Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?
In this 12-part series I share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more peacefully and abundantly.
My reference is The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.
Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.
Louis D. Brandeis
Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Everyone knows what it’s like to feel anger. Everyone knows what’s it like to be on the receiving end of someone else’s wrath. However, what most people don’t realize is that beyond this hurtful, inflammatory, uncomfortable feeling lies an important message. A message designed to return us to a state of peace if we just listen, honour and respond to it appropriately.
As with all emotions, anger has a specific role to play. In essence, this dynamic feeling warns when a personal boundary has been crossed. It tells us when our personal space has been invaded by unwanted attention or manipulation, and asks us to restore the boundary to a healthy status quo.
Most of us have been taught from early on not to entertain our anger or, at the very least, to suppress it so as not to make a scene. Of course, it’s important to manage our anger, however ignoring or burying it is not a healthy option. When we do this we not only miss an opportunity to teach someone how to respect our personal space, we give them permission to invade it again … and again. Also, we create an environment for emotional volatility.
Is there someone in your life you have to tip-toe around all the time? Withheld anger creates a powder keg that, with a seemingly random trigger, may blow at any moment. And if it doesn’t blow outward, it implodes. Many deeply angered people manage their feelings through addiction which, of course, numbs them to their emotional environment. They want to feel without feeling. Before I sought help my addiction was emotional self-battery through negative self-talk and the need to prove I was perfect. It almost destroyed me.
Anger’s healthy expression is more about explanation than explosion. Confronting the offender in the moment opens the door to understanding and solutions rather than unnecessary, escalated arguments. If, in the end, the other party refuses to acknowledge or accept responsibility for their actions we have, at the very least, allowed ourselves an opportunity to express our feelings. This helps diffuse the negative energy that accumulates when we stuff hard emotions down where they can fester. Acknowledging our anger in the presence of the one who has angered us is the first step toward finding our own peace. It also helps us to decide whether or not we want to continue being with someone who demonstrates so little regard for our space and such lack of empathy for our feelings.
Ultimately, taking care of our personal emotional welfare is our own responsibility. If others are offended by this, that is their battle. Why would we want to be drawn into their fight?
A lesson in boundaries
I first became aware of personal boundaries 10 years ago as an apprentice in Chris Irwin’s horse training program. I was approaching woman-of-a-certain-age-hood ~ 40+ years old with no concept of a personal boundary. I was angry and reactive with no idea why.
One afternoon I was engaged in a round pen exercise with an unfamiliar horse. While I don’t recall the exact details (due to my penchant to dissociate under stress), I remember finishing in tears, overwhelmed, frustrated and angry that the exercise had not gone “perfectly” as I’d envisioned it. I felt exposed and fraudulent. Another participant, a social worker/therapist, sat with me as I attempted to process my experience. When it seemed appropriate she shared her observations and introduced me to the notion of setting personal boundaries. Why? Because the horse had clearly shown me I had none.
I remember thinking at the time, “Setting a boundary? What does that even mean?”
This was the pivotal moment in my life that set me on the experiential learning path. Having uncovered this sad personal truth, I finally understood how I’d relinquished so much of my own power in favour of yielding to the agendas of others. The reason was, at that point, still beyond my understanding.
Through the years my continued study and participation in equine experiential learning has helped me realize that many of our individual challenges, and those as a society, arise from the fact that most of us are never taught the importance of setting, and respecting, personal boundaries. Attentive parents teach children to refrain from taking candy from/talking to/getting into a car with a stranger. Still, who teaches their child when and how to be appropriately angry after someone has invaded their space? The sad fact is that most parents have little or no concept of this themselves never mind know how to teach it.
Due to their open and trusting nature, children are particularly vulnerable. Abuse of any kind is a devastating violation of their personal space as they have no defence. Their mental and emotional world is so fragile that such an assault is a horribly traumatic experience. Without proper support to manage their overwhelming feelings, their normal emotional and mental growth patterns are hijacked. In essence, their healthy sense of self has been sabotaged leaving them primed to serve an ensuing line-up of advantage-takers who can spot just such a victim miles away. This paves the way to an angry, frustrated adulthood and the negative pattern persists until some force beyond them issues a wake-up call, or a series thereof. I know this to be true from my own experience. The round pen exercise was one of many.
Linda Kohanov ~ author, speaker, riding instructor and horse trainer internationally recognized as an innovator in the field of Equine Experiential Learning, and a respected writer on the subject of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy ~ describes boundary setting as “… the dance of respect and connection.”
