Working Through Anger as Self-Protection
When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.
– Madeleine L’Engle
We live in an angry world, and there’s plenty to be angry about. Anger is the ultimate pushing away – when we feel angry we have divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘me’ and ‘you’. There’s no common ground when we’re acting from anger, no acknowledgement of interdependence, or of a shared world. Anger is the root of violence, towards ourselves and others. We can look around the world, and perhaps even in our own lives, and easily see the paths of destruction anger has wrought.
Of course, there’s a time and a place for setting boundaries, and for standing up for ourselves or others, and sometimes anger is a necessary part of that. But for many of us, anger is a habit, an emotional pattern, that creates isolating barriers in our lives. Anger is a way of not feeling vulnerable, or of avoiding some other feeling that we are uncomfortable with, often fear or hopelessness. It is easier to lash out than to sit with these feelings. But our anger creates walls, and we end up feeling alone and unsupported, even when we are surrounded by people.
I’ve had to work with anger a lot in my own path, and I work with a lot of women for whom anger – and its subtler expressions, defensiveness, judgment and self-judgment – are an issue. Many childhood abuse survivors develop patterns of anger as a form of self-protection, but find in adulthood that it’s so ingrained they can’t allow anyone in. They may have worked through a lot of the more overt wounds from their abuse in therapy or through healing modalities, but find they are still left with the habit of pushing people away, or of being easily triggered into anger (whether this anger is expressed outwardly or turned inward.)
On the upside, I’ve come to feel anger in abuse survivors is a good sign. Anger is at least a strong emotion, a strong energy, and it can be transmuted into great strength when it’s worked through. Patterns of passivity, depression, or addiction – all terribly over-represented among abuse survivors – are often much harder to come back from. Anger is at least based on a strong sense of self-protection, which predisposes there IS some sense of self to begin with.
In the two modalities I work with, it is very interesting to contemplate how anger is usually represented in each. From a chakra perspective, the third chakra (navel or solar plexus, depending on the tradition) – our center of personal power, will, and boundaries – is often very strong, but the energy is rigid, and forms a protective barrier around the sacral/second and/or heart/fourth chakras on either side of it. Instead of a natural flow between these chakras, energy is pooled in the third chakra, and forms a gate or wall around the sacral and heart. There is little sense of support from a strong root /first chakra, and so the wall is easily triggered – anything that is emotionally uncomfortable causes a clamping down, and a pushing outward. Sometimes this remains internal, and is expressed as judgmental or angry discursive thought, or sometimes it becomes aggressive speech or action.
The third chakra plays a central role in our ability to establish strong boundaries, but ideally our ability to do so is supported by our entire energy being. Boundaries are essential, but part of the irony of this kind of third chakra hyper-strength is that we put so much attention into building emotional walls that we have no energy or attention left for energetic boundaries, and we suck in everything around us – including other people’s anger and anxiety – which only compounds our edginess.
It’s also interesting to look at anger through the lens of the the other main modality I use (with myself and others), Feeding Your Demons. There is a moment in this process in which we become our ‘demon’ of anger, and look back at ourselves through the demon’s eyes. So often the anger demon sees us as naïve, weak, or gullible – as needing protection. That’s why we fear letting go of our anger, even when we know it is causing problems in our life – what will happen to us without our armor? But often what our anger demon really needs, when it’s allowed to express itself through this process, is to relax. Self-protection is exhausting.The part of us from which our anger springs just wants to feel safe enough to relax, without constantly being on guard.
Some inquiry work you can do if you are working with anger in yourself is to ask yourself the following questions whenever you are feeling angry, or afterwards, when contemplating the triggering situation:
- Am I/was I in pain? Just as a small child’s first instinct is often to hit back whenever he is hit by another child, so too we often lash out when in energetic or emotional pain. The key is recognizing when we are in pain, and becoming comfortable with the pain itself, instead of jumping to the ‘next step’ of an angry, defensive, or irritable response. Practice recognizing when your feelings are hurt, or when you are overwhelmed by abrasive energy. For example, being in a crowd is often a triggering situation for me, because of the overwhelming influx of energy , which my energy body experiences as painful.
- What am I/was I responding to as threatening or dangerous in the situation? Sometimes anger is an expression of the ‘fight’ response, in terms of the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ survival instinct. See if you can identify what is making you feel unsafe. Is criticism at work triggering fear for your livelihood? Does the person you are angry with remind you of someone abusive from your past? Our feelings don’t need to make sense, so just inquire openly.
- What are/were the layers of emotions present? Try to drop down into the protected emotion. What emotion are you uncomfortable feeling, and using anger to cover up? Can you just sit in this emotion instead and let it be, without any need to move away from it through anger?
- Focus on reminding yourself that you are safe (assuming you objectively are.) Take some deep belly breaths, and focus on relaxing in your navel/solar plexus chakra. Focus on the ground beneath you, and visualize a column of vital red light flowing upward through your feet and into your whole body. This light is protecting and fueling you, so that you do not need to work so hard to do so yourself.
Longer term, the key to working with your anger is to focus on what you are protecting – that part of you that feels unsafe and vulnerable. Help this part of you gradually feel more comfortable with uncertainty and painful emotions. Send this part of you love and healing – visualize it as a vulnerable little girl or boy if you like, and send her or him heart energy. Don’t attack your anger through self-judgment (a common tendency in spiritual circles, where anger is often considered persona non grata.) Your anger is just a protective habit – it’s well-intentioned in its own way, and you don’t need to go to war with it. As you allow yourself to feel more supported in your life, and as you become more comfortable with feeling vulnerable (or anxious, or sad, or whatever emotion you have been uncomfortable facing), your need to jump to anger as a defense will gradually subside.
Of course none of this is a substitute for therapy or other healing work, and you need to gauge what you can work with on your own, and when you need help. Accepting help of any type is often another key component of starting to drop self-protective barriers. Often these barriers are also expressed in terms of hyper self-sufficiency, and we fear dependence on others so much that we will not allow ourselves to accept help. In many ways, recognizing our interdependence is the opposite of anger, and accepting help is a wonderful way to begin moving towards this insight.
Peace! As always, I welcome your own insights and sharings in the comments. Please also note that I am offering my Energy Work for Sexual Abuse and Trauma 4-week teleseminar again starting September 21. Prior participants may take the course again for half-price to reinforce the work (and it is always slightly different each time.) Please share with anyone who might be interested.