Where is My Anger Coming From?

Dr. Henry Cloud’s work has helped me out a lot in this whole process — especially his book, Necessary Endings. That book taught me about the three kinds of people: the wise, the foolish, and the evil.

Not only that, he’s Christian and backs all this up with biblical references.  There’s backup for my choice, right there in the bible.  Not that that matters to me, but it ought to matter to some people:

If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them. For people like that have turned away from the truth, and their own sins condemn them.

Titus 3:10-11

A brief recap:

A wise person

The wise person sees the light and adjusts
Diagnosis: Is this someone who listens?

The evil people

The evil people intend to destroy.  For this post I’m not going into detail about this category.

A fool

A fool shoots the messenger
The problem is never in the room, unless it’s you
When the light comes, the fool gets angry
A fool hates knowledge (Proverbs 1:22) and takes no pleasure in understanding (18:2). They defend themselves (and their ideas) even when they aren’t attacked.

  • Not listening
  • Don’t talk
  • Hope doesn’t come from more talking

[Fools] may be very bright and gifted. This is why they’ve gotten as far as they have… But here’s the problem. With the wise person, when the light comes, they adjust themselves to the light. With a fool, when the light shows up, they adjust the light. It hurts their eyes. They’re allergic to it. They try to dim it and they try to adjust the truth. The wise man changes himself; the fool tries to change the truth. “This wasn’t a big deal.” “It’s not like that.” Or, they shoot the messenger.

Whenever you give feedback to someone, and the first reflective move is defensiveness, let that be a warning sign. They are squinting. They deny that it’s reality, they minimize it, they externalize it, they shoot the messenger. They aren’t happy to hear it, and a lot of times they get angry. You become the problem.

Not only is this the ongoing problem in this “family” who minimize and externalize the problem of their behavior like nobody’s business — this is also what happened in The Susan Incident that started the whole damned thingI gave feedback, and the reality of Susan’s bad behavior was denied, minimized, externalized.  Susan and Joe weren’t happy to hear what I had to say, and they got angry, and I became the problem.  Ta-da!

Every time you talk to a person like this, they do not own it.

When you get hopeless about that with them, that is one of the best things you can do… [A wise responsible person] initially has hope that the person will start listening. But this person just keeps not listening.
You gotta give up here.

Here’s what the Bible says, and all research validates: “With a wise person, talk to them. They will love you for it and listen and get better.”

But then the Bible changes its tone. It says “do not correct a fool, lest you incur insults upon yourself.” These verses describe reality like you’ve never seen it before. They say: “Here’s your strategy: Stop talking.” Why? They have stopped listening. Their allergy to reality is now in charge.

Here is the principle: Fools don’t change when truth comes to them, but only when the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain of changing.  (I remember having a conversation about exactly this idea with my oldest brother, at that last reunion, before I said to hell with this.  They are indeed bright enough to understand all this.  They just won’t own it.)

The challenge here is to limit your exposure, make it clear about the consequences, give them a choice, and follow through. Need to say “I need someone in this position that can hear reality. I hope that’s you. I want you to be in that chair. But that’s what that chair is going to require, and you get to make the choice.


So much of that was essential in helping me understand (after the fact) that I did make the right choices.  I went about it in an angry, upset way, and not the best way that I could have done it.  But the gist of what I did had the right, healthy instincts.

Anger is a normal response to what I experienced.  But now I find another reference from Dr. Cloud that helps explain the anger from a different perspective.  I’m just going to quote this one in its entirety:


“Many people conceal their negative feelings of anger, sadness, and fear. These people are unable to cope with good and bad because they have never processed these negative feelings, and they suffer from many problems, such as fear of relationships, depressions, and anxiety as a result. Negative feelings are valid, and they must be dealt with so they won’t cause problems.

“Anger, our most basic negative emotion, tells us that something is wrong. We tend to protect the good we don’t want to lose. Anger is a signal that we are in danger of losing something that matters to us. When people are taught to suppress their anger, they are taught to be out of touch with what matters to them. It is good to feel angry because anger warns us of danger and shows us what needs protecting. But, we are not to be mean or abusive in our attempt to solve a problem. This would mean to resolve it in some unloving way and would ultimately hurt us as well as each other.

I lost something important to me.  I lost my father, and then my whole family.  And I didn’t go about trying to solve this problem in a loving way.  I was angry and hurt and shamed to learn that people in my so-called FAMILY had LIED to others in my family about me, about what happened and about what they did.  That people had been told, and BELIEVED, that I was the one wholly responsible for the fight the day after Dad died — when I was responsible for none of it.

