QUESTION: Last night my husband and I were arguing and I totally lost control. I began to humiliate him and say horrible things. When he would not respond, I poured water all over him. He then broke down and cried. He said that he can not live with me anymore. He says he has given up on us and refuses counseling. My outbursts have worsened over time. My father is an alcoholic and I was raised with violence. I am beginning to recognize that when I am out of control, I act like my father. I do not want to act this way and I am overwhelmed with a sense of guilt. Please give me advice on how to control my anger outbursts.
ANSWER: You are beginning to accept that you have internalized your father's actions. Under stress you will be vulnerable to resorting to this kind of threatening behavior as an attempt to release tension and/or get your way. The good news is that you have named it. Now it is your job to seek individual counseling and possible support groups for strategies to handle anger so that it does not continue to destroy your relationship.
Be aware that each time you lose control you enter a cycle of guilt followed by depression which may then be released in another rage attack, only to be followed by guilt once more ... and so on. Each time you lose control, you erode your self-esteem, which is the core problem. Rage of this nature usually serves to cover uncried tears of childhood and must be released safely. Safely releasing grief and rage will help ensure that you do not use others as your "punching bag".
Using some form of safe release for frustration, (such as using a cloth bat to hit a rag doll) may bring up the tears you have not been facing and has the added advantage that when you are done, you have not hurt anybody! This allows for emotional release of the primary feeling which then may bring further associations and memories that need your attention to heal and reorganize. When guilt and depression over lashing out no longer block this stream of association, you will have an opportunity for healing.
However, I do not recommend that you do this alone in the beginning. Use a compassionate witness to your process, preferably a professional counselor you trust. These are feelings which may frighten you. You have no doubt been alone with these feelings as a child. You should not repeat feeling them in isolation. Reaching out and sharing these experiences provides a safe framework for discharging pain, healing and finally reorganizing the part of your personality that responds to stress.
It will take time, but gradually you will be able to build a stronger sense of self which will include an ability to control your behavior when angry. Your healing requires the matrix of a therapeutic relationship of some kind, as you will need to experience another person's presence in the midst of pain in order to internalize that compassion, the same way you internalized your father's abuse. As this occurs, you will be able to offer others a more compassionate presence when you are frustrated.
Antidepressants (though largely overused) can prove dramatically effective in conjunction with therapy for some people. Theoretically, brain chemistry is thought to be "set" to an extent in childhood, particularly adolescence. When traumatic events are continuous in childhood, our neurochemistry can get sensitized to overreaction or "fight/flight" response. When rage feels like a physical reaction that is overpowering, it is sometimes the case that anti-depressants serve to readjust brain chemistry to non-crisis levels of adaptation. For this reason, it may be useful to consult a psychiatrist to treat the underlying depression, neurochemically, in concert with therapy aimed at safe expression, clarification and reorganization of your behavior.
When you are able to gain some control over your rage and learn new techniques and coping skills, it will become necessary to turn your attention to repairing the damage in the marriage. Couples' therapy will prove more effective at that time.
Your heightened awareness suggests that there is "no turning back". Your best ally right now is your ability to empathize with your husband and the full impact of your behavior. This shows some real capacity for change! Be kind to yourself, but follow through on therapeutic treatment. Your rage covers a deep seated depression that likely has been there since childhood. It is time to turn your attentions towards the source of your problem, rather than lashing out towards those you love.
Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. Dr. Peterson practices in Grass Valley and can be reached at: (530) 346-6942, or through her website: www.AskDrGayle.com. She is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. She is a clinical member of The Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a Diplomate with the National Association of Social Work. She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine. Her "Ask Dr. Gayle" column appears monthly in the bay area's Parents Press newspaper.