Tag Archives: rage

Resistance as a Protective Mechanism – Part 1

modern artWhen we were young, many of us learned that certain emotions are bad or wrong to feel or express. For instance, if we expressed naturally arising emotions such as frustration, fear, or sadness, perhaps our parents believed those emotions are harmful and so attempted to squelch their expression. Similarly, if we expressed joy, excitement, or exuberance, believe it or not, sometimes our parents can believe those emotions are also wrong to express in excess, and so they will teach us (in a variety of creative ways) that the expression of those energies is not acceptable.

As young children, we depend upon our caregivers for survival. This means that our basic autonomic survival mechanisms will engage when our caregivers strongly disapprove of something we are doing or expressing, and we’ll begin to mold ourselves in whatever ways are necessary to meet their expectations and demands. If our caregivers clearly do not want us to feel or express certain emotions, we will begin to resist or repress those emotions whenever they arise in us. This resistance/repression is actually an internal protective mechanism formed to keep us safe—that is, safely away from feeling or expressing the emotions we aren’t allowed to feel, given our circumstances. This protective mechanism becomes ingrained and autonomic; that is, it will be triggered automatically whenever these “dangerous” emotions begin to arise in us, effectively keeping us away from feeling or expressing them. The amazing thing is all this happens without our conscious minds needing to do anything!

freeimages.co.uk medical imagesIt turns out that it takes quite a bit of energy to repress natural emotion, and we experience this resistance as various kinds of suffering. The suffering can take the form of anxiety, rage, depression, shame, blame, self-reproach, fear, restlessness, and any other multitude of unpleasant (or downright awful) experiences. The confusion here is that we often label these experiences as “emotions.” But these forms of suffering are NOT true emotions. Quite the opposite is the case. These states are instead the inner experience of the repression of natural emotion. The suffering itself actually forms the protective mechanism we have developed to keep us away from feeling the underlying emotion. (I should note here as well that these states don’t just protect us from feeling unwanted emotion, but they can also protect us from feeling the overwhelming energy and sensations associated with unintegrated trauma. I’ll be discussing that topic in Part 2 of this post.)

So, what is important about this distinction between emotion and states of suffering? Well, if you have been around the block in the self-help world, I’m sure you’ve heard by now how important it is to “feel your emotions.” But, the problem is if you think that the rage, the anxiety, the shame, the depression, the restlessness, etc., are the emotions everyone is telling you you’re supposed to be feeling, you might be wondering when the healing is going to start because you still feel like crap even though you keep feeling all these “emotions.” After all, you are feeling these things… over and over again… so shouldn’t you be healing by now?

The issue here is that you are not actually feeling the energy (the emotion) that you have repressed. Rather, what is happening is your protective mechanism is being triggered. The rage, the shame, the anxiety, the depression… none of these are the underlying emotion. You are experiencing what it feels like to resist and repress the emotion, and it hurts—a lot.

The natural energy (the true emotion), when actually experienced and allowed to move in a way that is not overwhelming, feels nothing at all like these forms of suffering. In fact, when I started to feel authentic emotion, it was hard for me to even label it because it was so different than what I had been experiencing (depression) for so many years. A dandelion 3real emotion, when felt fully, rises in me like a wave, crests, and then naturally dissipates. It is simply an energy wave with a certain “flavor” that moves through me. It is powerful, yes, but it does not continually spin and never resolve. Actually, in my experience, it feels good to feel real emotion, no matter what flavor that emotion might take.

It is actually very easy to distinguish between states of suffering and the movement of real emotion. States of suffering such as I described above (rage, shame, anxiety, depression, etc.) will come in repeating patterns. The feelings will be triggered and arise over and over again, with no real resolution, no matter how much they are “felt.” There will be patterned thoughts, beliefs, and physiological/physical changes that arise at the same time. Also, the states will probably escalate over time because it takes more and more energy to repress more and more emotion, thus greater suffering is present in the resistance and repression. In contrast, a real emotion is a one-time deal. It will move through like a wave, and it will do so rather quickly. That doesn’t mean a similar emotion won’t arise again, but it won’t feel like it’s the same thing happening over and over again with no resolution or progress.

Because these states of suffering become repeating patterns that get more intense over time, they are often labeled as mental illnesses such as anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Eventually, the suffering can also become a significant contributor to physical diseases and disorders, such as autoimmune conditions, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, inflammatory conditions, and more.

Perhaps by now you can see how these states of suffering distract us away from experiencing the underlying emotion because we become focused on the suffering itself. Our attention turns toward trying to get rid of the suffering. We take drugs to treat the depression and anxiety and chronic pain. We read self-help books to try to fix our “destructive belief systems.” But because we unconsciously believe that the underlying emotions are wrong or dangerous to feel, our suffering—which is the protective mechanism itself—is actually designed to distract us away from feeling the original emotion. That’s its job! Essentially, we become hypnotized by our own suffering. As you can see, our protective mechanisms are very effective at keeping us away from the emotions we aren’t supposed to feel.