I had been betrayed, lied about, to people who ought to have given me some benefit of the doubt, if they loved me — who ought to have sought me out, who ought to have cared about, asked about, and believed my side of the story — who, when told my side of the story, doubled down on their original mistake — ignored it, and acted like it didn’t matter — one brother in fact told me I ought to have done things differently, when in fact the “differently” was EXACTLY WHAT I DID DO, and yet when apprised of that fact, that he had been lied to about what happened, that didn’t seem to change a thing.

These were people who beforehand claimed they WOULD do all these things — turns out all that bullshit talk about “cutting each other slack” was just so much hot air.  I had, and have, absolutely every justification for being angry.

What they don’t have is justification for being defensive about what they did, for saying they “did nothing wrong”, for not sincerely saying they were sorry, for saying that my feelings didn’t matter, were wrong, for always trying to make me the one at fault.  They don’t own what they did.  And the reason — going back to the beginning of this post — is that it isn’t painful enough for them to do so.

The loss of me as part of the family isn’t painful enough for them to change.

The other threats:  facing up to the truth of what really happened when Dad died, who really did what, facing up to having been wrong all these years, having to admit to their little sister that they were wrong and have treated her so badly, facing up to the lies that were told about me by Susan and Joe — facing up to all that is far too painful for them.

In other words, they fear that whatever loss of “family” or loss of face that will result from actually addressing this issue will be so painful to them, that it’s hugely preferable to let me experience that loss and pain instead
e.g. the pain of losing my whole family.

And I guess I can understand that, but it still makes me the scapegoat one final time.

It just doesn’t matter how painful it is for me.  They choose to save their own skins and leave me to drown.

I suspect the reason Susan got so very angry the next day was rooted in her own loss of her father at a very young age.  Fine, I can understand that, and even empathize with that.  But you know what?  You have a responsibility to work on your own shit, FOR THE VERY REASON THAT IT’S NOT COOL TO VOMIT IT ALL OVER SOMEONE ELSE TO MAKE YOURSELF FEEL BETTER.  And if you don’t work on it, and you do take it out on someone else, you need to own up to that and apologize.  And keep apologizing, sincerely and truthfully, until you have assuaged the hurt that you caused, and rebuilt the trust that you demolished.

“Major consequences for denying our angry feelings range all the way from psychophysiological disorders, such as headaches and ulcers, to character disorders, such as passive-aggressions, to the inability to work, to serious depression and panic.

Any way you look at it, denying anger keeps one from getting problems solved.

“Another problem with denying anger is that it turns into bitterness and leads to a critical and unforgiving spirit. Instead of denying anger, we must own it and find its source. As we examine our anger, we can find out what we are trying to protect. Anger may be protecting an injured vulnerability or a will that was controlled. We may be under condemnation from someone and need to get out from under perfectionism. Whatever the source, anger tells you there is a problem, and it should never be denied.

We may discover that our anger is protecting something bad, such as pride, omnipotence, control or perfectionism. Maybe we feel angry because we are losing control of another person. In either case, if we deny our anger, we can’t get to the source. Anger, then, is helpful because it is a sign something is being protected, either good or bad.”

Traumatic Loss

A Crisis of Meaning

In grief, mourners often experience a “loss of meaning,” some way in which the order of the world is disrupted and must be mended again. This commonly occurs because we have, consciously or unconsciously, held an important “meaning” story related to that which we’ve lost, be it a person, a job or perhaps cherished items stolen from us by a house fire or theft. We feel the sudden void left by this vanishing, and a sense of meaninglessness can ensue.

When it comes to traumatic loss, the crisis of meaning can be profound. Trauma is identified as a special circumstance precisely because of its ability to undermine meaning, destroy one’s sense of “self” and cause entire belief systems to collapse.

Philosophers, psychologists and other “thinkers” aside, most of us don’t spend too much time identifying and evaluating the myriad assumptions and beliefs we hold that describe our view of “how the world is supposed to be.” We operate in a universe to which we have, usually largely unconsciously, ascribed a set of rules and orders.

A traumatic loss is often one that strips away the veil of our illusions and shows us a world that has much less structure and predictability in it than we’ve come to rely upon.

Life can suddenly become terrifying — or just random and empty. Where we once we may have looked upon difficult situations with some sense of optimism, we may instead… see with startling and cruel clarity that we can’t take anything for granted anymore, and sometimes this awareness initiates an existential crisis. This often manifests as profound wondering, with great heartache or cynicism, about the meaning and purpose of life and feeling reluctant to make close connection with others. People struggling with an existential crisis often say, to themselves or others, “What’s the point if we’re all just going to die anyway?”

