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Working Through Anger as Self-Protection

August 26, 2014

Boxed InWhen 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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2014 1:17 am

    This is very interesting, and a very positive take on twists in recovery after abuse. I did not know that hyper self sufficiency was common. The DV shelter I was in refused to help any of us, with anything, because they felt that dependency or a lack of self sufficiency was a key factor in why victims repeatedly return to the abuser. So I was surprised by that one.

  2. August 27, 2014 2:58 am

    Hi threekidsandI, I think there are several different energetic patterns that can arise. I do a lot of work with childhood sexual abuse survivors, and this is one prominent pattern that I have seen. But it’s by no means the only one. As I mentioned, this pattern is actually a more ‘functional’ one in the sense that people who have it are often quite driven – often they can harness that strong third chakra energy to be successful, but they have more problems in personal relationships, and end up isolated, or unable to ever accept help. Individuals who go the other way, swinging into patterns of passivity or addiction, have a much harder time on the financial and self-caretaking front. So it’s probably true that someone who is trapped in that kind of cycle needs to develop more self-sufficiency, more third chakra strength. Either way, energetically it’s a third chakra issue – every chakra is a spectrum, and the spectrum of the third chakra is passivity/assertiveness, helplessness/driven etc. So problems manifest on one end of the spectrum or the other. Thanks for commenting.

  3. August 27, 2014 3:31 am

    I think I have this hyper self sufficiency type. I have to fight with myself to stay social and accept help. Most of the women in the shelter actually went back to their abusers. Since it is a common pattern, to go back a dozen times, maybe something is changing in them, and when they reach a certain place, their energies shift? Chakra is not familiar to me, I admit. I am really taken with the positive way you approach this. Abuse recovery is rarely presented so.

  4. August 27, 2014 2:47 pm

    ThreekidsandI, Domestic abuse is very difficult to recover from, as you well know. It is scary to start your life completely over, and the relationship often has an addictive dynamic of abuse and repentance. And then of course there can be such deep feelings of unworthiness that on some level a woman feels that that is how she ultimately deserves to be treated, or that she doesn’t deserve to be treated any better (especially if she was abused as a child.) So it can take a lot for someone to shift – a breaking point, or real fear for the children that finally breaks the pattern. And yes, when this happens, there is an underlying chakra shift that has also occurred. The chakras, and energy body in general, are like an interface to our psyche and body. So when there is a shift on one of these levels, it happens on all three. You can work to change on any level, I just happen to work with the chakras, but there are many methods that can be effective.
    In any case, I really wish you well on your journey, and I admire your strength, which I can definitely sense. That urge towards self-sufficiency IS a strength, you just need to balance it with accepting the right kind of help. I hope that help appears in your life – I feel it will.

  5. August 29, 2014 8:07 pm

    “Quiet the outgoing mental restlessness and turn the mind within. Harmonize your thoughts and desires with the all-fulfilling realities you already possess in your soul. Then you will see the underlying harmony in your life and in all nature. If you harmonize your hopes and expectations with the inherent harmony, you will float through life on buoyant wings of peace. The beauty and depth of Yoga lies in its bestowal of this invariable tranquility.” – Paramhansa Yogananda.

    Anger is an extension of the ego. The ego is the self identified with the body – in other words, an illusion. I choose to believe that the true self of you, me, and everyone (both our enemies and our benefactors) is perfect. We may not act perfect, but that is due to our ego getting in the way and being the little self (ego.) The reason someone hurt me, is due to their ego identifying themselves separate from me. Being angry at them, is doing the same thing – identifying myself as separate. Which happens to be the antithesis of my life’s goal.

    If my life’s goal is oneness with the Eternal mind of God, then the path should be dissolution of separateness (ego.) Meditation, Mindfulness and spiritual practice all help remove the illusion of separateness.

    In my past I was a very angry person. I was bitter and upset quite often. I sought out a solution to anger and found Buddhist temple. They taught me a practice of meditation, that was a guided meditation with wisdom. It was a structured meditation on peace and what they called ‘mother recognition’ in the other. After several weeks of 45min a day of this meditation, I had rehabituated my mind. I was shortly put to the test, being yelled at by my boss for no apparent reason one day. There in his office (as he screamed and belittled me) I felt my initial reaction start. I saw him as the archetype of the bully. In the old days I would be full on screaming at him… and he knew it. But this time, I became aware I was aware… I was ware of my blood pressure change. “How crazy is that,” I thought in that moment… I could feel my blood pressure change. I never felt that before. I could feel tension in my hands and then… my true self just was watching and I was aware. I simply said, “no” to the anger. It stopped. The blood pressure relaxed, the hands unclenched and my muscles relaxed.

    I sat and watched as the boss yelled and screamed at me. I didn’t react. Nor was I angry. I was not “holding it in,” I had no reaction to it. It was like watching a tiger growl in a cage at the zoo. It didn’t bother me. He stared at me and when he was out of breath he asked, “why aren’t you yelling back?” That’s when I knew I had undergone a change.

