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September 4th, 2019 11:29:38 am

Swallowing Traumatic Anger

Family Abuse and the Pressure to Forgive

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In many cases of family trauma, victims are left with the burden of rebuilding relationships that have been damaged. Recovering from trauma and rebuilding the necessary relationships may involve overcoming anger and working to minimize the emotional scars left by the trauma. This paper will aim to illustrate that pressure to forgive can harm victims of abuse. To do so I will draw on Amia Srinivasn’s (2018) work on affective injustice. Srinivasan claims that victims of oppression are often told it is counterproductive for them to feel anger, though anger is the right response to the injustice they have faced. This burdens victims with another injustice of having to manage the conflict between the legitimacy of their anger and its unhelpfulness. Srinivasan calls this affective injustice, as it is an injustice that effects someone in as an emotional (affective) being. I argue that abuse survivors can experience a parallel kind of affective injustice. I will do so by focusing on the example of sibling abuse. Survivors of sibling abuse are often asked to set aside their trauma for the sake of the family unit. This leaves victims shouldering the burden of managing their recovery together with a deliberate neglect of their affective states. This can be a reiteration of the trauma as invalidation and neglect of the victim’s emotions is often part of abuse. Repairing relationships can make the victim re-experience trauma. I will then discuss the implications for forgiveness. Often in philosophy of forgiveness and anger to hold that victims have duties to help facilitate a process of atonement (eg. Nussbaum 2016; Radzik 2009). Forgiveness is seen as morally good, even morally required. I will argue that this work parallels some of the arguments made to victims to pressure them to forgive that are given in an interpersonal context, and can legitimize this pressure. As a result, this work may provide a theoretical framework that imposes affective injustice on victims.

“To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence.” – Andrei Lankov

1. Introduction

Anger is a painful and frequently felt emotion following trauma, especially trauma resulting from abuse. Whilst it is commonly argued by philosophers, well-wishers, even health professionals that one should endeavor not to feel anger. I intend to show that this pressure to abandon anger can be harmful. I will focus my argument around examples from family and sibling abuse because there are unique circumstances surrounding the norms and management of sibling behavior that can exacerbate the problems with swallowing traumatic anger.

Where abuse happens in the context of a family, the negative impact on the victim can be compounded. In these cases, there is often no escape from the abusive family member and the abusive behaviors can start from a young age. Barriers that the victim may experience to getting help can be worse. It is harder to remove oneself from a family setting than a social one, and some aspects of emotional abuse such as denial of the abuse can alter the way that the victim sees the reality of their own situation. Fighting and rivalry between siblings is so common that it can be difficult for the victim or the caregivers to establish that the sibling relationship is abusive. Only recently has the potential for sibling relationships to become abusive been acknowledged. The difference between abuse and rivalry and manifests in one sibling persistently victimizing the other and having psychical or psychological dominance over them. Unlike school bullies, children cannot escape siblings at home, and parents can fail to intervene effectively. In extreme cases, and especially cases of sexual abuse between siblings, parents can be reluctant to acknowledge abuse because they do not want to hear such painful information. Some victims have reported that their parents or caregivers treating their testimony with doubtful responses has added a secondary harm.

Long-term effects of sibling abuse can include anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, depression, and eating disorders. Sadly, abuse between siblings is the most common form of domestic abuse (Caffro 2009). Despite the negative effects of this abuse, victims can be put upon by their family to forgive their tormentor. If not forgiveness, victims are often asked to set aside their anger or not speak about the abuse in order to promote harmony in the family.

Srinivasan’s “The Aptness of Anger” (2018) introduces the idea of affective injustice by arguing that denying the right to appropriate anger creates an unfair and burdensome conflict in the individual whose anger is denied. Srinivasan’s article focuses on cases where the injustice takes place at a systematic level. I argue that affective injustice can also take place in responses to interpersonal abuse, and that victims of sibling abuse are at risk of suffering this injustice. I will do this by illustrating that arguments against appropriate anger from philosophical and cultural sources can parallel damaging silencing tactics that abusers and enablers use and can echo epistemic barriers that victims of family abuse face.