This crisis may be understood as a significant challenge: To resolve it poorly can result in chronic, persistent feelings of depression or anxiety; to resolve it effectively means to come to acceptance of life’s unpredictability and learn to embrace the present moment, perhaps even allowing one to cherish life and relationships more than ever.

Although most of us have the innate ability to pass through grief and heal from loss, a crisis of meaning is one that often requires some help from others to successfully overcome. Counselors, pastors, spiritual mentors and thoughtful philosophical friends may all be of help in this situation.

(But not family.  Not THIS “family”, at any rate.)


…the main power that transforms such events from upsetting experiences into trauma can be found within the stories we tell. Trauma tends to undermine preciously held belief systems, be they naive (e.g., “Bad things only happen to bad people”) or more complex (e.g., “I am capable of defending myself”).

When a belief system collapses in the face of disturbing and powerful contradictory evidence, narratives of shock, injury, loss and despair often emerge first from the powerful emotional and psychological fallout. These stories are real and meaningful. Alas, when they dwell primarily in the wounding and do not evolve, they tend to embed trauma more deeply and reframe our worldview with afflictive perspectives that serve as a barrier to healing.

Recovery involves a widening of the narrative lens, an exploration of alternative ways to look at what happened. It’s not about spinning a yarn of fantasy; new fictions are undermined just as easily, if not more so, than the original belief. Rather, it becomes about exploring the trauma fallout for even bigger and more powerful themes that often emerge from traumatic events: of personal or community resiliency, shared humanity, the grace of survival, transcendence, transformation.

Find Compassion and Forgiveness 

To the injured, ideas of compassion and forgiveness often sound like exoneration of the perpetrator that could allow traumatizing behaviors to continue unfettered. To the contrary, when it comes to trauma recovery, compassion and forgiveness are tremendous sources of healing that transcend traditional notions of assessing fault and of the guilty making their contritions.

One hard truth about trauma is that many who suffer it never get to confront the sources of it…

In the end, we must learn to release ourselves from the grips of our own anger and outrage. For this, there is a tried-and-true cure: compassion and forgiveness.

Compassion is often defined as a deeply empathic response to the suffering of others. Indeed, it can be helpful to seek understanding of those who caused the trauma we experienced…

Often in trauma recovery, the greatest compassion we need is for ourselves… we may need to show ourselves kindness and compassion in recovery from hurt and injury, releasing expectations we may have about being who we “used to be.”

And forgiveness? Well, it is most important to differentiate that forgiveness is not the same as condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning or promoting the undesired behaviors or events that transpired. Rather, it is about releasing deeply held afflictive feelings about them, such as wishing them harm or the desire to seek revenge.

When we set down bitter and acrimonious feelings, we spare ourselves. We cease to deplete precious resources of energy otherwise used to maintain these feelings. Forgiveness is the process not by which we let the perpetrator off the hook; it’s the means by which we liberate ourselves from the lingering effects of their deeds.


If trauma is the experience of having one’s worldview intimately undermined or damaged in some way, it’s generally impossible to return to the old way of seeing things. We discover the world is not as we assumed, and the heart aches in acknowledging it.


“A loss is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the loss as preventable; or if the survivor regards the loss, or manner of loss, as unfair and unjust.”

After a Traumatic Loss One May Experience:
Shattered assumptions about the world, themselves, and others: 

Many people live with the assumption that the world is a predictable, fair, and just place.  They believe that they are in control, that they are generally safe and secure, and that other people can be trusted.  Experiencing a traumatic loss, something that feels profoundly meaningless and unjust, can shatter each of these assumptions and lead to a sense that the world is unsafe and unpredictable, that others are malicious and evil, and that one is powerless in protecting themselves. 

( At least from a certain, formerly trusted, group of people.)

Ruminations:  

It is common to ruminate about a loss regardless of the circumstances.  However, someone who has experienced a traumatic loss might experienced increased rumination as they seek to answer questions such as…

  • Why did this happen?
  • Who is to blame?
  • Could this loss have been prevented?
  • What is the meaning, reason, or purpose for all of this?

Unfortunately, many people fail to find the answers they are searching for and they continue to struggle with the randomness and senselessness of the loss.

Poor social support:  

Evidence suggests that social support can reduce the impact of stressful life events.  Sadly, after a loss many people don’t receive effective support for a number of reasons.  This is especially true after a traumatic loss when the enduring impact of acute grief can last much longer than society has been taught to expect it.  A few reasons why people do not receive effective support after a loss include:

  • People don’t know how to provide grief support
  • People make comments that minimize grief, discourage expression of grief and discussion of loved ones, and push mourners to move on
  • The bereaved may be inclined to physically and emotionally isolate, especially when they feel misunderstood by others
  • The bereaved may feel they feel ashamed, abnormal, or weak because they continue to struggle
  • The bereaved may seek support from therapists who are not trained in grief and/or trauma
  • (The bereaved may have had their entire lifelong support system turn on them.)

