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Unintended Victims: Diagnosis & Treatment of Children of Domestic Violence
Children of Domestic Violence continuing education addiction counselor CEUs

Section 13
The Meaning of Meaning:
From Hurt to Hate

CEU Question 13 | CE Test | Table of Contents | Domestic Violence
Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

Although we seem to respond almost instantaneously to assaults, whether physical or psychological, we do not always experience anger. Whether we do so depends on the context of the injury and the explanation for it. A young child subjected to an injection by the family doctor will fight and scream to protect herself from an inexplicable infliction of pain. An adult receiving such an injection, and experiencing the same kind of pain, may have some anxiety but will not typically respond with anger.

The obvious difference between the child’s and the adult’s reactions lies in the meaning of the event. For the child, there is no comprehensible explanation for having to undergo the frightening and painful procedure except that the doctor is overpowering and cruel. Moreover, her typically benevolent parents have betrayed her by facilitating the assault. For the adult, the procedure, although painful and possibly anxiety-producing, is warranted and acceptable. Responding with anger would be illogical, because he is voluntarily submitting to a beneficial procedure. Unlike the child, he has learned to discriminate between malevolent and benevolent injuries, between acceptable and unacceptable infliction of pain. He has expanded his construct of pain to include experiences that, while painful, are ultimately positive.

This example shows the importance of meanings, attributions, and explanations in determining how we respond to our experiences. When somebody hurts us, our natural reaction is to feel anxious and try to escape, or to feel angry and try to fight back. If the threat is overwhelming, we are disposed to get out of the situation. Whether or not we become angry depends on whether we judge that we have been wronged or victimized: we are likely to become angry if we believe the other person was unjustified. If we attribute a benevolent motivation to the act, we do not generally become angry. Unless we are specifically “primed” to explain assaults as benign, however, our immediate reaction is to regard unpleasant actions as intentional and malevolent and to prepare to punish the offender or to escape.

Picture the following scene: I am waiting at a bus stop. A bus comes by and doesn’t stop. First I feel distress at being inconvenienced, then a sense of helplessness as the bus speeds by without even slowing down. I think, “He (the driver) deliberately ignored me,” and feel angry. But then I notice that the bus is full, and my anger subsides. The key to my angry reaction was my interpretation that the driver arbitrarily chose to ignore me. The actual inconvenience is minor compared with the presumed offensive behavior. Once I reframe the situation, the “offense” fades away and I regard the incident as simply an inconvenience. I can then turn my attention to ascertaining when the next bus is due or considering other ways of getting to my destination.

Delays and frustrations do not in themselves necessarily produce anger. The crucial element is the explanation of the other person’s action, and whether that explanation makes the other person’s behavior acceptable to us. If it does not, we become angry and want to punish the offender. For the most part we regard behavior that offends us as intentional rather than accidental, as malicious rather than benign. Inconveniences and frustrations come and go, but the sense of being wronged persists.

An illustrative clinical example of how anger is aroused comes from the files in our clinic. Analyses of clinical cases are particularly illuminating: since the reactions tend to be magnified, they are more clearly delineated and understood.

Louise, a personnel supervisor in a large employment agency, found that she was almost continually angry at her subordinates or superiors, as well as at family and friends. A few of her angry reactions demonstrate the mecha­nisms involved in the triggering and the expression of her hostile response. On one occasion, her boss corrected a memorandum that she had prepared. Louise had these automatic thoughts following her boss’s “criticisms”: “Uh­oh, I’ve made a mistake.” Then: “He really thinks I did a bad job. . . . I messed it up this time.” Her self-esteem was damaged, and she felt bad. Louise’s reactions demonstrate the typical dichotomous thinking triggered by threats to the self-esteem. If feedback is not all positive, it becomes totally negative: a mistake becomes a really bad job, a criticism becomes total rejec­tion.

Later, as she mulled over the event, she became increasingly angry and had a different set of automatic thoughts: “He had no right to treat me that way after all I’ve done for him. . . . He’s unfair. He never shows appreciation for my work. All he does is criticize. . . . I hate him.” By shifting the expla­nation for her hurt to her boss’s “unfairness,” she was able to salve the hurt to her self-esteem. In essence, her focus shifted from, “He disapproves of me; he considers me inadequate,” to, “He was wrong to have criticized me.” Assigning responsibility to another person for unjustly “causing” an unpleasant feeling is a prelude to feeling angry. The persistence of a sense of threat and the fixed image of a malicious person leads to at least a temporary feeling of hate. It is much easier to sustain anger or aggression when we drift from specific actions (he criticized this memo in two places) to overgeneralizations (he always criticizes me) or labels (he’s unfair). The drift is often outside aware­ness; people may hold grudges about matters they no longer recall.
- Beck, Aaron T., Prisioners of Hate, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1999.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.


Personal Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information about the meaning of anger. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 13
Since delays and frustrations do not in themselves necessarily produce anger, what is the crucial element in producing anger? Record the letter of the correct answer the CE Test.

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Table of Contents

The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
This Is The Summer Of Gun Violence - July 31, 2020
Gun violence is back on the rise in North Carolina and around the country. After a lull during the stay-at-home orders, shootings surged over recent weeks.
COVID-19 Is Creating Another Public Health Crisis: Domestic Violence - April 21, 2020
The weeks of stay-at-home orders have created space for some families to spend more time together than ever before. This could mean more bonding, family meals and joyful activities. But for others it makes for a dangerous situation.
More Americans Are Killing Their Romantic Partners, With Guns - April 22, 2019
After decades of decline, the rate of Americans killing their intimate partners has seen “a sharp increase” in recent years. Data shows that uptick is exclusively due to gun-related murders. That’s according to a recent look at federal homicide data from 1976 through 2017 by two Northeastern University criminologists. Homicide rates generally, have been on the decline for decades, but buried within that downward trend, the researchers found a sudden, three year spike in homicides between romantic partners beginning in 2014. “While there has been no increase in intimate partner homicides that involve knives and beatings and poisonings and other kinds of weapons,” said the study’s co-author, Criminology Professor James Fox. “The entire increase in the last few years has been with guns.” Currently, men are much more likely to kill their female partners than the other way around. In the report, Fox wrote more than two thirds of intimate partner homicides are men killing women. Only a fifth
How A Rural NC County Worked To Help Domestic Violence Victims - November 21, 2018
July 26, 2015, is a date etched in Michelle Williams' memory forever. That's the day her sister Tracy was murdered. "Every time I tell that, I have to say the whole thing. In my head it's a news broadcast," she said. "Tracy Williams murdered by her ex-partner. At a Franklin County Food Lion parking lot. On July 26, 2015."
Domestic Violence Survivors Often Need Housing, Grant Will Offer Help In Orange County - July 19, 2018
A Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence and their families is planning to expand its services next year to enable survivors to get back on their feet.

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