Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Learner therapist (25)…… Congruence, integrity and self-defence in the anger position

Learner therapist (25)…… Congruence, integrity and self-defence in the anger position
Torrey Orton
Nov. 14, 2012

The "anger position" and congruence, integrity and self defence
One of the things that my patients struggle with is their anger. Not the anger which they know but that which they do not. They had the anger drilled out of them by their abusers early in their abused lives. They learned to hide it so as not to attract additional abuse – the abuse beyond the everyday abuse which they survived by dissimulation, pre-emption or collusion with their abusers, abetted often by abuser partners' collusion with the abusers. Failing these tactics, they caught occasional reminders of how much worse things could be than they already were.

One of these patients remarked she did not want to be in the "anger position". The disparaging of anger's reputation among the human emotion suite is systemic well beyond childhood of course. Women are often sharply aware of male aversion to their anger. Tears often get to do double duty as media for sadness and anger. If these fail, there's the backup position of self-denigration for being angry – one patient sharply calls herself "a bitch" for directly voicing her anger to others, especially other women. Then, she doubles down on it by saying "I don't want to be that person in the anger position."

Denizens of white collar work-places often report the unspoken rules of many offices mandate feeling-free interactions while the value espousals warrant 'transparency", "openness" and "honesty" – all states whose fulfilment require perceived authenticity. That is, the values have to feel real in action, not just mouthed, parroted, etc. But real = emotional in this case. And if the truth or honesty is an important honest truthfulness, then appropriate feelings are required for its expression (as were required for its perception in the first place). The plea to 'be rational' and similar encomia to feeling-free thought are among the most resilient fooleries we are beset by in our public lives, especially from various cultural and social heights.

Another patient recently explored her rage at a deeply manipulative move by her clearly incompetent boss. The rage went two ways at once: towards him for his professional chicanery and toward herself for being powerless in his face (and consequently shamed and guilty before imagined friends who she might discuss the situation with but couldn't). This bifurcation of attention reflects a lifetime's self-doubt and high achievement for her, with the doubt dominating the inner battle and achievement the outer one. All up, a lot of conflict expressed in various anxieties.

So what for patient anger?

Why does it matter? Just as satisfaction registers a pleasure with a successful action, anger registers the invasiveness of another's attack or disapproval of one's own mistake(s). The abused carry many signs of injury. One of the less obvious is injured feeling receptors and expressors. Their emotional range is confined, as was their action range, by the abuse. The distance between the ends of a feeling spectrum like irritation - anger - fury - rage are driven closer together; it's harder to express any degrees of difference. One public figure who looks and sounds like this is Malcolm Fraser. Similarly, Julia Gillard does a too good job of reducing her speech to flat, ponderous, sleep-inducing noise. They share facial immobility. Were they abused? If not, then the disease of self-restraint is much more deeply spread among the competent than I imagined.

Three steps to effective anger: becoming congruent (knowing what you feel), acknowledging integrity (deciding from what you feel) and acting in self-defence (acting from what you feel). They can be learned, usually building on some pre-existing residuals of natural capability created while preparing for engaging an established threat.

Congruence – the ground of awareness in the fizz of anger, when inside and outside are aligned

The only way to avoid congruence when repressing anger (or even irritation) is to be numb to the feeling…in which case, though, the fact of numbness will be broadcast by incongruous non-verbals like stiff faces, rigid speech delivery, and clumsy movements. This will be on display for those who want to see. We may be congruent in this way without knowing it and others assist our ignorance by not pointing out explicitly what they can see, often to their advantage in the sense of saving them from an imagined conflict they want to avoid. And around and around it goes until an explosion point is reached inevitably but unpredictably in the experience of those involved. By that time the anger is way over the top…and undirected to an appropriate or workable subject between the parties. Such explosions are the stuff of everyday couples breakdowns, tit-for-tat accusations of bullying at work and the public micro-rages we are increasingly exposed to. Emotional congruence may occur most compellingly when long gathered anger bursts on the unsuspecting and minimally deserving heads of its sources, or maybe just lookalike passers-by that trigger the gathering emotional storm. Brilliant, flaring and frightening for all because almost out of control.

How does this oh so common scenario come to play out? The persistent disapproval of any form of anger yields an effective self-restraint which fakes self-control until the actual perceived offenses pile high and wide enough to threaten suffocation. But it attracts real rage in return, it creates it, authorises it, validates it and those involved are cast into a who's to blame game that is irresolvable because the sources incite more rage. "This is what we usually do." Congruence is a starting place for engaging real issues, but not a restful one.

Integrity – is the place of truth in oneself when the real self can be used…
… to decide the realities we want to engage (if we can choose to do so). That real self, the reliable background to our everyday life, is the home of basic values, notably justice and fairness, and virtues like persistence and courage, which seem to be alive across all kinds of cultures, even the most spiritual, communal or familial included. These values are understood to apply equally to self and others, though their application may, unsurprisingly, lean towards self and own group. They provide a sense of direction for action and a mixture of confidence and compulsion to take action. For example,
…instead of falling into despair, Shawna got mad at what she felt was a betrayal. 'Mad' was not ideal, but it was better than depressed and full of self blame! Indeed, her anger actually seemed to lift her depression and allowed her some energy to decide what to do about taking care of herself…
VOL 18 NO 4 • AUGUST 2012 pg. 19
For more information visit

And, so to ….
Self-defence – the steps which stop and eventually pre-empt previously enraging threats
Self-defence may need to be either forward (assertion-aggression) or backwards (explanation, delivered assertively). So, what to do in everyday pre-rage circumstances? Start with the real anger only when timely, etc. Otherwise, acknowledge and defer the anger to a later time, place and content in order to take care of present business which is not directly implicated in the anger and loss of which would undermine most foundational conditions for engaging the anger usefully (for instance, by ending an employment relationship or intimate one prematurely).

Practising anger – some steps and tools for patients, and others

To get better at expressing anger requires practice as does your golf, singing, dancing, writing… through persistent small steps as in any skill building.
1) Start expressing anger by punching a pillow, boxercise, hitting a tree trunk with a stick, speaking somewhat louder than you normally do and increasing the volume slowly up to yelling or screaming. A good walk in the woods or on a perhaps windy beach will provide venues for this step.
2) Continue exploring it through martial arts, boxing, any gross motor sport – preferably within a meditative framework! Notice how hard it is to embody your anger without falling into freezing or wild Flight or fierce Fight (losing control).
3) Cultivate control of body mind and heart by choosing one physical discipline for long term development. Physical is critical because cultivating a capacity for appropriate expression of anger is an engagement with the freeze/fight/flight response system, all three of whose terms are physical. The FFF system readies the body for action. Those of us with repressed feelings may not even notice them coming into play because our bodies are out of tune for them. The body is our instrument of feelings in two senses: for perceiving them and expressing them. An untuned instrument will never play well.
4) Start employing anger. Build skilled competence by strategic intervention planning and execution along the lines of basic graduated skill development programs of any kind: a sequence of motivation (identifying the defence need), observation (of competent actors), approximation (visualisation of proposed actions, etc.), initiating (trialling the actions), debriefing (did well, do different, etc.), replanning, re-initiating, debriefing…..Some of the relevant communication technologies to be mastered are available in previous "Learner therapist" posts in this blog.
Finally, it should be apparent that what's proposed in this post is applicable to everyday life, not just catastrophic circumstances. Act well – congruently, integrally and self-defensively, remembering that the best defence is a good offense.

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