Saturday, October 27, 2012

My Own Experience of Anger in the Process of Forgiveness Following Spiritual Abuse


 I remember the day shortly after I left a four year involvement at my high demand church when “the lid came off” of my contained, suppressed, denied anger. Any time someone threatened someone else, I felt pure rage. I became terrified, because I never allowed myself to feel or express anger directly before. Suddenly, everything seemed to trigger it.

I should probably put this into perspective. I endeavored to spare people discomfort, not inflict pain, especially as a nurse. I even found the hard tasks as a nurse that involved pushing people to recover when they had pain to be difficult for me. Though I can be quite determined and courageous when defending others, I was not a person that ever wished harm on anyone. I often failed to defend myself, even when it was appropriate. My parents always punished the expression of anger, and I was very uncomfortable with displays of anger in others, too. (This was not ever couched specifically as a religious issue, just one of preference for my family.) I knew that I felt anger in theory, but I did all that I could to avoid it. I only expressed it in a passive-aggressive way, usually giving myself license to do some little thing wrong because of the injustice I'd suffered. I felt entitled, and taking liberties by cutting corners or sometimes taking what I felt belonged to me without asking as my way of comforting myself, but I didn't acknowledge that anger was at the root. I didn't know how to feel it for what it was, and I certainly didn't express it in a healthy way.


I couldn't believe how suddenly and easily any kind of perceived threat to me or someone else triggered intense anger. I also did not readily identify the cause as the sense of injustice and powerlessness I felt over what had gone on in my cultic church. I would have said that I was depressed but not mad over the circumstances there. Regardless, I felt like a volcano, ready to blow, ready to spew a lifetime of unexpressed anger at any opportunity. I froze in terror from it because I felt like I had no experience with the feeling or its expression. Suddenly, I not only felt an ocean of anger, but that anger was popping up with images about how to violently express that it when I felt others were in harm's way. (In hindsight, this happened so seldom that I can count on one hand how many times I experienced this, but it felt so terrible at the time that it seemed more often.) In terms of the expression through action, I would freeze up, but I would fantasize for an instant about inflicting physical harm on the source of the threat. Where had this come from? I didn't understand, and I was both terrified and overwhelmed. It was entirely out of character for me.

Because of the spiritual nature of my new problems concerning the abuse I observed at my cultic church (especially their tolerance of the abuse of women and their blaming of women as the cause of that abuse), I first sought out pastoral counseling or “Biblical” counseling from Evangelical churches that I believed I could trust. When I finally found “help” through a church, I was assigned to an inexperienced counselor in training, someone working on getting her clinical practice hours. I learned that she was studying “Biblical counseling” with which I had no experience, and I now assume that she assumed a “nouthetic” type of model. I had prior experience with counselors trained in psychology, so I didn't expect much of anything different from her.

I did not feel like the relationship with the counselor was a good, therapeutic situation in the sense that I think of one, both then and now. She was rigid, uptight, and seemed socially uncomfortable, something I found quite strange for someone interested in counseling. I also met her in a triangular shaped room, and two of its three walls were constructed of pane windows so that anyone walking through that section of the church by could look in to see me (or us). I felt very vulnerable, and I often wondered if people outside could hear us talking, as their presence was a constant source of distraction. The room itself was arranged in an odd way because of its shape. The sofa where I sat was uncomfortably far away from the counselor. To make a long story short, I didn't find her to be highly skilled, and I didn't feel remotely at ease with her or the setting. I saw her for three sessions only before finding someone else, and I was not prepared for what happened during my final visit.

I was also deeply troubled because it had been my experience that counselors start out allowing the client to deal with the most significant source of discomfort, based on their perception. I did walk in with several complaints, but the most significant one was the grief and fear I felt when I tried to attend services at new churches, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with Bible Study. I was petrified by my anger, terrified that an elder had pronounced a “God's going to get you” curse over me, and I felt alienated from everyone and everything good in my life. I'd also started to have occasional bad dreams that induced a great deal of guilt about a specific matter, but those dreams were the least of my immediate and most disturbing concerns. I was shocked because the counselor was not interested in discussing the things that troubled me most. She wanted to focus on the most minor of the matters that I presented to her. To draw an analogy, I felt like I went to a surgeon to get my inflamed, painful, blocked gall bladder removed, but the surgeon was only interested in removing a mole I'd had my whole life. This made no sense, and I've never decided whether this was a “Biblical counseling” issue or whether the inexperienced counselor in training wanted to only work on issues with which she felt comfortable.

