Oh, baby, there sure are a lot of ways to DO anger, let alone any other feeling, right??!! I’ve certainly used my fair share of approaches over the years.
When my sister and I were kids, we had a paper route together. Sometimes we would have deep, adolescent talks about life while we were delivering papers. Other times we would argue like maniacs. One particular day we were walking to our route and we got into a big argument, about what I no longer even remember! I was so mad with her that I sped ahead and hid off to the side where she couldn’t see me. As she approached, I suddenly felt compelled to jump out and start hitting her. I distinctly remember feeling convinced that physically expressing my rage in that moment would help drain it. But guess what happened? As I hit her my rage only increased and I remember feeling so shocked by this!
The silent treatment was another approach to anger that I spent many years refining and oh, wow, was I good at it! My best friend from high school STILL remembers the two weeks I stopped talking with her simply because she’d made a small comment that made me mad! Sadly, I ended numerous friendships this way and eventually always moved on from anger to regret yet it was usually too late to remedy the friendships. Even now, this default reaction sometimes surfaces so that I instinctively WANT to kick into it when I feel really angry or hurt, but I’ve learned how to do it differently.
And then there was the skill I like to refer to as ‘going all New York’ on people when they made me angry! I grew up in New York and certainly learned how to fight for my rights, whether it was dealing with a customer service representative on the phone, a colleague in one of the hospitals in which I worked or a neighbour refusing to cut down a dead tree whose limbs were falling on my driveway. My ‘Going all New York’ approach was definitely confrontational and I spent years feeling proud of my ability to do this when the situation ‘required’ it! It wasn’t till years into this that I realized how much energy it took for me to pull this off each time and that it did not necessarily ease the actual feelings of anger at all, but fed them instead.
I discovered another side of my experience with anger that I’d never noticed before when I learned how to come back home to my body and emotions IN the moment. When anger shows up, my mind instinctively kicks into high gear, turning up the focus on what the other person has done to me, endlessly justifying all the reasons I have a right to be mad and further fuelling my anger. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that I concurrently have an awful lot of physical sensations that accompany emotions such as anger, but my mind prefers to stay busy thinking about it rather than feeling it. Remember how I mentioned in my last blog post (Coming Home) that our minds are highly skilled in thinking about our feelings, but not gifted in actually feeling them?
I was recently reminded of all this when my wife and I got into an argument that we periodically revisit together. I’m sure many of you are familiar with those topics that can circle back around in your relationships and offer a fresh trigger of emotion in one or both of you! Well, that’s what happened. And oooh eeeh, was I mad! I was itching to pull the silent treatment because that’s such a great way for my mind to think about feeling angry without actually having to feel it, but I’ve learned it only fuels the flames. So off I stormed on a walk with the dog. I spent the first few minutes fuming about all the ways I was justified in feeling the way I was feeling and my mind spun around and around with no relief in sight.
About 10 minutes into my walk, I remembered to check in with my body and notice where I was feeling sensations. There was tightness in my chest and I felt short of breath; my fists were clenched, as was my jaw and my heart was pounding. My mind continued to beckon me back to thinking about the story and my resulting anger, but I’ve repeatedly learned that when my mind stays stuck in the story, it pins the very feeling in place and limits the possibility of relief. Instead I continued to gently drop below the surface of my thinking to the physical sensations I was experiencing in the presence of anger.
By the time I returned from my walk with the dog, I had shifted. I’d come back home to my body and my spinning mind had slowed. Space had been created for clarity and relief to seep in in ways that weren’t even conceivable a few minutes before and I can promise you that my wife was grateful for this!. It was suddenly possible for me to make room for my anger to have a place at my inner table. You see, anger will always want a place at our inner table, just as sadness, fear, anxiety, worry, confusion and others always will. These emotions are a natural part of us and they are supposed to be! Contrary to what our minds try to convince us, when these emotions show up in our stories, they are asking for acknowledgment from us. They want to be allowed rather than fought against. Their mere presence is a call from within, signaling us home. Clarity and relief become possible when we accept the invitation to drop below the surface of merely thinking about the feeling and tune into the embodied experience of the feeling IN the moment.
This is something I have come to practice regularly in my life. Do I do it perfectly all the time? Heck no. I’m as human as the next person. What I have learned, though, is that when strong emotions show up, they are never here to be fought against. These emotions are truly on our side, reflecting another aspect of each of us that wants to be allowed at our inner table. This understanding offers a fresh sense of wholeness, freedom and relief that is contrary to what our minds would have us believe in the challenging moments.
Did you know this is exactly what I do in my sessions and programs with patients? I work with patients experiencing anxiety, depression, worry, overwhelm, confusion, fear, fatigue, stress, chronic illness and cancer. I never tire of witnessing the transformations that occur in my patients as they learn how to apply the simple tools I teach. They discover it’s possible to cultivate a different relationship with themselves and the very feelings and experiences they have long fought against or considered so wrong. What’s the side effect of this? Space is suddenly created for increased joy, clarity, energy, peace and relief. Isn’t that odd, surprising and fabulous?! The most beautiful part of all is that in order to reap these benefits, the tools need not be applied or learned perfectly, only humanly. :-)
If this intrigues you, reach out and we can have a conversation about it. You can tell me what’s going on and if we’re a fit to work together, great! We can talk about that, too. I continue to work with patients both locally and virtually. Here’s a link to schedule a conversation with me: Let’s Chat.
I invite you into curiosity about how your relationship with emotions like anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, worry, confusion and others may change as you discover that they have and always will be a part of you and that they simply want to have a seat at your inner table.
Emily Colwell, MSSW, ND