2. Part 1: Motivating the Paper

It is difficult to examine the detrimental effects of sibling abuse and traumatic anger because research on the topic is scarce. Two studies exist that examine the responses to sibling abuse and the effects of those responses. One study (Rowntree 2007) only looked at sexual abuse while the other (McDonald & Martinez 2016) looked at physical abuse. In both studies, the top responses from parents to learning about the abuse included silencing, normalizing, trivializing, and victim blaming. In the later study, one participant reported feeling blamed for not forgiving her abuser and feeling responsible for tearing their family apart. The researchers also conclude that current abuse can be viewed by family members as the victim’s fault for refusing to forgive past abuse. In this way, forgiveness as a value is weaponized against the victim to alienate them either from the reality of their abuse or from their hopes for a resolution. In this section I will discuss some testimonials from survivors of family abuse. The testimonials are given by volunteers from a sibling abuse survivor support group and the names have been changed for anonymity. Whilst these testimonials are only anecdotal evidence for my claims, I hope that they create a plausible picture of how minimizing strategies, including pressure to forgive, can be damaging to abuse survivors.

2.1 Rose

Rose describes experiencing emotional abuse at the hands of her older sister.

At family dinner my sister would start being nasty to me, negative comments about my weight or appearance, usually my weight. I just had to sit and ignore it. Others at the table would laugh. When I got sick of it and would say something back, I was yelled at for starting a fight.

Rose’s account illustrates a common pattern for survivors of sibling abuse. A response to the abuse that causes discord will elicit a negative response even if it is appropriate. This could be because the abusive sibling is more volatile than the victim, so the victim is expected to put up with the abuse because they are easier to discipline. Another reason could be because parents or caregivers feel ashamed or embarrassed by the accusation of abuse as it implies that they have fallen short as parents. In McDonald and Martinez’s study, another participant recalled telling a teacher about the abuse. After a meeting with the teacher, the victim’s mother told the victim that they had embarrassed her by talking about the abuse. Rose also describes her sister lying about the abuse, with Rose herself not being believed. This is common with abuse survivors and can be both traumatic in itself and create risk of secondary trauma when survivors meet skepticism later in life.

2.2 Bella

In Bella’s case, the whole household was abusive and the abuse was both physical and emotional. It was so severe that she developed selective mutism for the first part of her life. Her father was awarded custody when courts found out about the abuse, but even he oscillated between believing her and not believing her. When she told members of the church what happened, they told her that she would be blameworthy if she did not forgive unconditionally and did nothing to intervene on her behalf even though she was still being abused. The narrative of forgiveness as a mandatory value was used as a way to deny Bella’s right to be angry and was followed up with no help to be safe from further abuse.

2.3 Josie

I didn’t understand that what had happened was abuse. I didn’t understand why I was so angry, I thought that I was bad for feeling that way..... When I told a friend that I felt guilty for my anger, she told me that she was glad I was angry, that I should be after what happened. That was the first step to accepting that what happened to me was abuse. I was later diagnosed with PTSD and able to get help. Anger was a big part of that.

After I saw a therapist an ex-boyfriend, who was also emotionally abusive, told me that I was horrible for not wanting to see my sister and what happened to me was “nothing”. He treated my anger and my trauma as a mistake I had made.

Josie’s account gives us a perspective where anger is necessary to process the reality of the abuse. It also gives us a perspective where the anger constitutes part of the trauma. The anger is a source of discomfort in this account and only becomes easier to live with when it is legitimized. In this story, anger is not just useful for communicating the damage of the abuse to others or the perpetrator. It is also necessary to make the victim know what happened to her. In this story, like several others, denial of the abuse and the right to be angry by a trusted figure exacerbates the harm of the trauma.