First, let’s do a refresher on what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t.  There are many definitions of forgiveness, but the one we prefer is:

A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her” (Enright et al in Enright and North 1998).

Some important points there – forgiveness does NOT mean excusing something or eliminating the mistake.  It means you make decisions about what to let go of and what to hold on to.

(Choose to let go of unloving, unsupportive, hostile people, regardless of cultural notions of family or “blood”.)


The problem isn’t the missing witness, but the missing listener

Missing in most cases is not the witness, but the conscientious listener.  A survivor can know her own trauma without others to hear it, but healing takes place when someone listens carefully, over and over and over again.

An understanding listener will be present tomorrow and the days after that.  It’s not the narrative that heals, it’s the relationship with the people who listen, ask questions, make small talk when necessary, while remaining a trusted and reliable presence.  It is the attachment to this trusted presence who is willing to hear the unspeakable that heals.

…a relationship with someone who cares and listens to the victim’s testimony over and over again heals.  

…trauma cannot be told unless there is someone there to listen. 

It’s essential to talk about it, again and again. It’s a way of remastering the trauma, although it can be retraumatizing when people refuse to listen. In my case, each time someone failed to respond I felt as though I were alone again in the ravine, dying, screaming. And still no one could hear me. Or, worse, they heard me, but refused to help.

Listening well and carefully, being present and available over some period of time–that too is a type of love.  It can be given by a friend, a spouse, a support group, or a therapist.

…we really don’t want to hear them… Of course, sometimes the traumatized say that their experiences are indescribable.  Sometimes they say this when they don’t want to talk about it.  Other times when they are afraid no one will really listen, an experience familiar to many.

Severe trauma is an accident of private history, even if it takes place within a world historical context, such as war.  But finding meaning and purpose in life is not a private act.  It requires others who care enough to listen.

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Traumatic Bonding

One question my husband has that I could never really answer is,

So why do these people matter so much to you?  You have nothing in common, you rarely see them, you never talk to them — why do they matter?

The answer, I think, is traumatic bonding.

For me, a milder form than what you’ll find if you google the term.  It usually refers to the reason why abused or battered women stay with their abuser.  But its definition is “Trauma bonding is loyalty to a person [for me, persons] who is destructive.”

I think it probably has its roots in the fact that my primary caregiver, my mother, completely disappeared twice during the first year of my life, for a month each time.

Each time I was abandoned by the one person that I was supposedly bonding to, the person who was supposed to care for me and keep me safe (although I have no idea, and no way to find out, how much of that she was actually doing — given that she was hospitalized for some unknown combination of mental illness, severe depression, and probably a psychotic break to start it all off).

Each time, that care was then provided by other people in my family:  namely, my father and three oldest siblings.

So on some level, I learned very early and very deep down that siblings (and my father) were very important.  They were who you had to rely on to take care of you when you were abandoned.

On some level also, I believe I learned in my early years that you had better not ask them, or my mother, for too much:  you better not bug them or they might get mad and stop taking care of you.

But, they were my family, and they were important to my survival.  And because they more-or-less took care of me, I thought they loved me and would always do so.

When my father died — the ultimate abandonment — and my siblings acted otherwise, that very deep belief was hugely betrayed, and became a moral injury.

Some other features of a traumatic bond:

You seem unable to detach from someone even though you can’t trust them or really don’t even like them.

There is a constant pattern of nonperformance, yet you continue to believe promises to the contrary…  Victims stay because they are holding on to that elusive “promise”…or hope for fulfillment of some deeply personal need within the victim…

You keep trying to do more and more to please [them], but nothing you do is ever good enough or acknowledged.

I believed in my younger days that if I wrote more letters, made regular phone calls, tried harder, got older — one day I’d finally do or be whatever it was I had to do to be “in the club”.

The promise here wasn’t a spoken one, but I saw the bonds that my older siblings had, and I was a sibling too, right?  So I’m supposed to be part of the family, right?  That’s automatic when you are born, right?

I still remember one trip my oldest brother made out here, when he and his wife brought her elderly parents out to see an uncle, I think it was, for what was obviously going to be a final visit.  The plane was horribly delayed, they didn’t get into town until very late, everyone was tired and hungry.  I think they were supposed to drive to the uncle’s house that night, but it was far too late for that.  So they came to our house.  My husband and I fed them a spaghetti dinner, put them all up for the night, and took care of them.  It wasn’t that much to do, but they were, naturally, very grateful.  I was so pleased to be able to do something for them, and be appreciated in return.  And it was perhaps the only time I can remember feeling like an adult, an equal, around one of my siblings.

The environment necessary to create a trauma bond involves intensity, complexity, inconsistency, and a promise.  Usually trauma bonds occur in relationships involving inconsistent reinforcement… Dysfunctional marriages also cause trauma bonds because there is always a time when things seem to be “normal.”

There were always times when we seemed to be a fairly normal, even happy, family.  There were good times.  There was fun and laughter.  My sister remembered birthdays and sent presents and so on.  There was enough of a “keeping up appearances” to fool me.  Then again, there was the lack of warmth, my inability to make her laugh, the casual remark by one of her daughters that made it clear she did not like me.

So often, those in a traumatic relationship are “looking right at it, but can’t see it.”  Only after time away from the unhealthy attachment can a person begin to see the destruction it caused.  In essence, people need to “detox” from trauma bonds by breaking them and staying away from the relationship.

An interesting list:  again, written about women in abusive spousal relationships but I can see some connections.

1. You think being treated badly is normal.

2. You have repetitive fights about the same thing, over and over, and no one ever wins, there’s never any insight.

5. You’re in love with the fantasy, not the reality.

6. “Auuuughhh!!!” You often feel like Charlie Brown, who repeatedly kicks the football that Lucy holds, only to have her pull it out at the last minute. The idea that THIS TIME he won’t pull the football continues to have power despite his always pulling the football and you always landing on your back.

I kept going to the reunions for a few years, thinking that things would get better.  They did not.

7. Conversion. You keep trying to “convert” your spouse into someone who treats you right, “convince” him to behave differently, or “prove” yourself to him. You think if only you can “prove” yourself, everything will be different. You try to get him to “understand” that what he does/says is hurtful to you. If only he would “understand”!

Probably what this blog is about.  Also, You continue to ruminate over the hurtful things your partner did, even though they might be out of the picture now.”

8. You don’t like him. You “love” your spouse, but you don’t like, respect, or even want to be around him.

They are all conservative; religious; some are bigoted and racist and mysogynist.  As my husband pointed out, they aren’t people I’d choose to socialize with.

10. Obsession. If you do manage to break away from your spouse, you obsess and long to the point of nostalgia about the horrible relationship you got away from and that almost destroyed you.

It’s not this dramatic, but I do get nostalgic and lonely at holidays and birthdays and so on.  Another source says “obsess means to be preoccupied, fantasize about, and wonder about even though you do not want to“.  That is a lot closer to my experience.

That same source lists these symptoms, among others:

  • When you want to be understood by those who clearly do not care.
  • When you choose to stay in conflict with others when it would cost you
    nothing to walk away.
  • When you persist in trying to convince people there is a problem and they
    won’t listen.
  • When you continue contact with an abuser who acknowledges no
    responsibility.

Of course, the first item in the list of strategies is “no contact”.

Strangely, growing up in an emotionally unsafe home makes later emotionally unsafe situations have more holding power… traumatized people often respond positively to a dangerous person or situation because it feels natural to them.

I don’t know that it is so strange though.  What is familiar always feels comfortable, on some level.  Why is Susan such a natural fit for that family?  Because she is as unhealthy as our mother was.  I’m not the only person in this group who has a trauma bond.

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There’s A Name For It

In the 4 years or so that I have been working on this family’s problem — researching, learning about relationships and what can go wrong with them, trying to find the truth of things or at least exposing the biases — I have often had the experience of coming across a new word or phrase that perfectly describes something that happened in my FOO.  And every time, I think, “There it is.  It has a name.

Names are important.  Their existence shows that these things do happen, and they happen regularly, and they happen to other people, other families, as well as ours.

We are not “special”.  Our family’s story is not some weird anomaly that can’t possibly be understood by anyone else — it is in fact very well understood, and it is pathological.  It is not some unique form of “normal” that can only be understood, in Joe’s words, by someone who knows the “history of the family and personalities involved”.

If the story that’s being told can’t stand up to impartial, outside scrutiny, it’s not normal.  (But abused children often think abuse is “normal”, because abuse is all they know.)

Not only do these things happen — they are known to have harmful, lasting effects.  I am speaking of narcissism and NPD, parentification, parental alienation, blame-shifting, invalidation, scapegoating — just to name a few of my new words.  Narcissism and blame-shifting are known to be damaging to relationships.  Scapegoats are known to be the ones who seek out the truth.  Parental alienation is destructive to a child who naturally wants to love both parents.  Invalidation disrespects and destroys a person and a relationship.

Parentification often happens to the oldest child – especially if they are the same sex as the parent who is abdicating their proper role – and “The adultified child takes on responsibilities in the hope that it will hold the family together by keeping mom and dad around.

My siblings manage to ignore all this information, or explain it away somehow.  I don’t know how most of them do it;  there is one brother who simply insists that I am wrong about practically everything I write.

Which leads me to another term I learned in all of this:  “cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who… is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values,” and that one of the four methods of dissonance reduction, and probably the simplest, is to “Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs.”

Ta-da.  There it is.  It has a name.


Anyway, the point is, I’ve learned about a lot of concepts that definitely do exist, that are studied and well understood, and that explain most, if not all, of what happened in my FOO.

Up until now, though, I never had a word for what happened to me the morning after my father died, when Joe and Susan attacked me for daring to complain about Susan’s inappropriate behavior the night before — other than that I found out it is called a narcissistic rage attack, which explains what they did, but not what I experienced as a result.

Neither of my therapists diagnosed me with anything very specific.  “Therapeutic services” was the billing code the second, better and more experienced one, used.

Adjustment disorder” was the billing code used by the first one — who I went to for grief counseling, and who I think was not familiar with NPD, and the complicated family problems I presented as a result.

“Adjustment disorder is a group of symptoms… that can occur after you go through a stressful life event… Your reaction is stronger than expected for the type of event that occurred.”

I still remember how she was as mystified as I was, the day she exclaimed, “But you’re not even allowed to defend yourself!”  Knowing what I know now, it is clear that what I was going through was more than just normal grief over the loss of my parents — and to someone who did not understand NPD and its effects on others, of course it would appear that my reaction was stronger than expected.


It is obvious that the initial experience was traumatic.  There was, of course, the death of the only real, caring parent I had.  Then being yelled at, at the top of their lungs, inches from my face, less than 12 hours after the death of my father, by two members of what was supposed to be a family, who all claimed before the fact that they were going to be supportive, especially of me – pretty damned traumatizing, I should think.

And then the aftermath, where they lied to everyone else, blamed me, threw me under the bus, and no one thought twice about what might have really happened – also pretty damned traumatizing.

And finally, that last reunion – when I was physically ignored, yelled at again, and began to understand just how the rest of the family actually viewed the whole incident.  Up until then, I had thought that they knew what really happened, but chose to simply sweep it under the rug for Joe & Susan’s benefit.  (That would have been bad and unhealthy, sure — but it would also have been “normal” in the context of our family and the ever-present hierarchy of age.)

I didn’t realize until then that Joe and Susan had lied about what happened, and that they all believed those lies:  they believed that I had started it, deliberately picked a fight, that I was entirely to blame for it, and that they in fact believed they were being rather magnanimous in not holding my supposed behavior against me!  Rather traumatizing to not only have the original incident thrown back in my face, but to realize that their view of it, and me, was even worse than I had thought.

So, for a while, I looked at the idea of PTSD.  I found out there is something called “complex PTSD“, which is quite different from “classic” PTSD.  “Situations include… psychological manipulation (gaslighting and/or false accusations)… Forms of trauma associated with C-PTSD… [include] emotional abuse…repeated or prolonged traumas in which there is an actual or perceived inability for the victim to escape.”

That had some commonalities with what I had experienced, and for a while I wondered if I had been a whole lot more screwed up than I realized, by the early separations from my mother, and her neglect and disinterest — but it didn’t quite fit.  PTSD is a fear-based reaction, and I’m not afraid.

Now, I think I’ve found it.  It even fits in with PTSD, in a way, but it is different.  By reading about PTSD and soldiers and veterans, I learned about moral injury.


Depending on who you ask, this idea is either new or old.  “It’s a new term but not a new concept.  Moral injury is as timeless as war — going back to when Ajax thrust himself upon his sword on the shores of Troy…

Yet the term, and the idea, is very new, at least in the treatment of PTSD and other mental health issues of soldiers and veterans.  Most of the work I have found on this is written in this context (probably because the military is where there’s plenty of funding, and by the nature of the beast they are at least somewhat focused on mental health).

One definition is “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”  However, this definition doesn’t take into account the effects on the person who actually experienced the act.

Another definition doesn’t rule it out:  Like psychological trauma, moral injury… describes extreme and unprecedented life experience including the harmful aftermath of exposure to such events. Events are considered morally injurious if they “transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth.”

Moral injury is … a sense that their fundamental understanding of right and wrong has been violated, and the grief, numbness or guilt that often ensues.

“…the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation... Moral injuries… have to do with failing to hold yourself or others to account.

“…[people] can be morally injured by the transgression of peers and leaders who betray expectations in egregious ways.

One expert is a Dr. Shay, who introduced the clinical concept.  And his definition is that moral injury can happen when “there is a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation.”  Bingo.

Dr. Shay also talks of “authority perceived as violating what is “right” or “fair,” keeping in mind the extreme dependence combat Veterans have upon one another for survival.”  Well, when I was very young, and my mother was hospitalized, I learned on some level that I had to depend on these people for survival.

Finally, this definition actually includes a potential victim:  …“moral injury” refers to the emotional and spiritual impact of participating in, witnessing, and/or being victimized by actions and behaviors which violate a [person’s] core moral values and behavioral expectations of self or others.

What happened the night my father died, and the day after, pretty much blew away the concept I had had of my “family” as a group of decent, healthy, moral people who could hold it together and maintain a reasonable amount of self-control in a time of crisis.

I never thought they were people who would treat a family member the way they treated me:  screaming at me, leaning down to shout directly in my face, with the accompanying threat of physical violence implied by that invasion of personal space.

Or, if they had been triggered by that crisis, and did behave so badly, they would own up to it, apologize, and try to make amends.  They would be honest, responsible adults.

I never thought that my “family” were people who would ignore what I politely asked for in a time of crisis.  That they were people who would deliberately lie about another family member to cover up their transgressions.

And what happened at and after the 2012 reunion destroyed the idea that my “family” would at least TRY to step up and do the right thing in a difficult situation.

That was when I found out that whatever else they might do in other situations, whatever else they might be capable of, however moral and decent they may be in other facets of their lives — they won’t do it for me.

That was when I figured out that I didn’t have a “family”.  At least, not one that was healthy enough to give me the respect, love, and acceptance that I was asking for.  My FOO was one where, when I asked for these things, instead I was ignored, invalidated, or criticized.  Maybe it is a functional family among the “right” people; I wouldn’t know, because I’m not in that club.  What I know is that it is a group of people who are incapable of doing the right thing for my sake.  I’m not important enough to them.

disruption in an individual’s confidence and expectations about one’s own or others’ motivation or capacity to behave in a just and ethical manner

Moral injury does not, by its nature, present itself immediately. Some will experience questions of moral injury days after an incident; for many others, difficulties will not surface for years.

“Moral injury usually stems from a precise moment in a [person’s] experience… It’s about reconciling that event that sticks with you… And it’s also about reconnecting with a moral community, feeling connected to your fellow man.

Between those two experiences — that day in 2000, when my dad died, and that day in 2012, at the reunion — I lost my whole experience of “family”, the people I was connected to by blood, that I had been connected to for my entire life.

Two dozen people, gone from my life.

“Transgressions can arise from… the behavior of othersAn act of serious transgression that is at odds with core ethical and moral beliefs is called moral injuryBetrayal on either a personal or an organizational level can also act as a precipitant.”

It’s not a mental illness or failure to cope:

“Distinct from pathology, moral injury is a normal human response to an abnormal event.

It is the loss of trust:

“Both flavors of moral injury impair and sometimes destroy the capacity for trust. When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.

In my case, I got the reality first, and now I have the settled expectation.

I got the reality of being treated like shit at the worst time in my whole young life, by the one group of people in your whole life that you’re always, ALWAYS supposed to be able to count on, for anything, any time, anywhere.  The ones who were older and supposed to be oh-so-much wiser.

And, I got the reality that there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

“With this expectancy, there are few options: strike first; withdraw and isolate oneself from others (e.g., Achilles); or create deceptions, distractions, false identities, and narratives to spoil the aim of what is expected (e.g., Odysseus).”

I tried the latter option — to “get over it” — hiding my pain from the wrongs done to me, censoring my feelings, my thoughts, my opinions, my beliefs, in order to “fit in” and not do damage to the “family”.

To accept the act of Susan violently, viciously vomiting her psychological shit all over me RIGHT AFTER THE DEATH OF MY FATHER — traumatizing me, leaving me to deal with it for years and years — and to pretend that it never happened — so that she, and everyone else, can also pretend that it never happened (or if it did happen, it was my fault) and she can pretend that she’s still perfectly perfect.

Never mind that it DID happen.  Never mind what it did to me.  Never mind that if she gets to be perfect, what’s left for me to be is only the flaws.

I was supposed to allow them to continue to treat me as second-class, as a scapegoat, as if my feelings and my pain and my trauma and my humiliation didn’t matter as much as hers.  When it was MY father who had died – MINE.

