The hidden cost of suppressing anger

I grew up exposed to a lot of anger, resentment, and hostility of varying degrees, to the extent that I concluded the emotion of anger was inherently destructive, toxic, and undesirable.

Plenty of spiritual teachings support this view. An enlightened person is supposed to be beyond anger, and the Christian tradition is split on the question of whether anger is ever justified.

In my own circumstances expressing anger resulted in ridicule, shame, disapproval or escalation of conflict. So I learned at an early age that anger was not only unpleasant but also fruitless.

I’m in uncharted territory as I now learn that anger is in fact a normal part of our emotional landscape. Anger is an emotional defence-system. It guards against unfair treatment and protects us from abuse and injustice.

Seeing people use and express anger in dysfunctional ways, coupled with the inefficacy of my own anger, convinced me to disable, disregard, and suppress it. My solution was simply to avoid anything that might trigger anger, or require anger.

If I don’t like how I’m being treated, it’s up to me to change it, challenge it, or leave. What’s the point in adding anger to the mix? So I thought.

The hidden cost

Suppressing anger and avoiding triggers of anger comes with an enormous cost.

I had to become hyper-vigilant to possible external threats because I didn’t want to rely on my natural defences. It took a lot of mental energy to be aware of potential dangers and always prepared for them.

At the same time I was continually internally vigilant to my own actions and emotions, trying to avoid anything that might trigger anger, resentment, hostility or conflict.

The internal and external vigilance took a lot of energy, and kept me perpetually focused on negative scenarios.

But perhaps the biggest cost of disavowing anger is that I cordoned off whole sections of my own self, censoring aspects of my personality and feeling that might cause offense or conflict with others.

Borrowing an analogy from Chesterton: it’s like a playground near a cliff. If there’s a big strong fence by the cliff, the children will happily play right up to the edge. But if there’s no fence, the children won’t want to go anywhere near it.

For me anger was the cliff, and in the absence of a strong fence I’ve avoided going anywhere near it, avoiding even the possibility of conflict in my everyday life, vastly overestimating the likelihood of conflict and the risk of just being myself.

To avoid causing offense I’ve tried to be as inoffensive as possible. It’s exhausting, and impossible anyway because we can’t control who we offend or how. And it’s come at a cost to the full expression of my personality, and been an enormous drain on my inner resources.

Relearning anger

I’m becoming familiar with anger now as the other half of my complete personality.

Not that I want or need to be angry, but I do want and need the freedom that comes from making peace with anger.

I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they draw a distinction between healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger; I’m also beginning to see how my early confusion came from witnessing people redirecting their anger inappropriately as well as expressing it destructively.

It’s okay to be angry, it’s normal and healthy. But anger is neither an excuse nor a justification for how you act when angry. And in fact the better we are at expressing anger in healthy and constructive ways, the less of a big deal anger becomes.

If you’ve grown up with parents whose anger translates into violent outbursts or simmering hostility or cold resentment, the whole concept of healthy anger might seem like a contradiction in terms.

It takes time and familiarity to relearn anger and see that in its essence it is not ugly or violent or dangerous.

In its essence anger is an advocate for your rights and a champion of the good you deserve. It exists to serve your own wholeness and integrity, and it can serve you in assertive actions and words more effectively than aggressive and destructive behaviours can.

Unresolvable problems: the paradox of disorganised attachment

The paradox of disorganised attachment is that we have a biological need for closeness, security and comfort from parents or caregivers even when those parents or caregivers instil terror and a sense of threat in us.

Children with disorganised attachment are placed in a “paradoxical injunction” by the caregiver, according to Professor Erik Hesse from UC Berkeley, activating both an approach and a move away tendency in the child.

The search for answers

Spiritual teachings promising freedom from fear don’t necessarily work for people suffering from a disorganised attachment.

In my case, the search for spiritual truth and “answers” is an attempt to overcome the paradoxical injunction; yet the answers I found were too generic or insufficiently tailored to my circumstances of temperament and upbringing.

But it’s not just a matter of insufficient answers: the very act of searching can be seen as part of the disorganised dynamic…trying to overcome the feelings of fear and satisfy the need for secure attachment albeit in a highly abstract and intellectual way

Searching is therefore a symptom or expression of the paradoxical injunction, and is itself paradoxical – a search for answers that is never complete.

