believe you’re in danger.

“It’s like, the unconscious isn’t sure that the past is all over,” Elizabeth explained. “Logically, in your wakeful mind, you can say it’s really over—like you could say, ‘I’m not 3 years old anymore.’ But in your unconscious mind it’s still present.”

I knew what she meant. My mother scolding me reminds me of my former foster mothers’ abuse, and the humiliation my biological mother put me through. My sister restricting me reminds me of restrictions my former foster mother placed on me, like making me use separate plates and spoons from her biological family.

Of course, I wanted to know how to convince your unconscious that the danger is over. She said you have to explore what your past means to you, how your past relates to now, and what makes you still feel in danger. That might help your fear go away.

Elizabeth said therapy should be a relationship where you can reflect on your past experiences and see how those experiences might still be affecting you today. (The therapist can help you see connections or patterns that you might not be able to.) “It’s a chance to take stock and think about what’s going on, instead of just continuing to repeat it,” she said.

Still, it’s not easy for those of us whose trust has been betrayed to trust a therapist with our stories. Some of us don’t open up at all; others open up too quickly. “People respond to feelings of being unsafe sometimes by running headlong into danger. That sets up another dangerous situation,” she told me.

Elizabeth said we should bring along all our skepticism and distrust when we meet a therapist. “Stay as tight as you need to for as long as you need to,” she said, but also ask yourself if you might benefit by opening up. Then take slow, progressive steps to see if the therapist can earn your trust.

If you’re thinking, “Uh-oh, I don’t trust this person,” you might want to ask yourself, “Is it me? Do I go ‘Uh-oh,’ to everybody? Or is it something about this person?”

You might also talk to the therapist about all of the things you’re afraid of, and explain what you need. You can see why you need the things you do, and you can judge whether someone really is trying to understand you.