What is misunderstood is that if this is what the group needs me to do in order to not sustain damage, it’s already really, really fucked up.

After realizing this painful truth, I finally chose the other option, to get away from the toxic people, and the ones I no longer trust, the ones who consider themselves above wrongdoing, the ones who are so very perfect that they would never humble themselves so far as to apologize to ME.

Because to the special arrogance of the Triumvirate, that would be unbelievably humiliating.

And finally, one bullet point that sums up most of what I have felt about this for the past 4 years:

“Emotional responses may include… Anger about betrayal-based moral injuries.”

It feels so good to finally have a name for it.


Even better, it feels GREAT to discover that I’ve been doing all the right things, in terms of healing myself.

Not ignoring a problem usually helps, and this one is no exception.  Also trying to understand what happened, analyzing it, looking at evidence.  Guess what I’ve been doing?

“People mostly try to push those experiences away and not look at them, and they inevitably end up with an oversimplified conclusion about what it all meant,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to unearth the beliefs that are causing their distress, and then help them analyze it, consider the evidence…therapists focus on helping morally injured patients accept that wrong was done [though not by me!], but that it need not define their lives.”

And then there’s this idea:

IMG_20160120_162242“…some have devised makeshift rituals of cleansingAt the end of a brutal 12-month combat tour in Iraq, one battalion chaplain gathered the troops and handed out slips of paper. He asked the soldiers to jot down everything they were sorry for, ashamed of, angry about or regretted. The papers went into a makeshift stone baptismal font, and as the soldiers stood silently in a circle, the papers burned to ash.

“It was sort of a ritual of forgiveness,” said the chaplain, Lt. Col. Doug Etter of the Pennsylvania National Guard. “The idea was to leave all the most troubling things behind in Iraq.”

And, I knew that I needed to write this blog.

“Dr. Shay places special importance on communication through artistic means of expression. Moral injury can only be absolved when “the trauma survivor… [is] permitted and empowered to voice his or her experience…”

“We favor the tenet that “treatment” of moral injury must be defined by the individual according to their beliefs and needs. Outlets for acknowledging and confronting moral injury include talk therapy, religious dialogue, art, writing, discussion & talking circles, spiritual gatherings, and more.”


Of course, it’s still a bit of a mixed bag.  For one thing, it has occurred to me that at least part of what the rest of my FOO is doing is actively avoiding EXACTLY THE SAME MORAL INJURY that I received.

Those cowards don’t want to believe that Joe and Susan could really, truly have done what Joe and Susan did.  They don’t want me to describe it:

 Imagine what it felt like to see Susan’s horrible, ugly, angry face two inches from my own, bending down so she could scream right at me, to feel her spittle on my face, to wonder if she was going to physically attack me, to hear the shouts from both of them ringing in my ears — their words just so much angry, hateful noise, because both of them were shouting nonstop, at the same time.

And she lost her shit like that over the idea that I had dared to criticize her selfish behavior of the night before, when she refused to do something I asked for right after my father died.

I didn’t want to believe it either.  The difference is, I don’t have the luxury of not believing it, and I don’t have to imagine what it was like, because I’m the one they did it to.  (And my husband witnessed it, and he has some moral injury from it too, you fucking bastards, because he feels like he ought to have done something to stop it.)

And I didn’t want to believe that they could lie like they did, and that everyone would believe them like they did.

This would be bad enough on its own – but now add that this was only hours after I watched my beloved father die, and then sat by his dead body, waiting for the ambulance to take him away, all the while forced to listen to her LOUDLY LAUGHING AND JOKING WITH A STRANGER IN A ROOM WITH A CORPSE.

This is in stunningly bad taste no matter how you slice it.

And this was after I even specifically and politely asked them to go somewhere else with their jolly conversation.

Yet, in the presence of that obscene behavior, that outright disrespect and provocation, I STILL managed not to scream at her, not to get up in her face and shout and spit and threaten.  I certainly FELT like it, but I controlled myself.  Because you just don’t do that shit to people.  Not if you are a decent person.

Good thing it happened to the strong scapegoat, I suppose, because having lived through the past few years, if I’m truly the strong one then I don’t know what the hell it would do to any of them.

And, this is never going to happen:  at least, I’m not going to get it from my FOO.

“…moral injury affects, and is affected by the moral codes across a community [in this case, a family]… moral injury stems in part from feelings of isolation from [the family]. Moral injury, then, is a burden carried by very few, until the “outsiders” become aware of, and interested in sharing it.

Finally, this quote was written in terms of therapy, but it works on another level with my own story.

…by and large, those with moral injury are on their own.

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