When I search I feel like I’m approaching a resolution. But in fact I’m acting out my approach, sublimating the desire for secure attachment with a caregiver into the desire for a spiritualised state of freedom and peace.

And that’s why it fails, because from within that dynamic I can only conceive of such a spiritual state as implicitly very difficult to attain.

The search is my attachment.

Resolving the unresolvable

How can this unresolvable problem be resolved? I think the only way to stop the cycle is before it begins, to stop feeding it with my search and acknowledge how I’ve kept it alive all these years.

I already know from my Abraham-Hicks work that I can feel better easily. And the more I practice feeling better, the better I feel.

I’ve also observed that my need to search for answers has been disruptive, making me feel worse in the long run despite the allure of finally finding a resolution.

On the most basic level I have an association of love with terror and security with instability. Things that are “safe” don’t offer the deepest happiness and things that offer happiness are beset with obstacles and threats.

But I can be mindful of this association now. I can observe it, see the pattern, and begin to let it go, instead of acting on it and thereby keeping it alive.

Are you searching for coherence?

I recently learned about disorganised attachment and immediately wanted to share it with you all.

Attachment theory is all about our childhood need for secure attachment to parents or caregivers. But when those attachment figures are not available or unreliable it shapes our attachment and our subsequent view of life and relationships.

The original theory covered anxious attachment and avoidant attachment and I couldn’t see myself in either of those…or maybe in both? But that didn’t make sense.

Well it turns out there were enough people who didn’t fit either category that they created a new one: disorganised attachment.

Disorganised attachment means you weren’t able to find an attachment style that worked, because the people you turned to for security were themselves threatening and unsafe. As an adult you may struggle to find a stable way of relating to yourself and others.

If you find it hard to know who you are, or to understand others, this may apply to you. Listen to this excellent podcast:

https://www.therapistuncensored.com/tu61/

What is self-esteem?

Someone asked me recently about self-esteem and I admit I fudged it.

My answer was along the lines of self-efficacy…which is more about recognising that I’m good at certain things.

So what’s self-esteem then?

I’ve been thinking it over and I’ve read plenty about it before, but self-esteem has to be more than just words.

Self-esteem isn’t about your skills, talents, or other qualities, but your intrinsic value. Specifically, it’s feeling good about yourself for no f***ing reason whatsoever other than…you’re you, and it feels better this way, and it makes everything easier and more enjoyable.

Baseless, irrational, and subjective…in a good way!

That’s what really threw me about self-esteem. I grew up thinking we were supposed to value objectivity and truth and give reasons for what we believe and reasons for how we feel.

But if you apply those criteria to how you feel about yourself…you’re pretty much screwed because there’s no objective basis for feeling good about yourself. You either already feel good, in which case you’re merely gilding the lily with fresh excuses to proclaim your wondrous existence; or you already feel crap, and there is nothing on earth that will overcome your crappy feelings and convince you to be otherwise.

Self-esteem is not objective. And yet it is vital and life changing, because if you can find a way to feel good without reason then that good feeling goes before you like a holy aura and changes everything around you.

If you can find a way to feel good without reason, then everything feels good the moment it comes into your presence.

Find a way to feel good without reason? More like remember the good feelings you’ve already had, feelings you probably crushed or put away because they seemed unreasonable at the time, as if you were going to be graded on the realism of your good mood.

That’s what self-esteem means to me. It’s not about holding myself in high regard, that’s just how people try to explain why they let themselves feel good for no reason. I prefer to see it as acknowledging that there’s no reason to feel this good, so there’s no reason not to. Life isn’t waiting on me to accomplish something that justifies these good feelings. If anything it’s the other way around.

How to do it

I don’t know if a “how to” will work, but for me my good feelings were all tied up with the fantasy novels and superhero movies and anime and manga that inspired me so much. Feelings of freedom and empowerment and adventure and excitement, love and authenticity and, yeah, worth, and the sheer joy of the characters at the height of their powers.

These are the things that speak to me. Why the hell shouldn’t I use them? Why shouldn’t I take those good feelings and carry them with me? Because I’m old enough now to know that none of the people with “strong” self-esteem I’ve met in the past had any real justification for how they felt. There was not an iota of considered, objective thought behind those people’s bias in favour of their own value. They just felt good because they’d felt good more often than not in their young lives and knew nothing else.

