The ambivalence of people with childhood trauma: the importance of embracing complex emotions towards parents

Most of the people have experience of having mixed emotions towards someone.  A client of mine was frequently being criticized and physicall abused by her father in childhood.  When she talked about this in the therapy session, she experienced anger towards her father.  She thought that what her father did to her was unacceptable and harmful.  However, she felt guilty for feeling angry towards him.  She mentioned that her father sacrificed a lot to earn enough money for her to study abroad.  Even though her father was abusive in her childhood, she felt that her father loves her.  She felt ambivalent for her mixed feelings and intended to avoid feeling angry towards her father.  Is it healthy for this client to suppress her anger towards her father due to her guilt?  Is it that we should only have one-sided emotions towards our parents?

It is common for people to have dichotomous thinking that as our parents love us and take care of us throughout our childhood, feeling angry at them is ungrateful and evil.  Many people think that we should only have one-sided emotion towards our loved ones.  In fact, it is common for us to have mixed feelings towards someone close to us.  For those with childhood trauma, awareness and expression of adaptive anger is healthy for the healing process.  Adaptive anger is a direct reaction to real threats.  This anger response towards maltreatment quickly mobilizes self-protect resources and action.  In fact, feeling angry towards parents whom abused ones does not mean that ones do not love them.  The adaptive anger is targeted at their act of abuse but not at the whole persons. 

For those with childhood trauma, it may not be appropriate to express anger towards their parents due to various reasons.  For instance, due to individual limitations, ones’ parents may not be able to understand ones’ anger towards them.  Furthermore, it is also difficult for those who are still depending on their parents to express their adaptive anger.  In these cases, it may be more appropriate to deal with ones’ anger towards parents in psychotherapy.  It is not healthy to suppress or avoid anger towards parents in the theurapeutic process.

In both therapy session and real life, the healthy expression of adaptive anger is being assertive and owning one’s angry experience.  It is not appropriate to express anger in an aggressive, passive or indirect way.  Inappropriate expression of anger may lead to ones’ needs for respectful treatment or boundary setting being unmet.  It is important that the intensity of the expression of anger be appropriate to the situations. 

Paradoxically, it is only when ones healthily expressing adaptive anger towards ones’ parents’ abusive behaviors, ones can embrace mixed feelings towards them.  As a result, ones become awareness of the existence of different emotions, such as love, gratitude, anger and sadness, towards ones’ parents.  It is only when the anger towards parents of those with childhood trauma being dealt with, so that new meaning in their relationships with parents can be created.  Surprising, ones may cultivate a even healthier relationships with ones’ parents as a result.

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