I started much personal reading on forgiveness in my devotions in my attempt to wrap up everything neatly and quickly. I had a terrible time trying to read much of anything anyway. I'd been hurt deeply, and to move on, I knew that I would have to forgive the leadership at the church. In the third session I attended with this counselor, I broached the topic of forgiveness, especially after I'd been identified as the enemy of the church for leaving “without the blessing” of the elders and pastor. I felt threatened by this, but I couldn't yet give myself permission to be angry about how ridiculous and anti-Christian I found this to be. I expressed everything as disappointment and confusion. I didn't see anger in that sense of pain, and I fled from any suggestion of anger. Yet, anger was coming to the surface on its own whenever it found any opportunity, and I wanted to find a way to push it back down. The anger didn't feel very Christian to me, and I just wanted to jump right into the end of the journey without the work.

I could not believe how the counselor in training responded when I expressed how I felt about forgiveness, along with my fears, despite my honest desire to be forgiving. During that final visit, the counselor very glibly said in a tone that I felt was rudely judgmental in a manner that seemed to smother me saying, “Well, you do know that you have to forgive them.” Recounting her statement now in a place of safety and healing, I'd say that she had a profound grasp of the blatantly obvious. This statement did little else than repeat what I'd just said. (And it wasn't a counseling technique of mirroring, either. ...not in the tone she used.)

In my logical mind, this was also my ultimate goal, though I had not exactly figured out what that should look like. I came to this woman for help so that I could learn how to do exactly that. Yet, I was constantly troubled by the fact that these men were winking at domestic violence, some of which was perpetrated by their deacons who were permitted to remain deacons. They blamed the battered women for failing to “let love cover a multitude of sins” and told them that if they were being good wives that their husbands wouldn't hit them. I'd also suffered betrayal by the pastor myself. He'd suddenly become like two entirely different men to me – one whom I loved like a second father and another who strengthened the hands of abusers and failed to protect women in his care as a pastor. At the time, to forgive him without establishing the gravity of the wrong he was doing so that he could continue facilitating the wounding of women meant that forgiveness would call evil good. I couldn't do that, and I didn't know how to forgive him. I knew that it was wrong to jump right into mercy for him while women were still being mistreated and blamed.

Though I wanted to forgive more than anything and technically agreed with the counselor as she spoke the judgmental words, my emotions seemed to both betray and shock me. I'd come for help to learn how to control my emotions, and I instantly became flooded with rage at what seemed like her complete lack of understanding and sympathy. She communicated no empathy that I could detect, either. My body froze as she spoke. My mind, however, had a definite picture of what I wanted to do in response to what she'd just uttered...

I wanted to propel myself across the room in a fit of rage, flying through the air across that awkward space so that I could wrap my hands around her neck to choke her. An image popped into my mind wherein I was lunging at her, my body vertically suspended in mid-air and horizontal as I pictured my hands about to grip her neck. It was a horrible image that appeared in my mind as though I was an observer who was seated in a different part of the room near the door. It appeared for just a fraction of a second as I felt so confused and belittled (and enraged) by her words. The image disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, and I'm not sure that I was aware of anything else that happened in the session after that. I also recognized later that how I felt described characteristics of dissociation as a psychological coping mechanism. I felt so threatened that I was no longer “fully present” consciously. I fantasized about hurting her in a response to how I felt that she'd threatened me, all in that tiny fragment a moment as I sat there, watching myself from outside of my own body. I was petrified by what I was feeling, and the idea that my mind created images of hurting people was terrifying to me. What did this say of my character? What did this say of my sanity? In that moment of rage, I felt entirely condemned and hopeless. I'd come for help and found my problem intensify. I decided that there was no help for me there. (Help should feel just a little bit good!)

