Having just returned from a workshop called Fearless Relating, facilitated by my friends Reid Mihalko and Monique Darling, I am awhirl with all kinds of ideas and awash in emotion. In the re-entry process, I am integrating what feels like a lifetime of experience. If you have ever been to an immersive retreat, then you know what I’m talking about. I entered into it with the intention to clean up the symbolic cobwebs that have been lurking in corners and under beds for, oh, just like forever. Knowing that I am prone to wearing my therapist’s hat- an occupational hazard, since I have been doing counseling in one form or another since 1979, I made it clear from the get go, that I was off duty and that I was there for my own healing.
Be careful what you ask for. In very short order, I was called on to face a longstanding issue- emotional expression and especially the one called anger. In my family, it was rarely shown, voices were not often raised, although I recall my father saying “That burns me up,” with regard to work related issues in particular, while swigging Maalox. On the flip side, we were encouraged to be happy, loving and in gratitude mode. All good on the surface. I held back expressing sadness often, since my father used to say “What hurts you, hurts me.” Now, some would find that a compassionate, empathetic statement of support. I internalized it, even at an early age to mean that if I felt sad, daddy would feel sad and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. I became a good little co-dependent, believing that it was my job to take care of the emotional wellbeing of people in my life. Any surprise that I became a social worker/therapist/minister/teacher/writer/radio host whose work is all about relationships? I would also hear him say “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, you’ll be alright,” as a means of encouraging resilience. Again, it could be interpreted in different ways. My parents modeled resilience and while it couldn’t be called stoicism, it was certainly emotional control.
What became abundantly clear through the course of the weekend was that anger comes out when I witness injustice; someone being harmed, or people deliberately causing damage of some kind. It is like I am feeling FOR them …righteous indignation, a sense of “How dare you?” I can feel my hackles being raised and I’m like a protective Mama bear, charging to the rescue of her cubs. A friend who was there had asked me how I deal with my own toes being stepped on, or boundaries being crossed. I generally don’t get angry then; sometimes frustrated, but then I step back and clarify my needs with that person. It somehow feels like a ‘waste of emotion’ to get angry, like ‘what good is it going to do?’ He pointed out that it needs to be verbalized but not sustained. Kind of like a little kid who falls down, skins her knee, cries over the boo boo, gets it patched up and then is back on the playground. What we resist, persists; I know that well.
Reid used two powerful analogies that really resonated with me, around the theme of stored emotion. The first was a pile of newspapers that we allow to accumulate and we think that if we attempt to burn them, they will become a raging conflagration. The other is a closet filled with golf balls. If we open the door, we are afraid they will come crashing down around us. The trick is to be aware of them in the first place and be willing to face them as they arise so that they don’t overwhelm us . I am learning to do that after all these years.
In one of the exercises, we worked with a partner and non-verbally shared an emotion and the other person was to tell us what they thought we were feeling. As I exhibited anger, I noticed that I was squeezing my fists in the way I would if I was having lab work done and the syringe was approaching my arm, ready to draw blood. Sometimes I do need to work myself up to even feel the emotion that has seemed dangerous when I have witnessed others showcasing it. Like a wild animal, I feel a need to tame it, lest it take hold of me in its jaws and tote me away for a hearty meal. Learning that it serves a valuable purpose if it can propel me to positive action. Pumping up the volume, knowing that I am in charge of the control switch.