What I’m getting at is that we may not have had that foundation, but we did have inspiration and we still do. Knowing that we create our reality, how we feel is far more important than we ever knew, and it now makes complete sense that every time we put aside those good feelings we delayed their fruition into something more.

No, we had no reason to feel that good, but if we do it anyway, indulge in those wonderful feelings of freedom and empowerment, everything must give way to that.

 

 

 

 

Course correction: negative emotion

My previous efforts with the Abraham-Hicks teachings have helped me a great deal. My mood is better, I’m more active in life, I feel less burdened by things that used to bother me.

My relationships have improved, my health has improved, and I feel better all round.

So why a course correction?

I’ve been feeling so much better that lately other, more difficult issues have risen to the surface. This is a good thing, but it demands a change in my approach.

Why is it a good thing?

The root causes of our problems are best not tackled directly until we are ready. It’s like removing a big tree: you first cut off the branches, then maybe cut off sections of the trunk, only when the branches and trunk are gone do you tackle the stump and the roots.

What are you now doing differently?

Up to now my A-H work has been based on effort – the effort of finding better-feeling thoughts, the effort of focusing on desires instead of fears, and the effort of going general or distracting myself.

This is okay, but making “work” out of it is ultimately unsustainable. The bottom line is that we already want to feel better, and it shouldn’t take a convoluted effort to get us there.

The upshot is that part of me has been feeling a whole lot worse than I was willing to acknowledge, and having “work” to do helped me escape and delay facing those negative feelings.

Again, that’s not bad. Giving myself that delay and reprieve allowed me to improve my life in numerous other ways. It’s a bit like needing to build your physical strength before undergoing a major surgery or treatment.

So what I’m now doing differently is acknowledging the negative emotions I previously tried to escape. This is hard, but I keep reminding myself these emotions are a form of contrast, and contrast means something good is coming. Or like a physical pain, the pain means your body is responding. Help is on the way.

This reminder is enough. Instead of running off looking for a way to “solve” these negative emotions, I’m letting them stand in acceptance of them, trusting that this contrast is concurrently informing desires and calling forth a genuinely improved way of being.

I may be feeling a whole lot worse, but at least it’s whole rather than fragmented.

Accept where you are

Sometimes the very thoughts that inspire us also lead us to frustration when we cling to them with an all-or-nothing attitude.

Learn from your life’s patterns

Two great obsessions of my adult life have been mastering the martial art I practice and finding spiritual enlightenment. These two subjects have unfolded concurrently, with remarkably similar patterns.

I recognised it sooner in my martial art: 20 or so years of striving made harder by my determination, and my belief that mastery was always within reach yet forever elusive.

If I had found a way to relax and enjoy it, accept where I was, and just let the practice evolve, then I think the same journey would have been a pleasant one instead of an increasingly unhappy struggle.

Still, something shifted recently and I was able to stop approaching it with so much intensity and demand. I’ve found the progress I longed for, but only after I stopped needing it. I understand so much more now, but only after I stopped insisting that this understanding would change everything for me.

Accepting where I am

Spiritually, I have had the same all-or-nothing attitude. Life is nothing, enlightenment is everything; I just need to somehow get there from here. But how?

That attitude has inspired me at times and definitely kept me motivated, but it’s also blinded me and kept my journey volatile and unstable.

It doesn’t really make sense to say that life is nothing and enlightenment is everything, because life is clearly varied and slow and gradual and nuanced.

Wanting enlightenment to transform me is like wanting my practice to immediately give me mastery; but if that was how it worked, why did every master who’s ever lived spend their lifetime training?

What I’ve done is use the ideal of enlightenment to motivate, inspire, goad and cajole myself for years. But the premise was wrong. There is no “enlightenment” that will manifest like magic and transform my reality in a moment. That would be a repudiation of what reality already is, in the same way that mastering kung fu quickly and easily would deny the circumstances that made me desire it in the first place.

Accepting where I am means recognising that I’m not on the verge of “getting it”. But I am always on the verge of feeling better (or worse) than present.

