REVIEW COORDINATOR: Bethany Laursen
Swallowing Traumatic Anger
Family Abuse and the Pressure to Forgive (version 2)
In many cases of family trauma, victims are left with the burden of rebuilding relationships that have been damaged. This paper will aim to illustrate that inappropriate pressure to forgive can harm victims of abuse. This pressure can come from a combination of assumptions. Firstly, often forgiveness is conflated with reconciliation, and those who put pressure on victims to forgive do so to avoid uncomfortable blame or estrangement. Secondly, anger is often inappropriately understood as a morally blameworthy emotion to hold. I will draw on Amia Srinivasn’s (2018) work on affective injustice to address this assumption. I will argue that pressure to forgo anger, forgive, and reconcile stems from a mistaken interpretation of these concepts and is ultimately harmful. I will illustrate this by using examples where victims have found their voices stifled by the mistaken coding of anger as morally blameworthy and forgiveness as morally required. [This is version 2 of a previously submitted piece posted here: https://publicphilosophyjournal.org/full-record/?amplificationid=2069
“To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence.” – Andrei Lankov
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 not be giving a full account of anger or forgiveness here, only highlighting popular misconceptions about these ideas. While ideas about anger and forgiveness are themes in this piece, I will be keeping my examples to instances where the concept is wielded in a pernicious way, often in tension with what the process of forgiveness entails.(1) I will focus my argument around examples from sibling abuse because there are unique circumstances surrounding the norms and management of sibling behavior that 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 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 manifests in one sibling persistently victimizing the other and having physical 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.(2) Despite the negative effects of this abuse, victims can be put upon by their family to forgive their tormentor. In asking this, often family members do not value the forgiveness itself, rather they want the victim to set aside their anger or not speak about the abuse in order to promote harmony in the family.
Amia Srinivasan’s “The Aptness of Anger” 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.(3) Srinivasan’s article focuses on cases where the injustice takes place at a systemic 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 only looked at sexual abuse while the other looked at physical abuse.(4) 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.(5) 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 accounts from survivors of family abuse. These are given by volunteers from a support group and the names have been changed for anonymity. Whilst these stories are only anecdotal evidence for my claims, I hope that they create a plausible picture of how minimizing strategies, including inappropriate pressure to forgive, can be damaging.
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. 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.
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 an obligation was used to deny Bella’s right to be angry and was followed up with no help to be safe from further abuse.
In Josie’s case, she was subject to repeated violence from a sibling. She later found that any attempt to express anger, and even remove herself for her own safety, was met with negative judgement by family until she finally told a supportive friend.
“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.”
Josie’s account shows us anger can be necessary to understand the abuse. It also gives us a perspective where the anger constitutes part of the trauma. The anger is a source of discomfort 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, it is also necessary to make the victim know what happened to her.
Claire was sexually abused by her brother and blackmailed and shamed into not speaking about it. Years later, she has tried to tell her family about the abuse. Her parents will not discuss 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 enables 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 part of the abuse. Many victims of sexual abuse experience this. This makes pressure not to discuss the abuse later in life 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, the pressure to suppress appropriate anger was damaging to these victims, and rarely done in the interests of the victim’s own wellbeing. The pressure acts, instead, as a deflection to avoid dealing with some part of the victim’s trauma. In Claire’s case, the parents did not want to face the truth of what happened. In Bella’s case, a religious mandate for forgiveness was given with no thought to what would benefit Bella, but it was used to justify the church member’s victim blaming and failure to help. For Rose, her family members blamed her for any anger to avoid having to address her sibling’s abusive behaviour. Josie’s account show us how helpful acknowledging anger can be to understanding one’s own trauma.
What the accounts have in common is the fact that, when dealing with trauma survivors, condemnation of anger and praise of forgiveness are both misused. Instead of being directed at helping the survivors process their anger or forgive sincerely, all these victims found that condemnation of anger was used to shut down any attempt to share trauma.
There are two main motivations for shutting down those conversations present in these accounts. Firstly, some do not want to have to acknowledge what is happening or what happened. This is most present in Claire’s story, and very common among family of victims of sexual violence from siblings. This can be the result of guilt, shame, and feelings of denial from caregivers who are meant to be responsible for preventing harm to children. In McDonald and Martinez’s study, a participant recalled telling a teacher about the abuse.(6) After a meeting with the teacher, the victim’s mother told the victim that they had embarrassed her by talking about it. Whilst, in this instance, it is not clear that the mother feels any guilt, it is clear that the mother understands her responsibility to prevent the abuse, and does not want to face it.
The second motivation for shutting down conversations about trauma, is a discomfort with anger and pain. This is present in Rose’s story, her anger was “starting a fight” where her sister’s vitriol was tolerable so long as it was not acknowledged for the bullying that it was. Sarah Montana in her 2018 talk “The real risk of forgiveness and why it’s worth it” found that “…everyone wants you to forgive quickly so that they can feel more comfortable and they can move on.” I will discuss Sarah’s work more later, but what she has in common with these survivors was the impression that immediate forgiveness was something morally required. This ignores the role anger has in processing trauma.