2.4 Claire

Claire was sexually abused by her brother and blackmailed and shamed into not speaking about it. Years later, as an adult, she has tried to tell her family about the abuse. Her parents will not handle the reality of what her brother did and if she speaks about it, they resent her for causing them pain. Talking about what happened is treated as an attempt to hurt her brother and parents. She wants to be heard, her family refuses. The fact that her brother was a child at the time makes him not blameworthy in their eyes, and this is enough for them to pressure her not to talk about the abuse as to talk about it and be angry about it is seen as blaming him.

In Claire’s case, pressure not to discuss the abuse was itself part of the abuse. Many victims of sexual and physical abuse experience this. This is what makes pressure not to discuss the abuse later in life so damaging, it can be a reiteration of parts of the abuse. People who are abused by family members are more at risk of this because, especially in cases of sexual abuse, other family members find the abuse hard to acknowledge.

From what we have seen in these testimonials, motivations for letting go of anger can be loosely grouped as follows: peace-making, religious obedience, moral praiseworthiness, and protecting the feelings of others. These four motivations are not stand alone, they are linked. All of them can be construed as avoiding moral blameworthiness in some sense, with the implication that the victim would be morally wrong or blameworthy if they expressed their anger or spoke out about their abuse.

3. Part 2: Sibling Abuse and Affective Injustice

Affective injustice, as Srinivasan describes it, is the injustice of having to choose whether to be angry where anger is appropriate but counter-productive. It is an injustice of emotional, or affective, reality because the agent is put in a position where they are not given space to be angry. Even though anger is appropriate, the reaction others may have to their anger may be harmful in other ways. Srinivasan argues that this injustice is harmful because it imposes a kind of “psychic tax” on the person experiencing it. Srinivasan claims that victims can experience a normative conflict, where it is wrong to abandon appropriate anger but the price of holding onto it is high. Another concern Srinivasan raises is that arguing against anger for pragmatic reasons puts the responsibility for fixing the problem onto the victim rather than the perpetrator. This mirrors Rose’s story from the previous section.

Srinivasan’s examples focus on responses to racial oppression, where the victims are unfairly given the responsibility for bringing about change for a wrong that they did not create. In my examples, social change is usually not the goal. The goal is healing, something that the victim is burdened with regardless of how their anger is treated. The affective injustice here is that victims are asked carry a part of their trauma so that they do not burden the perpetrator or enabler with it. This is a secondary injustice along with the initial injustice of the fact that victims are already responsible for putting in the work to heal damage that someone else did.

        As we saw in the previous section, some of the calls for forgiveness that come from third parties are more self-interested than interested in forgiveness as a value in itself. However, whatever the internal reasoning, a common line if argument given by those who pressure victims to forgive is based in a misunderstanding of what anger is. Anger is seen as an ill-wish towards the perpetrator of the abuse. Whilst this is often a product or even a part of anger, it is not a necessary part. Anger can be a way of recognizing what the abuse is (Lorde 1981). Anger can also be a form of communication, seeking external validation and acknowledgement of the harm, and a call to action for the harm to stop (Srinivasan 2018).

        However, there are some philosophical accounts that put the perpetrator and their relationship with the victim at the forefront of discussions on anger and forgiveness. For example, Nussbaum (2016) argues for unconditional love, as anger is wrong and even forgiveness itself is unkind in this account. Pettigrove (2012) argues in favor of “meekness” in the face of appropriate anger, as anger is counter-productive. Also, Radzik (2008) gives an account of anger and forgiveness geared towards reconciliation. Though she acknowledges the victim’s right to protect their own health by denying the perpetrator the right to make amends, the account sees making amends as something the victim should allow if possible.