If I had accepted that every training session improved me a little, that would have been enough. Instead I beat myself up thinking that every session was a chance to find “the answer”…and I hadn’t found it.

Methodological modesty

In fact it’s not possible to take what Abraham-Hicks people call a “quantum leap” from terrible circumstances or feelings to amazing ones. That’s not how life works.

To “need” a quantum leap implies desperation. And desperation cannot produce satisfying results. In fact no amount of effort can produce results because you can’t be anywhere other than where you are right now, and from where you are only two things are possible: Feeling better or feeling worse.

If I break it down, the real drivers of my experience are contrast and desire. Both arise naturally, but it’s up to me how I welcome them. Fixating on enlightenment is not a separate ingredient or game-changer. It’s gotta be either contrast or desire and my feelings about it will tell me which it is.

My problem has been taking the inspiration I feel about enlightenment and trying to make that my benchmark for life, when in reality it is a desire. With my desire so clear, I could welcome contrast for what it is: a sign of expansion and good things coming. Instead I treated contrast as a sign that I had failed to achieve enlightenment.

I don’t control desire and I don’t control contrast. Yet every moment of my existence I’m focused on one or the other, and I can focus negatively on how remote my desires seem and how unwanted contrast is, or I can focus positively on how good desires are and how contrast means more good things are coming.

Like kung fu, in the end there are no quantum leaps or sudden transformations. But if you practice you improve, and if you accept that and even welcome it, the journey can be satisfying and progress assured.

What are feelings anyway?

As a writer there are words I really like, but don’t use because it never seems appropriate. When do you need mellifluous in a sentence? When does communication justify apogee, let alone demand it (outside astronomy)?

But if you know these words, you can use them! You are the master of your own vocabulary and you don’t need an excuse or a chance to use words you love to read and sound.

Favourite feelings

Life has introduced us not only to wonderful words but wonderful feelings; yet we treat them in the same way. I once felt exquisite joy, and maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to have an excuse to feel it again!

Circumstances once dictated a buoyant felicity but lately things have been utterly crap so I’ve put that good feeling in the archives for now.

These days everyday life seems to demand a grinding slog, so I keep that feeling near at hand to save me having to go look for it.

Feeling good is the goal

We’ve fallen hard for a big mistake: we think our feelings are by-products, epiphenomena, of material causes. We think things make us feel a certain way.

And even with the Abraham-Hicks material we can persist with this mistake, believing that our thoughts make us feel a certain way.

That’s not the worst interpretation to hold, but how about this instead: Feeling is what makes us feel a certain way, and reality helps inspire us to better and better feeling, but it doesn’t make us feel.

If you like the word mellifluous then use it wherever and however you like. If you like the feeling of freedom, relief, and peace, you can find those feelings and indulge in them anytime.

If we could take the feeling as prior and substantial instead of subsequent and ephemeral, then life would be very different. If I had sought feeling as the spiritual treasure instead of using it to keep score of how well I was doing, then I’d be there right now, feeling good and not caring about anything else.

What are feelings anyway?

I’m not going to launch into some deep-dive philosophical or historical, but I’ve been fascinated by past glimpses of the old view of human emotions in the medieval and classical world.

Back when I used to read Aquinas, he would describe, as if it were obvious, how feelings of love and joy are physically expansive and warming of the body, while in sadness and fear the vitality is suppressed or shrinks as evidenced by cold and shaking in the extremities and loss of colour in the complexion.

It’s fascinating not only that they had such a holistic view of the mind and body working together, but that joy and love were synonymous wth vitality whereas sorrow was directly opposed to it!

Feelings could be interpreted not as some messy and unnecessary mental by-product but as the very experience of life expanding and shrinking in response to our perceptions and experiences.

Consider in that context the significance of divinely infused love and joy, life eternal that did not shrink from worldly circumstances but trusted in the undying nature of the spirit that sustained it.

Participation in life, felt as joy and love, or to put it another way: the realisation that love and joy are our human experience of life itself.

Feeling is life itself

If we could understand our feelings as our experience of the life in us, the spirit that animates us, then reaching for and allowing good feelings to flow is literally the substance of our life and happiness here and now. And (to tie it all back) what could be more mellifluous than that? 😄

Meta-beliefs: is the game of life worth playing?

I’ve spent a lot of time using the Abraham-Hicks teachings to feel better, largely by changing my thoughts.

But much of this work has taken place in the domain of everyday living, or on subjects like money, relationships, health and so on.

If life were a game, these thoughts and subjects would be the contents of the game – all the stuff the players play with.

Yet despite my progress in feeling better about the contents of the game, it turns out I have some strong thoughts or beliefs about the game itself.

At a relatively early age I doubted that the game was worth playing at all. I started to think it was a pointless, meaningless game, where none of the rewards were worth the effort required to attain them.

Nonetheless I felt I had no real choice but to play. Sometimes I was coerced or conscripted into playing, sometimes the pressures of the game forced my hand.

Once you start playing a game, you can’t help but feel invested to some degree, even if your overall attitude to the game is negative.

But it’s impossible to love playing the game while hating the game. It’s impossible to feel truly excited about winning while also thinking that winning is pointless and not worth the effort.

In Abraham-Hicks terms, this is some major vibrational discord.

Changing your meta-beliefs

A lot of the Abraham-Hicks methods are for people who struggle with a subject like money, and it helps them to recognise their conflicting thoughts: I’d love more money vs money doesn’t grow on trees, for example.

If you only have good-feeling thoughts about money you won’t resist or sabotage opportunities. Money will become an easy subject for you.

I haven’t found as much teaching on the meta-subject of life itself or existence itself. I think I’m slightly unusual in having embraced existential pessimism early in life, and ended up living in the shadow of those negative thoughts.

But all the same principles apply! Thinking that life is meaningless, pointless, and not worth the effort, is just another set of thoughts on a subject that can be soothed, softened and shifted gradually.

Life could be worse. This is not the most absurd and painful of all possible worlds. Parts of it are not as bad, some parts are better than others.

And what if “meaning” is not the only thing that gives life value and makes it enjoyable? What if there is more to life than meaning and purpose? What if enjoyment were the point of life?

If my thoughts create my reality, then haven’t I very likely experienced a whole lot of confirmation bias that life is not worth the struggle? Would I like to revisit this old belief just in case my youthful assessment was not as accurate as I thought at the time?

Reconsidering the game

Whether this game of life seems worth playing or not depends on what I think about it. How I feel about life is, in A-H terms, guidance as to the alignment or misalignment of my thoughts about life. Thinking the game is not worth playing feels bad because my inner being does not share that view.

When I know what I don’t want, I implicitly know what I do want. What I don’t want is for life to be a meaningless, pointless game where the rewards aren’t worth the struggle. Therefore what I do want is the opposite of that: I want life to be a meaningful and pointed game where the rewards are more than worth the struggle.

I asked for this many times over, yet instead of staying tuned into that desire I kept turning my attention back to the bleak unwanted perspective that inspired it.

I can change my reality if I change my thoughts, and focus now on what I have desired. I want this game of life to be fun, meaningful, pointed, rewarding, easy and enjoyable.

Your interpersonal self

When you grow up feeling dominated by the expectations and pressures of others it is easy to lose yourself in that interpersonal space.

In the interpersonal space they use a different currency. Things you don’t really care about become important, and you feel a pressure to be somebody in the eyes of others. Or at least not be nobody.

But when it comes to your real self, interpersonal currency is not legal tender. Your real self doesn’t give a fuck about all the things you’ve been striving for and struggling to maintain in that interpersonal space. Your real self doesn’t care about who you hope to become, or how your dreams will change everything for you.

Polarised extremes

If you experience this massive contrast between your interpersonal self with its plans and striving and motivation, and your real self whose down-time consists of wanting to block everything out and just avoid difficulties, then it can seem impossible to reconcile the two.

You’ve carried on such a convincing public performance, you’ve fooled even yourself into thinking these goals of yours will bring you happiness. How can you possibly stop right now and let people see that you simply don’t give a crap? That your number one motivation in life is to avoid trouble as much as possible. That the things that seem to excite and please others barely move you.

I don’t know the answer yet. But I think this sense of polar opposites, night and day, is exacerbated by the division. Your real self is extra disagreeable and uninspired because it’s been so alienated and suppressed.

Your real self has no apparent interests or purpose because it’s been drowned out by interpersonal ones for so long.