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.(7) 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 to 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. However, whatever the internal reasoning, a common line of argument given by those who pressure victims to forgive is based in a misunderstanding of what anger and forgiveness is. Anger is seen as an ill-wish towards the perpetrator of the abuse.(8) Whilst this is often a product of anger, it is not a necessary part. Anger can be a way of recognizing harm.(9) Anger can also be a form of communication, seeking external validation and acknowledgement, and a call to action for the harm to stop.(10)
However, some philosophical accounts put the perpetrator and their relationship with the victim at the forefront of discussions on anger. For example, Nussbaum argues for unconditional love, as anger is wrong and even forgiveness itself is unkind in this account.(11) Pettigrove argues in favor of “meekness” in the face of appropriate anger, as anger is counter-productive.(12) Also, Radzik gives an account of anger and forgiveness geared towards the perpetrator’s redemption.(13)
Unfortunately, as illustrated by the first-hand accounts, what we see in reality is pressure to forgive used as a distraction from dealing with the abuse. As Cherry argues, moral praise of the forgiveness is often weaponized against the oppressed.(14) Whilst this manifests differently in a family scenario where harm interpersonal and not systemic, 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.(15) In Bella’s example, forgiveness was given as religious 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 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.(16)
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, which may entail letting go of anger in some cases. 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 understand this through Stanlick’s concept of reconciling with harm.(17) Stanlick concludes that in reconciling with harm the perpetrator of that harm can become irrelevant. When considering anger, it is very hard to separate anger from the perceived target of the anger, but it can be helpful. This is especially the case with sibling abuse because in many cases when the abuse takes place the perpetrator is only a child, though the impact on the victim can be just as bad as if any adult was the abuser. We have already seen that anger can be useful for a victim to understand their own abuse and communicate about it. 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 is part of the picture, I suggest that a way forward may be to see forgiveness as a potential part of psychological healing, but it should not be the goal in itself of healing from trauma.(18)
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. Anger is frequently inappropriately morally coded as automatically negative. Forgiveness, too, is inappropriately morally coded as the “correct” thing to do. Writer and speaker Sarah Montana describes her own process of coming to forgive the man who killed her mother and brother by first talking about how societal pressure to forgive leads to victims trying to forgive for the wrong reasons. In her 2018 TED talk she states “…you think that forgiving quickly will make you a good person…” In her case, forgiveness was something that helped her eventually, but common narratives around forgiveness were a substantial impediment to that process. Understanding forgiveness as a virtuous action led her to believing that to be a good person she had to forgive immediately, which did not lead to the benefit she later found in forgiveness.
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 is also growing acknowledgement of the way wrongful pressure to forgive makes forgiveness as a concept triggering. 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. Those who advocate in favour of forgiveness therapy, also argue that this should come alongside acknowledgement and expression of anger.(19) Acknowledgement of anger is also a growing part of restorative justice projects such as Hidden Water. These changes come 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. Survivors of chronic abuse it may experience emotional flashbacks 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 health problems associated with suppressing it.(20)
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 abuse have appeared in Psychology Today, BBC News Magazine, and the New York Times among others. Sadly, despite this increase in public awareness, victims still face significant barriers to help and prevention when compared with other types of bullying and violence. 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, there is the added barrier of stigma.
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 reconcile. 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: The Power of Women's Anger. Simon & Schuster Ltd.
Cherry, M. “Forgiveness, Exemplars, and the Oppressed.” In Kathryn J. Norlock (ed.), The Moral Psychology of Forgiveness (Maryland, USA, 2017), pp. 55-72.
---”The Errors and Limitations of our “Anger Evaluating” Ways.” In Myisha Cherry & Owen Flanagan (eds.), The Moral Psychology of Anger (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), pp. 49-65.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step by step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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: 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, no. 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, no. 3: 347-361.
Srinivasan, Amia (2018). “The Aptness of Anger.” Journal of Political Philosophy, 26, no. 2: 123-144.
Stanlick, N. (2010). “Reconciling With Harm: An Alternative To Forgiveness And Revenge.” Florida Philosophical Review 10, no. 1: 88-111.
- Some advocates of forgiveness as a therapeutic resource see experiencing anger as a necessary part of forgiveness e.g. Enright (2001)
- Caffro (2009)
- Srinivasan (2018)
- Rowntree (2007), McDonald & Martinez (2016)
- McDonald & Martinez (2016)
- McDonald & Martinez (2016)
- Srinivasan (2018)
- Nussbaum (2016)
- Lorde (1981)
- Srinivasan (2018)
- Nussbaum (2016)
- Pettigrove (2012)
- Radzik (2009)
- Cherry (2017)
- McDonald & Martinez (2016)
- Cf. Cherry (2018)
- Stanlick (2010)
- Though some advocate for forgiveness as a therapeutic goal (see Enright (2001)) those models of forgiveness still keep the victim’s healing as their main target.
- Enright (2001)