        Unfortunately, as illustrated by the testimonials, what we see in reality is pressure to forgive used as a distraction from having to deal with the abuse. As Cherry (2017) argues, forgiveness as a virtue and moral praise of the forgiving is often weaponized against the oppressed to pressure them into forgiveness. Whilst this manifests very differently in a family scenario where disputes and prejudice are interpersonal and not systematic, there are some important parallels. There is evidence to suggest that moral pressure to forgive can provide a mandate for further abuse of the unforgiving (McDonald & Martinez 2016). In the example with religious pressure to forgive, forgiveness was given as advice in lieu of help or intervention to protect the victim from further harm. I believe that attempts to encourage victims of abuse and oppression into forgiveness without properly engaging their anger is, at best, more likely to result in an insincere denial of psychological reality than a real recovery from the trauma that they are experiencing. At worst, it can become a barrier to being heard and having their trauma acknowledged. With sibling abuse where the abuse is so often normalized, third parties can incorrectly judge the victim’s anger as inappropriate and gaslight them out of believing that they were abused and have a right to be angry (cf. Cherry 2018).

A potential solution to these unhelpful conceptions of anger may be that forgiveness or the lack of anger should be set aside as a goal. Instead, allowing the victim to come to terms with the harm that they have suffered should be the goal, though anger may subside as a result of this. In this way, the goal is not to control the victim’s feelings or communication, the goal is the victim’s own wellbeing. We may think of this in terms of Stanlick’s (2010) concept of reconciling with harm. Stanlick concludes that in reconciling with harm the perpetrator of that harm can become irrelevant. When considering anger, it is very hard to split apart anger from the perceived target of the anger, but it can be helpful and correct to do so. This is especially the case with sibling abuse because in many cases when the abuse takes place the perpetrator is a child and has diminished levels of responsibility for their actions. The impact on the victim, however, can be just as bad as if any adult was the abuser in that circumstance. We have already seen that anger can be useful for a victim to understand their own abuse and can be seen as a communicative tool. Given these aspects of anger, the perpetrator’s relationship with the anger is a secondary aspect of the emotion but is put at the front of arguments to abandon it. If, instead, we understand anger as part of the process of reconciling with harm, the arguments to condemn it become less credible. If forgiveness must be part of the picture, I suggest that a way forward may be to see forgiveness as a potential fortunate by-product of psychological healing, but it should not be the goal in itself of healing from trauma.

4. Part 3: A Changing Cultural Understanding of Anger and Trauma

Anger has a cultural history of being seen as an emotion of violence, destruction, and power. In their longer testimony (shortened for reasons of space) one of the survivors quoted earlier in the paper describes seeing a psychotherapist about their anger and being presented with a treatment plan designed to help with a short temper. The treatment plan seemed more suited to her abuser than herself and included the assumption that her anger was inappropriate and an overreaction rather than the troubling but legitimate response to years of abuse. Any quick internet search on anger and forgiveness will yield results of Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama (among countless others) advising that anger will hurt the angry one and should therefore be abandoned. However, there is growing appreciation of ways in which legitimate anger should be heard.

In her 2018 book and accompanying TED talk Soraya Chemaly explains the pressure to subdue rage, specifically female rage. Her book illustrates the ways in which women are expected to manage their own emotions but also those of the men around them by deferring to their emotional needs. Chemaly puts this in terms of several forms of oppression as well as gendered oppression and I believe that what she illustrates is also at play in cases of sibling abuse. If we replace men in her example with “person who has the power” in a family dynamic, a similar effect takes place. In cases of sibling abuse the power can come from being older, bigger, male, having more support of other family members, or being so emotionally volatile that others will work harder to placate you. The kinds of objections to anger levelled at women that Chemaly illustrates parallel some of the examples we have seen in the philosophy literature and can be linked to Cherry’s “sympathy gap” and Srinivasan’s observations, both that anger is linked to lack of control, and that some groups have been excluded from ever participating it. In cases of sibling abuse, this exclusion can come from the isolated power dynamic between the siblings and given the amount of time siblings have together, this can have a similar powerful an effect on the individual as cultural power constructs such as racial oppression and misogyny.

