As a therapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, I have worked a lot with people who struggle with communication. Often when people grow up in abusive homes, they will learn to become an indirect communicator. If someone’s experience is that it is not safe to be direct, they will learn other ways to communicate in order to keep themselves safe. Examples of indirect communication include denying or minimizing, expecting people to read our minds, withholding in order to please other people, or using humor or sarcasm as a defense. Indirect communication can often lead to feeling misunderstood, upset, or unheard. Sometimes people will result to passive aggressive communication as a means of expressing themselves. This can lead others to feel resentful and can impede intimacy.
Anger- A Useful Emotion
One intervention I use in therapy is working with people on allowing themselves to get in touch with their anger. Anger can be a very physiologically powerful emotion and as a society we tend to fear anger. I’ve had several clients refer to anger as a “negative emotion”. While it can absolutely feel this way, I reframe this by sharing that every emotion is useful and has a purpose. Anger is part of our built in survival kit that helps keep us alive.
Often times when people are afraid of anger, they repress it. The problem with repressed emotions is that they will come out in some way. Sometimes repressed emotions can result in eating disorders, alcohol use, depression, anxiety, or even physical pain. When we are able to identify our anger and process it, we are able to move forward and let it go. I often see people cover up their anger with guilt. I worked with a patient recently who swore that if he acknowledged his anger it would be harmful to everyone around him which he felt guilty about. When people grow up in violence, anger can be a frightening experience because violence has been attached to the anger of those around them. One technique that can be helpful in managing anger is writing a letter to the person we are angry at but not sending it. That way we are able to get out our emotion without causing harm to others. Another effective way of managing anger is to work on being assertive without being aggressive. When we are able to appropriately share what we are feeling and our needs, we are much more likely to get our needs met.
While it may seem counterintuitive for a therapist specializing in domestic violence to suggest getting in touch with your anger, I want to point out that there is a huge difference between anger and violence. Anger is an appropriate emotion that everyone experiences. Violence is not an acceptable manifestation of anger and there are many ways of expressing anger that do not include violence.
Communication in Intimate Relationships
When I work with couples where one or both individuals have experienced trauma, I encourage each person to work on owning what is theirs. Often in relationships, we project things onto our partners that have little or nothing to do with them (i.e. fears of abandonment, helplessness). It is important to be able to own one’s thoughts and fears and make space for them. Another challenge couples struggle with is being able to effectively communicate their needs. When we are unable to communicate our needs, there’s a very low likelihood that they will be met. Although our wants and desires are not always rational, when we can make space for our irrational thoughts, we can begin to feel more human in relationships and feel more accepted as imperfect human beings.
Another thing I work with couples on is being conscious of the language we use. Language can be very intimate and bring us closer but it can also be used as a weapon to impede intimacy and get further apart. “I’m anxious and feeling unheard” is much more vulnerable than “F you, you’re an a-hole” but the vulnerability provides a space to build intimacy and grow rather than pushing the other person away. Sometimes we will use extreme language to make sure we are heard but doing this can push others away or leave them feeling helpless. When we directly state our feelings and our needs we are more likely to be heard and our needs are more likely to get met.
While learning to communicate can be difficult and feel odd, it is an essential part of being a functional adult and having intimacy with others. Direct communication can help us feel heard and understood and feel more fulfilled in our relationships.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors.