Recovering from Complex Trauma: Exploring Rage as the Missing Piece
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 13 Nov 2023
7 Nov 2023 – A moment of calm, a moment of security that those whom one depends upon will not attack or humiliate: this could be the most precious gift to a trauma survivor. This is what one longs for when one has survived a story of ‘fright without escape’ (as I call it) through one’s formative years, which in clinical terms we call ‘Complex Trauma’ (Stubley & Young, 2021).
From one perspective, whatever we name this experience, trauma or something else, it does not matter. What matters is that one can open up a space within oneself to open both arms with humility, love and sensitivity, and allow one’s memories and one’s physical pain to fall. Fall deep in the safety of one’s loving and wise heart so that the pain and the fright that one has carried can begin to alter in some shape or form.
If you are a childhood trauma survivor, one of the first things that may come to your mind is: ‘But I have tried all of this, and no matter what I do, the pain, the fright keeps coming back!’ Quite understandably so, because that is precisely the nature of post-traumatic stress and fright that whatever one tries, that feeling of ‘an attack or humiliation is just round the corner’ keeps coming back. Each week it becomes alive in response to a different stimulus: one week it maybe one’s friends or partner and another week it could simply be the returns person at the online shopping company who triggered that feeling.
Hyperarousal and Fright
Some of the contemporary trauma treatment approaches would call these symptoms as hyperarousal (Van der Kolk, 2014) or the feelings of a frightened part of the self (Fisher, 2017), something that helps give context and meaning to these symptoms, which otherwise can make trauma survivors feel things such as ‘I’m just a very sensitive person’ or ‘I just can’t get better… it feels like I’m going mad’. But if we miss out a key developmental phenomenon that occurs in a child and subsequently in an adult, the phenomenon of ‘internalisation’ (Hinshelwood & Fortuna, 2017), we will be missing out an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to treatment and recovery. I explain this process of internalisation in one of the subsequent sections in this article.
Rage: The Rarely Spoken Experience
In addition to one’s symptoms of trauma with very visceral feelings such as – ‘I am crying… I am dying… I can’t speak… I can’t scream… I am frightened… I am drained… This is lonely…’ – there are complex and invisible unconscious processes that go on for a trauma survivor.
These processes can include the feelings of rage: the fear of one’s psychological self being completely destroyed and the rage-driven feelings of wanting to destroy something of the triggering situation or the person so that the specific threat that is being experienced in the moment could also be destroyed. Rage is one of the most rarely discussed symptoms of childhood trauma, and specifically of surviving domestic violence.
Internalisation of Rage
To return to the developmental process of internalisation, as children we all absorb the spoken and unspoken messages that we see, hear and somatically experience (Wallin, 2015). Think of it: ‘When daddy comes home, we’re all meant to give him a hug’ or ‘When daddy looks at me with frustration, I freeze because that’s when I get hit’. These unspoken messages or stories are all internalised, so that we can create some degree of a predictable map of human relationships.
We internalise not only the relational experience of our significant-others, but also their behaviour and their outlook on life. Therefore, it is not surprising, but tragic, that an adult who once survived domestic violence as a child would internalise the human emotion of rage, and at an unconscious level they may see verbal attacks or violence as a way of problem solving, what was once modelled for them.
Rage Inwards and Rage Outwards
For some survivors, this rage is turned inwards (Van der Kolk, 2014) in the form of hating the parts of oneself that are dependent or needy of others or the parts of oneself that one perceives as “weak” – and then wanting to get rid of or destroy these parts. Inwardly directed rage also shows up in the form of self-harm and suicidal feelings. For other survivors, this rage is turned outwards in the form of verbally or physically attacking others – and then developing an adult story that ‘sooner or later, people just hurt you, and you have no choice but to defend yourself!’ This type of rage is an ‘identification with the aggressor’ (Howell, 2014) in an attempt to eliminate and disown the vulnerable parts of oneself.
Rage: it is a state that makes one feel bigger and more powerful than who one is. It is a paradoxical experience: on the one hand, through an inflated sense of power, it promises to annihilate the root of suffering, whilst on the other hand it comes with a primal cry of the soul.
Rage arises when there are reminders in the present of the multiple times when one’s physical or psychological self was on the verge of being annihilated in the past – and it endeavours to win over the often perceived or a real threat to oneself ‘this one time’. Rage longs to create an inner voice of a loving parent, who was largely missing in the past, but who would now say: ‘you are secure with me now… nothing will happen to you anymore, beyond this point… it is my word you have!’ Rage is a tragedy because it seeks to damage the people one loves or the people who have no relation to what was done to us in the past.
The Missing Piece in Recovery
Awakening to how rage was internalised or invoked in a person during their childhood – or how it was suppressed and could never be safely expressed – could be one of the most important missing pieces in understanding the unconscious processes underneath the symptoms of chronic hyperarousal and fright. Because if rage cannot be seen in oneself, it becomes perceived in others, causing one to experience these symptoms.
Many trauma survivors go on about life whilst carrying a profound sense of sadness about their past, along with the natural feeling that the world was and is still against them. But allowing oneself to see in one what is difficult to see – the internalised, biological and developmental feelings of rage – can paradoxically open a new space in one’s consciousness and identity. The paradox of allowing oneself to witness, but not act out, one’s rage is that as a person one is not totally powerless. There are forces within us, albeit destructive, that seek to protect us and to ensure that we need not fear life anymore.
When one can develop the capacity to ‘notice’ one’s rage, and hold it with humility, acceptance and wisdom, something transformative can begin to happen. The people around us, and their perceived or actual rage need not be feared anymore because one would have made peace with the frightening aspects within oneself. This, I believe could be the crucial missing piece in the treatment and recovery for several childhood trauma survivors.
Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation. Oxford: Routledge.
Hinshelwood, R. D., & Fortuna, T. (2017). Melanie Klein: The Basics. Oxon: Routledge.
Howell, E. F. (2014). Ferenczi’s Concept of Identification with The Aggressor: Understanding Dissociative Structure with Interacting Victim and Abuser Self-States. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74(1), 48–59. Retrieved 03 October, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1057/ajp.2013.40
Stubley, J., & Young, L. (2021). Complex trauma: The Tavistock Model. Oxon: Taylor & Francis Group.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body In the Transformation of Trauma. London: Penguin Books.
Wallin, D. J. (2015). Attachment in Psychotherapy (Paperback ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Sumeet Grover is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a UKCP registered psychotherapist working in private practice with individuals and couples in Bedfordshire (UK) and online. His third book of poetry, Signals, was published by Smallberry Press in 2017. He has authored also: House Arrest & Disobedience (2015) and Change (2011). He is a winner of the Portico Brotherton Open Poetry Prize 2014 and was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize in 2014 & 2015.
Tags: Anger, Healing, Psychology, Psychotherapy, Trauma
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 13 Nov 2023.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Recovering from Complex Trauma: Exploring Rage as the Missing Piece, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
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