    Over the years, I went from Buddhism, to Scientology, to Mysticism, to Hinduism and a bunch of other faiths… in the end I review that day and realize it wasn’t a special practice, as much as it was I was in the moment. I was totally aware of me and in wisdom I realized there was no good in reacting. The practice I choose at that time, put me in the moment… and it added to it with wisdom teaching me that things are not as they appear… and karma is always at play.

    Oh sure, i could have asserted myself, or maybe I could have got the boss fired… But for what? How does that help my spiritual growth? I choose to believe that this life is our testing grounds. I believe we are here to meet our tests and trials head on and learn from it.

    That doesn’t mean we let people hurt us… but rather – we transcend the reaction of hurt for hurt… and to me that’s what anger is – wanting to hurt the other. Which assumes there is an “other” and it assumes that “hurting them” will help me somehow. Those assumptions are all ego based and in my opinion, therefore the enemy of oneness.

    Which Thich Nhat Hanh also discusses in his work, “Anger.”

    Anway, it was very nice to read your post. Thank you for posting it.

    With much respect,

    BW

  6. August 29, 2014 10:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story BW, and I completely agree that the root of anger is separation, and that the heart of spiritual practice in most spiritual traditions is shifting our awareness beneath this, to where we are pure awareness, and one with the pure awareness of those around us. It’s a beautiful process. Different tools work for different people at different times, depending on what they have been through and how deeply lodged these patterns are. I appreciate hearing others’ stories like your own, as it reinforces both the universality of the spiritual journey, and the ways in which the process might be different for each person…and thank you so much for sharing the article too! Namaste- Lisa

  7. September 1, 2014 12:38 am

    Thanks, Lisa. Another wonderful post, and one I would have like to read about ten years ago when I first recognized that “Anger” was driving me through every moment of every day. For all the reasons you mentioned, plus some major thyroid issues that 4 endocrinologists’ insisted wasn’t a problem.

    It is a good idea to check hormonal and endocrine health while coping with these underlying issues. They sometimes are related.

  8. raisingbabesnaturally permalink
    September 2, 2014 5:18 am

    I’m grateful to have found your blog! I was attracted to this post because I have a highly sensitive 6 year old son who protects himself with anger and shutting down/off…do you have any suggestions for how to help a child soften/open up? I do much lightwork for him/to him myself, visually/meditatively, but am wondering if there’s anymore I can do? Thank you so much!

  9. September 2, 2014 7:37 pm

    Hi Cate, I’m so glad you mentioned the physical component, because it is so true. Mind and body are one. I have especially seen this in women struggling with serious PMS or perimenopause. The hormonal and endocrine swings magnify the emotional patterns. Which pattern is magnified depends on the individual and their patterning, for some it is anger, for others swings of depression or anxiety. So yes, working it all angles – physical, energetic, emotional – is so important.

  10. September 2, 2014 7:52 pm

    Hi Raisingbabesnaturally, thanks for commenting and welcome. Yes, as I’m sure you know, this is a common pattern for highly sensitive children, as they use their anger as a boundary, as a way of screening out that which they don’t want to feel from others. But then as I mention, when any of us do that, ironically we often expend so much energy on the anger that we actually end up unable to maintain healthy boundaries, and take in more negative energy from other people – including anger as they react to our anger! So it can become a vicious cycle.
    I think one of the most effective ways to work with children around this is to help them connect to their own natural ability to create healthy boundaries, and to feel protected and supported. From a chakra perspective, helping them to connect with their root chakra, and really grounding into the earth through it, and their navel chakra, in terms of emanating out a healthy boundary. I actually do have a chakra meditation for kids here on the site:

    https://mommymystic.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/chakra-meditation-for-kids-or-adults-who-want-to-feel-like-a-kid/

    The entire thing will probably be a little long for him at 6, but you can listen to it and then create your own with the same ideas in mind. Visuals of having roots like a tree sprouting from his feet and extending deep into the ground, and then imagining light and support coming up through them might be helpful, and will help him ground and feel supported. Then imagining that he has a ‘superpower’ ability to emanate a ‘shield’ around him from his navel may also help him to tap into the natural filtering abilities of that chakra.

    On a subtler level, for a being like him, his long term personal growth will probably be a lot about learning how and when to be vulnerable in a healthy way, and how to get comfortable with feeling hurt, or energetic pain, without jumping to anger as a defense. Energetically, as he works on grounding and creating healthy boundaries, he’ll get more comfortable with it too. He’s lucky to have a mom that is so energetically aware – you have to be sure you take care of yourself too, as parenting a sensitive child can be very tiring, I know.

  11. Antoinette permalink
    October 10, 2014 1:33 am

    Hi Lisa, I’m a little late to this post, but just wanted to say I think it’s beautifully expressed, so true, and also very helpful. Feeding Your Demons has been on my “to-read” list for ages, I think it’s time I read this book. Thanks.
    xx

  12. October 15, 2014 5:44 pm

    Antoinette, I think you will love it. Would love to discuss when you’re done.

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