Friday, April 1, 2022

Sitting in the Fire: Anger

"They both seem lost in space," said one of my clients, "Arlene," in our first call. she was focused on helping her daughter, who "doesn't know what she wants," and her son, who "is getting into big trouble. "Also," she added, "please tell me what I can do for myself--I sometimes feel I'm more relaxed, but there are certain things that really drive me mad. How can I be patient if I've never experienced patience?"

Arlene's desire to help her daughter and son was, of course, a legitimate concern for a mother. But first, I asked her to explore the question, Why must I fix them? She learned to sit with wanting to fix them, without actually doing so, developing a mindful observer to explore the repetitive internal pressure to act in a patterned way. 

She was right, of course. We can't "try" to be patient. Patience isn't something we can simply dredge up when we're feeling angry. The way to learn patience is to stay with the pressure to act but not acting on it, just sitting with it. 

Arlene also said, "There are certain things that really drive me mad." Generally, this internal battle is characterized by asking, Do I say something, or do I sit here and boil? 

I suggested that she encourage different questions: What's going on with my anger? Where do I feel it? What is it like? What does that tell me about myself?

Amy and Arnold Mindell help groups resolve conflict by owning and working openly with the issues at stake. The title of their book Sitting in the Fire is a terrific metaphor for anger. It's common to resolve anxiety through anger, instead of staying with the anxiety and learning from it. 
The Mindells developed a form of bodywork that helps surface the underlying dimension of anger.
Think of a time when you were furious, bring up that feeling again and even exaggerate it. Now ask one or both of the following questions: If I could see you, what would you look like? If you could speak, what would you say? Then play with whatever images arise and see what can be learned from them. 
The bodywork practice invites the unconscious to show what's been hidden. Here's an example from my own experience:
For weeks I'd been experiencing severe neck pain. I asked the pain What would you look like if I could see you? and an image appeared of a wooden yoke holding two oxen ins place. When I asked What would you say if you could speak, I heard "I'm feeling the burden of oppression." As I continued this imaginary conversation, I became clear the neck pain was a reaction to not having stated my own wishes clearly, then not liking the decision others made.
Eugene Gendlin's focusing technique is another way to bring unconscious issues to the surface, exaggerating the emotion and trying out different labels to describe it until a felt shift signifies a fit. And similar to focusing is Carl Jung's active imagination, which can be used separately or in conjunction with focusing or bodywork.
The anger that's typical at Enneagram point One is usually caused by frustration over trying to meet impossible standards that are either self-imposed or projected outward onto others. So, the drive to fix people articulated above by Arlene is an attempt to manage the frustration caused by an impossible task. I coached Arlene to become acquainted with her internal critic.  
When you feel yourself becoming angry, picture that anger arising from a specific part of you. What is that part's gender? Tone of voice? What is that part saying? Where in physical space is the voice located? Is it talking into your right ear? Does it live inside the front of your brain? Where is it? 
Once Arlene became familiar with her internal critic as a separate entity, she learned to dissociate herself a bit from her anger. To further weaken the critic's influence, I encouraged her to imagine what she could do that would be different from her usual response, and to make that at least slightly humorous.

Humor is often used to break people free from an outmoded way of thinking. That's why it's standard fare in creativity training. One of my clients saw his internal critic as a little devil that sat on his left shoulder, snarling into his left ear. His playful shift was to picture the devil as Jiminy Cricket singing a Disneyesque song about anger. Subsequently, every time he became angry, he saw the singing cricket--again, a way to dissociate himself from the anger in a healthy way.