The rubber meets the road in our healing journey when we finally turn toward those aspects of ourselves that are suffering and meet them in a different way. The rage, the anxiety, the shame, the depression… when these protective mechanisms are met with curiosity rather than animosity, we begin to realize how they served us in the past and continue to serve us even today. At the same time, we can also see clearly the ways in which these protective mechanisms no longer serve us, and in fact hurt us and hurt others in deep and profound ways. It is when we are able hold both of these truths in our hearts that something else—another option—becomes possible. Through this process, the protective mechanisms can begin to let go, and when they do, the energy that is underneath them will come to the surface to be felt and integrated. I have found this to be the crux of healing this kind of core wound.

turtleIn Part 2 of this post, I’ll be discussing this same topic in a more nuanced way as it relates to trauma. To say that suppressing emotion is how and why we form these protective mechanisms is actually incomplete and bit simplistic. With trauma, the sensations and feelings we experience are literally overwhelming—so overwhelming that we are unable to integrate and process them at the time of the experience. Our system then isolates that unintegrated energy (so that we can continue to function) and forms protective mechanisms to keep us away from re-experiencing the overwhelm. I’ll be exploring this in more depth in Part 2. Stay tuned!

With love,
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Extra Crazy

A few weeks ago, I completely lost it. As one of my favorite integral psychologists (Dr. Keith Witt) would say: I went “extra crazy.” I take some comfort in the fact that we all go extra crazy from time to time, and that I’ve grown enormously as a result of the experience. Plus, my version of extra crazy (at least in terms of outward behavior) was pretty mild and short in duration compared to some other expressions. But still, there’s no escaping it. I went extra crazy, and it wasn’t pretty.

It was rage that consumed me, first directed at someone I respect and love dearly, then later that night turned against myself. It started out as simple irritation. Then I let it fester, and we all know what happens when we let irritation fester. It grew slowly into anger and finally into all-consuming, self-righteous rage. And unfortunately, I unloaded and expressed that rage in a hurtful way.

The grace of the situation was that the woman I unloaded on has enormous capacity to be grounded and present when extra crazy shows up, and even though it was hurtful for her, when I apologized the next day, all was forgiven and repaired between us. She could see I had gone extra crazy and that it wasn’t really about her, because she knows and has integrated that extra crazy part of herself — a part that we all carry.

The truth is the real violence happened within myself that evening as the rage turned inward. The outward expression of the rage was nothing compared to its ferocity when turned against myself. It morphed and transfigured into intense shame and self hate. The violence of my thoughts astounded me even as I was in the midst of experiencing their barrage.

I’m not sure how I made it through that night and showed up the next day to apologize and make repair with the woman who was the original target of my rage. I truly believe part of it was grace answering my prayer for help, as I knew I was out of control. But part of it also was all the work I have done over the years to learn to be present with the intensity of my experience when I am triggered. Even at the most intense moments, I was still in touch with another — and somehow truer — aspect of myself that was not suffering. This aspect was witnessing the whole thing, quietly but insistently whispering in my ear that maybe — just maybe — it wasn’t quite so black and white as I was thinking and feeling, that maybe there was more to me than rage and one hurtful act, that maybe I would learn something through this experience and have more capacity to love as a result. It was the “essential me” whispering truth in my ear. And the miracle was that I had the capacity to hear it and feel it at the core of my being.

In the days that followed, I came to fully accept for the first time that this extra crazy part of myself exists. I saw that I had been living in denial, believing until this experience that I was a purely “good person.” I saw that my concept of what makes a person “good” was completely made up and unattainable by any human being. And when I was finally able to turn toward this part of myself and meet it, I realized why it exists and what it’s trying to do.

This aspect is not often extra crazy, but it has the capacity to go there when triggered. It’s the part of me that has done everything it possibly can to help me survive and be as comfortable as possible in difficult situations. When not extra crazy, it’s the logical aspect, the part that analyzes challenging situations and comes up with solutions based on past experience. It’s the part of me that has figured out brilliant ways to make it through. It’s also my protector. It protects another part of me that finds this journey of life to be unspeakably hard and often doesn’t know what to do, and would simply give up if it weren’t for its protector. And it worked. I’m still here, even if a bit battered for the journey. With these realizations, I was finally able to embrace this part of myself with compassion and love.

Of course, this aspect of myself is also the part that can go extra crazy. It is all about me. It can seem like it’s concerned with others, but it’s really not. It’s manipulative, and it lacks compassion. It can only be in relationship on a superficial level. Connection, compassion, and empathy are not in its job description… although I realize now that before this experience, I expected it to be and do everything.

What has changed now is that I am no longer shunning this aspect of myself. I see where it fits, that it is an important part of me, and I also see where its role ends. I see that I had unintentionally abandoned this part of myself, simultaneously shunning it while expecting it to figure everything out. And at the same time, as I came to these realizations, I also more fully embodied what I might call my essential nature, the deeper aspect that is about love, and compassion, and empathy, and heartfelt connection. This deeper aspect finally showed up to embrace and support the other part that had been abandoned. And somehow through all of that there has been an integration into a greater whole, like there are no longer separate parts inside of me, but rather different aspects working together as a whole being.

So in the end, I suppose I am grateful I went extra crazy that day. It’s that exquisite paradox of both beauty and horror all wrapped up in one experience. I came out of it feeling more whole, more integrated, and more real. And yes, I came out of it with more capacity to love.