The reason I decided to create a course on working with anger is because for so many years, I was terrible at it. I couldn’t talk about it, certainly couldn’t do it, and I bottled it all up inside until it felt like I was walking around with a deadly weapon.
One day I was in a tai chi class when the instructor had us do ‘push hands’ instead of the usual form. Push hands is a kind of practice where you partner up and follow a very simple motion and step pattern that helps you tune in to the chi of the other person.
As long as I was practicing alone, I felt comfortable and in control (well, what I really felt was awkward and insecure, but at least I was alone). As soon as I had to have a partner, I found that being pushed around made me feel startlingly angry and therefore unsafe, since I had no method for dealing with anger. Every movement felt unsafe, like anything could happen. Not that my partner might do something, but like I might do anything.
I quietly stood back and took myself out of class, mumbling about feeling uncomfortable, and feeling that there was something very wrong with me.
Now, I know that what I was really struggling with was boundary enmeshment and impairment, a situation in which I didn’t understand at what point I ended, and where everyone else began. I didn’t know where my boundary was, or what should be in it, or what shouldn’t be in it. Because I had no clear boundary, when someone pushed me, I felt threatened and on uncertain ground, since I didn’t even know if this ground was mine. In short, I panicked (because my very wellbeing felt threatened) and felt the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response that comes with panic. In this case, I froze, and fled, since I was so afraid of what my fight response might be.
Once I began reading The Language of Emotions, it took me years to grasp the concept of a boundary as it related to me. I could explain it to others, even teach it, but to actually experience it, to know what values my boundary held and represented to me, and how to defend my boundary without fearing I’d turn into Uma Thurman in Kill Bill took practice, lots of practice.
Some of the most helpful exercises in learning about anger weren’t about screaming it out, or by setting harsh boundaries. It was through conscious practice of first experiencing my boundary, and by defining it in just about every way I could think about, from the physical aspect, to the mental/emotional aspect, to the spiritual. I talked about boundaries, and practiced maintaining it in different ways, from using visual practices to ‘cleanse’ my boundary, to laying out actual physical delineations like a hula hoop, to writing lists of what was me and not me. I came at it from every angle I could think of, because I recognized that as long as I felt unsafe in this world, I wasn’t going to be able to have much fun, or get much done.
Learning how to work with anger is an ongoing process, just like when learning a language, you’re never quite done but always listening for a new turn of phrase or picking up a different kind of accent. In this long journey to learn to work with anger, it’s possible to go from being a foreigner with no skills to someone who’s learning increasingly nuanced aspects of the language of anger from every interaction. But it’s a process that takes time, and support, and help from the outside world.
In that tai chi class, I never would have imagined that actually setting boundaries were what would help me feel safe. But that experience helped me see that something really was wrong, and that I didn’t have to feel that way all the time. It’s led me to this: healthy anger is powerful and essential to adventure, trying new things, and testing my limits. I wouldn’t do life without it!