Emotion as Messenger: Part IV … Anger

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.

Part I … Fear
Part II … Sadness
Part III … Vulnerability

~*~

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?

Boundary Dance

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.

Boundary Dance

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.

Meet and Greet

 

 … horses approach each other; ears pinned slightly and tails swishing in anticipation, they begin the tenuous dance of respect and connection.

Linda Kohanov
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.

Boundary infraction

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.

Be well,

Dorothy

~*~

Healing begins in the heart …

CorEquus

~*~

Next: Part V … Frustration

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2016

 

 

Emotion as Messenger: Part II … Sadness

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 attempt to share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more 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.

Part I … Fear

~*~

“Sadness is often a part of grief or depression, but in its purest form, it’s a healing agent that motivates us to let go of what no longer serves us so we can embrace the next stage of growth and creativity.”
Linda Kohanov

~*~

Denying our feelings is a dangerous coping strategy. Choosing not to feel our feelings keeps the emotions behind them alive (and not necessarily well). These unreleased emotions block our ability to move forward in life and generally leads to more debilitating feelings as we unwittingly self-sabotage.

We need to feel in order to heal. We need to feel … to be real.

Sadness, like grief or anger, is one of those withering emotions that can trap us in a negative downward spiral. While it must be felt, it must also be constructively released if it’s to do its job properly and allow us to advance to the next stage of personal growth.

By definition, sadness, is an uncomfortable, often painful feeling that accompanies some kind of impending loss. Any significant approaching change can be a catalyst for sadness.

Autumn's GirlRecently we lost our beautiful, old rough collie, Sass. In the weeks leading up to her death it was sad to witness this once vivacious girl, who used to love to herd my husband and I around like sheep, sleep away the day and hobble on wobbly legs for a short walk down the street. Watching her slow demise gave me pause, remembering all the happy times we’d shared. I realized, again with sadness, how old age had been creeping in on her for some time and inevitably changed the dynamic of our relationship. Recognizing this made letting go of our dear girl less traumatic for me. I wasn’t terrified of losing her. I’d already lost the youthful essence of Sass to the ravages of time. My commitment to her was that she would not suffer from her own loss of quality life.

Feeling the sadness as the difficult decision to let Sass go approached helped to cushion the blow struck by the impending change. It allowed me to transit from a chapter of my life with her in body to one more with her in spirit without a lot of personal suffering.

When we resist our feelings we unwittingly impose limits on our potential, which ultimately leads us to become stuck in a rut of self-loathing at our inability to move forward. We get in our own way without realizing it.

By embracing the passage of sadness for what it is ~ a messenger marking a shift in our lives ~ we give ourselves permission to enrich the meaning of our experience and move into the next chapter of our potential.

The avalanche of despair

Our inability or unwillingness to feel sadness as it enters our experience (or, yes, our choice to harbour in it) leads us directly to despair. Despair is an avalanche off a mountain of built-up sadness ~ that is the complete absence, or loss, of hope. Since despair plummets us so powerfully, it is more destructive than sadness; more gut-wrenching; more debilitating. It swiftly carries us into the valley of dark despondence where courage and enthusiasm for life become buried under a devastating rock pile of hopeless depression. Buried in the unfelt feelings, our lives become burdensome and claustrophobic. Lost.

How can we dig ourselves out from under the weight of a debilitating emotional load we had no idea we were shouldering until life took us out at the knees?

Horse-inspired healing

Earlier this year I faced a time of profound sadness with the diagnosis of a career-ending injury for my horse, Shakespeare (Bear). I was devastated. All my dressage dreams with my beautiful equine partner gone with a single injury, and he confined to stall rest indefinitely while he healed. For two weeks, as I came to terms with this new reality, life felt surreal. I functioned in a fog of bewilderment and immeasurable sadness.

Riding was going on the back burner. For how long, I did not know. All I knew was that Bear deserved a chance to get well, and that I needed to experience this time with him, allowing my sadness to prepare me for the new path he and I would walk together, whatever that would be. I knew that in order to go forward I needed to release any attachment to what was and open my heart to new possibilities.

My inspiration for renewal was, amazingly, Bear.

For a horse who loves his paddock time this turn of events might have proved devastating. Most horses go stir crazy confined to a 12×12 stall for an extended period of time. Bear, however, adapted quickly to his new routine as prescribed by his attending vet: 120 days of stall rest with 10-15 minutes of hand walking per day. As well, I had to work at my nursing skills, sweating the injured leg and changing his leg wraps daily ~ an intimidating prospect for one with no confidence in her ability to administer first aid.

Chillin' copy 2At first it all felt overwhelming. However, as time passed and I observed how well Bear was adapting to this radical change in his routine, I learned to move through my sadness and embrace the new reality as well. With each day my heart became more resilient and my mind more open. Watching Bear take his confinement in stride gave me the courage to do the same. Instead of resisting the notion of learning how to take care of his injury, I embraced it. As I opened up to the opportunity of caring for my horse differently the pain and sadness I felt gradually subsided and our relationship deepened.

Bear needed me and I needed to be there for him. As it turned out, Bear was a model patient throughout the entire treatment period. Perhaps that had something to do with my ability to be there for him, but I believe it was more about his own instinctive need for down time. Witnessing his acceptance invited me to do the same. In the process, I released my need to suffer and stepped boldly into the new reality ~ a much healthier way of being than walking around feeling sorry for myself, at Bear’s expense.

Beyond the sadness … a silver lining

Always at the back of mind too, however, was the notion that every dark, voluminous cloud is lined with silver.

An icy paddock was all it took for a career-ending injury to a lateral suspensory ligament, however the ensuing veterinary work-up confirmed that Bear’s hind suspensory ligaments were dropping and he was not structurally sound enough to continue in training. Had he not been injured and I’d persisted in our training, his injuries might have been much worse. His injury was a wake-up call; an invitation to shift focus.

The silver lining?

Bear is confirmed as the lead horse in my new Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning (FEEL) practice. As well, after a six-month search we finally welcomed lovely Sophi into our herd. It is with this lovely mare that I may more realistically pursue my dressage dreams.

Eight months have passed since the fateful diagnosis, but taking it head on and working through the sadness has helped me to avoid the avalanche of despair into the valley of despondence into which I could so easily have descended. Instead, Bear and I have deepened our relationship and created room in our hearts for expansion.

Feel the sadness; release the suffering

In summary, by feeling our sadness and recognizing this emotional messenger for what it is ~ a chance to release and rejuvenate ~ we give ourselves permission to be free of suffering and move to the next chapter of our experience. A lot of lives are wasted unwittingly dwelling in the sad place. Making the decision to feel our emotions, including sadness, allows us to open our lives to new horizons and possibilities for growth and expansion. The only other option leaves us stuck, unhappy and unfulfilled.

Do you find yourself mired in sadness? If so, perhaps it’s time to allow the horses to help guide you out.

Be well,

Dorothy

~*~

Healing begins in the heart …

CorEquus

~*~

Next: Part III … Vulnerability

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015