I think that the experience indicated that I felt deeply threatened, and that I'd felt more personally unsafe that I'd ever felt before. It meant for me that those systems of justice and all things good and reasonable that I'd always hoped in for vindication had finally failed, and I was now “on my own.” I think that it meant that the emotional part of myself would not allow me tolerate any more mistreatment of myself or others. I was conflicted, but on some level, the brutally honest, emotional part of me would not let me get away with ignoring the anger anymore. I couldn't continue to be ignorant of the evil anymore, and I had to take a stand. I had been willing to brave things for other people, but I was finally so threatened that a part of me could no longer ignore justice for myself. I don't know if it was a survival instinct or whether I was just getting too old and frustrated to put up with such things. I just know that I felt like I'd denied a lifetime full of anger, and payday had finally come at age thirty. I was forced to purge it, and I now had to learn to deal with it in a healthy way.

In hindsight, I wouldn't be able to forgive those who had hurt me until I felt and honored my anger and all that it was trying to do for me. It existed and surfaced because I didn't want to choose to protect myself, and some honest, emotional part of me kicked in to make sure that I did. (It was God's gift to me as part of the system that was created to keep me safe and to help me survive.) The emotion also pushed me to mature so that I could learn how to truly forgive instead of feigning cheap forgiveness. I was going to have to walk that long, hard journey, though I wanted an easy one instead. I had to learn to tolerate and express anger in a healthy way, and I'd have to learn self care. Anger emerged for a reason, and I had to let it do in me what I believe it was designed to do. It became an ironic part of the process of letting patience have it's perfect work in my life. Without the season of anger, the season of acceptance and then forgiveness would not come. I had much loss to grieve, and the anger was an essential part of that grieving of so, so great a loss.

Since that time, I've found excellent counselors. They gave me permission to feel anger and express it. I always turned it into something else, usually self-disdain and self-disgust, or I used it to give myself permission to sin and to gratify myself. I had deluded myself my whole life, telling myself that I rarely felt any anger. This was a lie. I felt it all the time and called it something else so I could be the “good little girl.” It was time to grow up. My counselors walked with me as I learned how to feel what I didn't want to feel. They gave me permission to be human, just as God had created me. I could then learn how to give that permission to myself.

The episodes of rage were mostly limited to about two years after I first felt them, just after leaving my spiritually abusive church. I did have a single one a couple of years ago while in a counseling session. I'd reinjured my back, a chronically progressive injury about which little can be done, and that day I could barely walk or sit during the session. The counselor meant to encourage me by noting that people with chronic pain often note that pain diminishes when they conquer their traumas, especially using the technique that she used with me. Because I felt so much physical pain that day, and having never shared the rather depressing prognosis with her, I became very angry at her. In my intense pain, it felt as though she was minimizing and diminishing my pain and condition, even though I knew that she was only trying to encourage me. She made this statement at the same time that a firey, shooting and tearing pain roared in my body, and I honestly almost felt like I could hit her. I was that angry. (I said nothing about how I felt. I wanted time to think about why I'd reacted that way. It did seem a bit like shooting a fly with a machine gun instead of using a fly swatter.)

A week later, when I went in for my next session, I confronted the counselor about what she'd said and how I took it. I told her that because of the relationship of trust that we'd built together as client and therapist, I wanted to clear the air, and I had faith that I could do so with her. I told her how I felt and how angry I was with her. When she asked why I didn't express this to her a week earlier, I explained how I'd almost wanted to hit her in that moment. Rather than act on it or talk about it, I wanted to think about how I felt. I felt that same deep concern over the idea of physically expressing my anger, much the same way that I did when I was in pure emotional pain only, so many years ago. I wanted to think about it.

Well, my counselor was overjoyed when I told her, cracking the widest, most beautiful smile, much to my surprise. She was thrilled that I had grown so much that I could be this honest with my feelings and that I'd also chosen to confront her about them. She said that the only thing that could be more commendable would have been for me to have told her in the moment of anger rather than waiting a full week to discuss it with her. Here was a counselor who understood the function of anger as an expression of pain and fear from a violation of a boundary, not as a sin or a lack of virtue. These expressions of rage and intense anger were self-protective and a function of God's gift of anger to me which acted to keep me safe. It also served as a testimony of how much healing I'd manifested.

That's the response of an excellent counselor, and I'm so grateful that I've found more than once since that overwhelming experience in that glass room with someone who didn't understand. But I'd been blessed with others who would and did, comforting me with the comfort and wisdom they'd been given, finding all the equity in it and transforming their own troubles into goodness (II Corinthians 1:3-7).

More to come on anger's role
in the process of forgiveness.

Link HERE to the next post.