From my own experience, and through observation, I’ve learned that taking back our power by learning this dance with horses is one of the most life affirming ways to understand the concept of a personal boundary and experience a positive shift in personal power.
… horses approach each other; ears pinned slightly and tails swishing in anticipation, they begin the tenuous dance of respect and connection.
from Way of the Horse
It’s fascinating to watch herd members set boundaries with one another. When a new horse is introduced the approach is cautious and respectful. “Who is this new guy?” everyone wants to know. “Who are these guys?” the initiate wonders. With many squeals and snorts and much stomping of feet ~ a moment of emotional elevation while they sort it out ~ the horses engage and establish the new hierarchy. If a boundary is crossed at a later time it’s quickly re-established with a squeal or a nip, or the threat of a kick. The anger released and order established, the herd goes back to grazing.
Toxic Emotional Soup
Humans, for the most part, don’t manage their anger half as well. Because expression of anger, even the healthy variety, is frowned upon, negative emotions are harboured and left to stew. Most of us are unaware of the toxic emotional soup we keep adding to each day, nor can we connect with the moment someone put the pot on and told us to stir.
For example, civil wars and family disputes going back generations are held in the collective conscious of those involved for so long that most a) are reacting to a fight that isn’t even theirs, b) aren’t aware of their own feelings about it because they’ve been supplanted by the agendas of others, and c) are afraid (and don’t know how) to establish a boundary that says “this is not my truth.” All they know is that this is the way it’s always been and this is the way it will always stay. It’s anger fed by hate fed by ignorance fed by anger, served up in double portions and force fed to the innocent all for the sake of an unresolved trespassed personal boundary which happened, perhaps, centuries ago.
When not dealt with in a healthy way, anger spins off into its noxious cousins ~ frustration, rage, fury, shame, guilt, boredom and apathy ~ a dangerous and debilitating posse of emotions that inflicts further trauma on the one holding the anger and crosses boundaries to wound unfortunate bystanders. Abusers have been abused; haters have experienced hate. Their feelings of pain and loss of control, as well as the underlying fear that there is no hope of change, perpetuates anger until it explodes all over the next hapless victim ~ whether family, friend, social group, country or themselves, it is the same.
The truth is that well-placed anger, in the moment, re-establishes the invaded personal boundary. Just as the angry horse issues a warning kick of trespass, we need to be aware of our personal space and protect it in a way that allows us to remain open and engaged with the fullness of life. Personal melodrama, often due to suppressed anger playing out through addiction and similar debilitating activities, is simply unacknowledged emotions repeating their important messages over and over until the intended recipient finally “gets it” and takes appropriate action to resolve the inner conflict.
Learning how to set a personal boundary and becoming aware of our impact on the world around us are two of the most important lessons of equine experiential learning. Horses as objective third parties with no judgement or agenda powerfully reflect who and how we are in the moment. They can teach us, with the guiding hand of a qualified practitioner, to understand how to set and manoeuvre our personal boundaries so we feel more in control of our lives without offending the boundaries of others.
A final word
With reference to the quote by Louis D. Brandeis at the beginning of this piece, I feel that anger is indeed born of ignorance ~ ignorance of our own, and others’, boundaries. I also believe that learning to turn ignorance into awareness helps to develop empathy.
I’m reminded of a quote in Charles Dickens’ classic work A Christmas Carol:
… They are Man’s and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
Ignorance flourishes in a closed heart and mind, and a lack of self-awareness in this regard spawns a terrible, destructive anger. Those whose boundaries have been violated and never restored harbour their anger and are most likely to cleave to ignorance as a means of false protection. They’re also more likely to become the predators among us because, having no empathy, they act out with no regard for the welfare of others.
Horses are perfect mirror for our emotions. That disconcerting experience in the round pen offered an awakening for me. It was the invitation I needed to begin exploring my inner world so that I could understand the hidden sources of anger crippling my emotional life. It gave me the awareness I needed to begin remedial action.
The fact is we cannot feel at peace with ourselves and the world around us until we acknowledge and respect the message of anger. By answering its call to action in a way that honours our truth without offence to others we re-establish the boundary crossed and teach others how to treat us.
Be the peace you so dearly seek. Let the horses show you how.
Healing begins in the heart …
Next: Part V … Frustration
©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2016