There has also been a recent spike in the exclusion of forgiveness as part of trauma therapy. Articles in GoodTherapy, Huffpost, The Good Men Project, and Psychology Today discuss the fact that forgiveness can be a trigger for trauma patients because of the way that it’s perceived necessity can be used as a silencing tool. This movement to exclude forgiveness from psychotherapy comes alongside a growing number of people who advocate for the inclusion of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a clinical diagnosis and a subset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anger can constitute a key symptom of C-PTSD especially, but also PTSD. In the case of survivors of chronic abuse it may be experienced as an emotional flashback to powerless anger experienced at the time of the abuse. Popular trauma treatments such as eye movement desensitizing and reprocessing (EMDR) can sometimes incorporate treatment to allow the victim to process their anger, as there are potential health problems associated with suppressing it.

Increased public acknowledgement of legitimate anger goes alongside an increased societal intolerance of abuse as a whole, including sibling abuse. News articles, psychology research, and activism has seen a recent surge in discussion of sibling abuse. As the long-term impact of sibling abuse becomes clearer, the dissemination of public knowledge on the issue is growing. The Irish Times recently published a series of articles on the subject and features about sibling violence and emotional abuse have appeared in Psychology Today, BBC News Magazine, and the New York Times among others. Sadly, in spite of this increase in public awareness, victims still face significant barriers to help and prevention when compared with other types of bullying and violence. Parts of this like the closeness of the family dynamic can mean that anger policing and forgiveness pressure can be bigger and more damaging than in other abuse scenarios. In the case of sexual violence between siblings, there is the added barrier of stigma.

5. Conclusion

What I hope to have illustrated here is that victims of traumatic anger should not face pressure to set aside that anger. In doing so, the victim may risk hindering their own recovery, as anger can be a crucial part of coming to terms with the abuse that they have suffered. Given the communicative power of anger, asking someone not to be angry is a form of silencing that can be especially damaging when silencing was part of the initial abuse. In cases of sibling abuse, victims can face extra barriers to understanding their abuse that may be made worse by pressure to forgive. This, combined with the fact that the family dynamic puts sibling abuse victims at increased risk of being asked to forgo anger, puts survivors of sibling abuse at risk of being unable to heal from their trauma. By putting relationships rather than understanding at the front of reactions to anger, third parties can create affective injustice for the victim.

However, growing research into both anger and sibling abuse gives us some reason to hope that in the future traumatic anger may be met with proper acknowledgment. Our goal of dealing with anger should be reoriented towards hearing and healing abuse survivors. We should give victims space to express and experience their anger instead of asking them to swallow it.


Chemaly, S. (2018) Rage Becomes Her. Simon & Schuster Ltd

Cherry, M. (2017) “Forgiveness, Exemplars, and the Oppressed.” In Kathryn J. Norlock (ed.), The Moral Psychology of Forgiveness. Maryland, USA: pp. 55-72

-- (2018) The Errors and Limitations of our “Anger Evaluating” Ways. In Myisha Cherry & Owen Flanagan (eds.), The Moral Psychology of Anger. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 49-65.

Macdonald, C. and Martinez, K. (2016) “Parental and Others’ Responses to Physical Sibling Violence: A Descriptive Analysis of Victims’ Retrospective Accounts.” Journal of Family Violence 31, no. 3 (2016; 2015;): 401-410.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2016). Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. New York: Oxford University Press

Pettigrove, G. (2012). “Meekness and 'Moral' Anger.” Ethics 122 (2):341-370.

Radzik, Linda (2009). Making Amends: Atonement in Morality, Law, and Politics. Oxford University Press.

Rowntree, M. (2007). “Responses to Sibling Sexual Abuse: Are They as Harmful as the Abuse?”, Australian Social Work, 60:3, 347-361

Srinivasan, Amia (2018). “The Aptness of Anger.” Journal of Political Philosophy 26 (2):123-144.

Stanlick, N. (2010). “Reconciling With Harm: An Alternative To Forgiveness And Revenge.” Florida Philosophical Review 10 (1):88-111






    Georgina Mills 2019

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