So it may seem like too big a change to suddenly give your real self more air time, to bring your dour self with you into your life. But even though it feels poorer in all the values and virtues you’ve tried to bring to please others, it has something your interpersonal self will never have: alignment, authenticity, acceptance, and therefore the seeds of genuine love and joy. Not the joy you thought you’d feel when you were finally good enough in the eyes of others. Not the love you thought you’d find when you met the standards you learned from those around you.

You’ve been playing with shiny, glittering fake currency. Your actual wealth doesn’t look like that, but it’s real. Real enough to let you give up at last on chasing approval and validation out there.

The Matrix 20 years later: a personal reflection

I rewatched The Matrix this past weekend, and it brought back a lot of memories and old perspectives on life.

My wife and I were both surprised at how many lines of dialogue I knew by heart. I must have watched it a lot back then. My brother reminded me: there wasn’t much else around, right? And yeah that’s true.

But for me The Matrix came along just as I was getting intently into my spiritual search. I’d read de Mello’s Awareness and was primed for anything that spoke of a deeper meaning to life, promising enlightenment and realisation.

I’d even started learning kung fu around that time, again looking for anything that promised mystery or just more to life.

Searching for freedom

When I saw The Matrix I thought “these people get it!” I was so excited and took it as evidence that I was on the right track – that there was a track.

But it also matched my bleak experience of “ordinary” life. I felt trapped, uninspired, and already weary of the reality I found myself in.

Enlightenment promised a way out. I took Neo’s death and rebirth experience at the climax of the film as a spiritual allegory. He transcended the Matrix, saw through the illusion, pierced the veil of Maya, and was liberated.

I wanted whatever it was that the sages, mystics, and saints spoke of in such glowing terms as surpassing anything reality had to offer.

But in my search I took as foundational my awareness of insufficiency, of lack. I took as my starting point the very words “there’s something wrong with this reality” and tried repeatedly to piece together the answer to that problem.

Reality isn’t broken

I depreciated reality on the understanding that it wasn’t real, and with faith that I could find the truth and the freedom truth would bring.

I took for granted that I was a soul mired in illusion, and I clung to that sense of frustration and imprisonment, inner tension battling against a world of empty appearances that somehow held sway in me.

I kept struggling to overcome, to see through the superficial and find the treasure within. I really believed that all my problems would be solved. I was taking the direct path, looking for the ultimate answers in life.

Projecting inadequacy

But the whole time my desire for greater meaning and purpose and enlightenment was clouded by my sense of personal inadequacy.

I felt like a loser, I couldn’t point to any outstanding qualities in myself, and I also felt alienated from friends and family and broader society.

Being different and having no words or concepts to explain how and why, I thought I could just leave the world behind and find my place in whatever final truth enlightenment would reveal.

The answer to my inadequacies was that reality itself was at fault. My lack of good qualities didn’t matter because life was an illusion anyway. The only quality that mattered was spiritual, and I could excel at that because everyone else was neglecting it, or so it seemed.

You create your reality

But now I’m approaching a different view of life and reality. I’m learning that I create my reality, and my thoughts or beliefs determine how much of my desired reality I allow.

In that context, feeling inadequate already, I interpreted spiritual teachings in a way that shifted the inadequacy onto reality itself. And yet I was unable to shift any further. Reality remained inadequate and over time my hopefulness dimmed and my own inadequacy returned.

I felt like I was on an important and meaningful path…yet had nothing to show for it.

In Abraham-Hicks terms I was treating enlightenment as an action pathway, a course of action I hoped would make me feel better. That’s not how it works. For twenty years it hasn’t worked. I’ve just been kicking the can down the road.

What do you want?

But my spiritual search wasn’t totally uninspired. I was genuinely drawn to a deeper understanding of life, reality, meaning and happiness.

But even though I immersed myself in spiritual teachings I was still caught in the same false premise as everyone else: give me what I want, and then I’ll be happy.

I wanted purpose, meaning, a secure identity, freedom, belonging, and clarity. I thought chasing enlightenment would give me all these and more. But the A-H prescription is simpler: find the feeling place of these desires, and you’re already there. No more action, no more resistance, no more kicking the can down the road, blaming yourself and then others and then reality and then yourself again.

Just find the feeling place. Align yourself with those feelings and enjoy what follows.