November 10, 2011

Anger That Sucks You Dry

When it comes to how we treat our feelings, particularly anger, we often spend much of our time burying them, avoiding them, or looking the other way. If we try to approach difficult feelings, we experience another very powerful feeling – anxiety. We fear that we will just explode, like a volcano, if we express these feelings. Also, we may believe we won’t be able to cope or manage if we allow ourselves to really feel these emotions.

Notice, anxiety is not so much the fear of what will happen or the unknown. It is, however, the fear that we will not be able to cope with what might happen! We buy into the false belief that we don’t have the capacity to feel these emotions and survive or respond in ways that are healthy. This keeps us stuck in a cycle of pushing away the feelings that need to be expressed in order to recover or heal from a hurt.

As you explore the anger you feel (particularly if it is tied to past abuse), remember not to judge the feeling. You are quite justified in feeling angry. However, the work to be done here is to explore how you behave as a result of your anger, where your anger is getting in the way of you keeping your word, and what you can do to balance the anger with positive emotions.

I was one angry redhead…

Of all of the emotions that have come up as a result of the abuse I experienced, anger – well, really, rage – has been the thorn in my side.

After my mother discovered what was going on, she and my father were great. They immediately got my grandfather out of the house and got me into counseling. Around week three of counseling, the therapist asked me what it was I thought had caused the abuse. Here I am, a little ten year old girl being asked to explain what I still can’t explain to this day!* I was so angry, I stormed out of the office and refused to go back. My parents were dismayed and tried to get me to see other therapists, but I wasn’t having it. Not really sure how to handle things, my parents, in my view, simply withdrew from the battle.

This left me feeling abandoned and further reinforced my belief that I had to make my way on my own. From that point on, I was on the defensive – ready to attack. I would have outbursts of anger that included slamming doors, breaking things, and even sometimes hurting my own body. It was not a pretty picture.

The raging continued well into my 20s. One day, I sat down and wrote my own “spew” letter. I let fall onto paper all of the fears I had about being alone, being rejected, the hatred I felt for my abuser, the lack of connection I had felt in my life.

Eight pages and lots of tears later, I was met with one very profound realization – my life was being sucked dry by the anger. That day, I decided enough was enough and made a commitment to have peacefulness and joy in my life. My first step was to start saying out loud every day, “I am peaceful and joyful.” When I started, the words felt like steel wool on my tongue. After a month, I could say it and partially believe it. After three months, I felt a sense of ease and comfort that I thought I’d never feel again. After six months, I was no longer filled with rage.

It wasn’t all just about the words. I had to challenge my false beliefs about being abandoned, rejected, and alone, too.

Today, I still “go redhead” from time to time – but I never rage in the way I used to – as if the world is out to get me and I have to fight with everything inside of me to survive. I go for a walk, I read a book, I take a nap until I feel grounded and able to process what’s going on. And, yes, sometimes, I manage perfectly. Other days, not so much. Either way, I know that my feelings are just feelings, and I can choose how I will respond and what I want to give priority to.

*Notice how that moment in the therapist’s office is so filled with story. He asked me a question, and, while perhaps not put very well, I immediately latched on to the idea that he, too, thought it was my fault and just wanted me to admit. Even back then, my stories were in play.

  • What are some of the unhealthy ways that you respond to anger? Which behaviors that are born out of anger do you need to put in check? (e.g. throw things, yell, stuff it, perfectionism, make nice, turn it on yourself, etc.)
  • How do you bury, avoid, or stuff your feelings?
  • What do you believe will happen if you express your anger?
  • How can anger be beneficial?
  • If you were to give yourself permission to feel angry, what would you say to yourself?
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November 3, 2011

Feelings Are Just Feelings!

One of the things I’ve noticed when working with my clients is that there is a strong desire to understand how to reach a place of what many call “emotional balance.” What I think many people really want is way to experience and express feelings without becoming overwhelmed or stuck.

Yet, in many ways, I think our relationship to feelings has become a bit too lenient. We often hear people say, “Well, if that’s how you feel …” – as if whatever comes after that is necessarily fine, good, or true. I’d like to challenge this idea and offer some alternative ways to understand, relate to, and utilize our feelings.

First of all, here are a few things to know about feelings (adapted from Shelter from the Storm):
  • Feelings are neither right nor wrong – only actions can be judged that way.
  • Feelings are affected by how we think – negative thoughts produce negative feelings.
  • Feelings are often mixed – rarely do you experience one feeling at a time.
  • Feelings can be expressed in different ways – there is no one right way, each person has his/her own style.
  • Feelings do not lose their intensity by being buried, even for a long time. They must be worked through to lose their punch.
  • Feelings should not dictate our lives. Instead, what we have given our word to – integrity – should guide our decisions.
Let’s take a closer look at this list. The first thing to notice is that we should not judge our feelings or experience shame or guilt because we have a particular feeling. Essentially feelings arise for a variety of factors – from the biological, to the circumstantial, some would even argue with the cycle of the moon! So, feelings happen – sometimes terrible, I want to hide under a rock feelings. Yet, if we are to mature into our feelings and manage ourselves, our focus needs to be on the actions that follow feelings rather than trying to eradicate the feeling altogether. For example, if you feel scared in a relationship – that’s okay. If you feel scared and then behave miserably towards the other person in the hopes of pushing them away, not so okay! We need to take responsibility for how we act in response to our feelings.

Now, I’m sure the second point – feelings are affected by how we think – doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you. The more our minds focus on the negative, the more our feelings will follow suit – creating a not so fun loop.

Furthermore, positive feelings “improve our cognitive capacities while we are in safe situations, allowing us to build resources around us for the long term. That's in marked contrast to the effects of negative emotions like fear, which focus our attention so we can deal with short-term problems. ‘Positive feelings change the way our brains work and expand the boundaries of experience, allowing us to take in more information and see the big picture’” (“How Not to Be Happy”, by Dan Jones). Essentially, the more positive emotions you experience, the bigger your bank account is that you can draw upon when things get hard. Positive emotions help you see things broadly while negative emotions create a pinpoint focus. This can, of course, be very useful at times, but not if we fall into a spirally downward cycle of negativity.

Finally, we need to remember that feelings are just feelings – they should not dictate our decisions, mostly because feelings are so fleeting! In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says,
“’the most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.’ … Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all.”
Too often we make decisions about whether to stay in a relationship, whether to stay at a job, whether to keep our commitment for a dinner party based on our feelings. “I just don’t feel like it,” seems to be a get out of jail free card. What happens to our word – our integrity – when we are constantly buffeting about because of our emotions? It falls apart.

How many relationships end because the initial intense feelings subside and people think, “Hm, I must not be in love anymore”? How many times do we say no to an opportunity, because we feel afraid? How many times do we bounce from job to job seeking a fresh high?

Now, lest you label me a hater of feelings, let me be clear that I’m not deriding the important role that feelings play in our decision making process. Again, it’s about balance. Until you learn to make balanced decisions, not letting your feelings be the dictators of your actions is a good rule of thumb to follow.

By focusing on what promise we have made, what word we have given, we can bolster our ability to follow through, to step into, to show up when our feelings would have us do otherwise.

  • What feelings have you been judging as being bad or wrong?
  • Instead of judging your feelings, what behaviors, responses to your feelings should you instead focus on?
  • How full is your bank account of positive feelings? What could you do to increase your balance?
  • What opportunities, experiences have you missed out on because your feelings got in the way?
  • What have you recently been giving your word to but not following through on because of your feelings?
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