by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
One of the key presenting problems that clients bring to therapy is a pervasive belief or sense that they are not safe or that life is not safe for them. This conclusion about life often stems from early life trauma which did at that formative stage make the person unsafe. If the person suffered trauma they now probably evoke survival responses such as frozen fear, immobilisation, flight or dissociation as these are now ingrained into the personality as trauma re-enactments.
A related but not well understood problem is the fear of anger that many people have in life. Many people fear anger in others and so also the anger they hold within themself. As a consequence they now fear anger in general and have an unhealthy relationship to anger which results in fear as a consequence.
In an article published in the Easter weekend Sunday Times newspaper it was reported that our unhealthy relationship to anger can create health issues in the body, and mental/emotional issues in the personality. Unresolved anger was found to result in an “angry” personality whilst suppressed and unexpressed anger was found to create issues such as hyper-tension, stress and elevated risk of heart attacks. The article pointedly found that expression of anger was essential to overcome these types of issues.
People who have fear and anger issues often had problems when young with gestures, sound and touch from their caregivers. They came to not trust these aspects of being embodied and relating to the world and others from their embodiment.
They will as adults continue to distrust not only the gestures, sound and touch of others but also their own. Where the gesture, sound and touch of caregivers was faulty or unsafe we now find that the learning process in infants which we call mirroring and modelling was compromised.
The child and then later the adult struggles with making meaning and sense of interactions with others. They learn to have fear and to mistrust such interactions, and to mistrust their own ability to engage in interactions and relationships with others because of this.
The meaning making process for adults who were affected as children in this way will now occur through a distorted filter of mistrust and suspicion which more or less keeps them in fear much of the time. These persons tend to isolate and withdraw from life and become distrusting observers who see negative in everything around them. Some may deal with their fears by becoming extremely controlling to make themself safe.
Because the mirroring and modelling process was corrupted in some way we now find that these type of people lack strong boundaries. Boundaries are learnt in part from mirroring and modelling of respectful boundary relating by parents, and we learn and how and when to make contact with others. When this is corrupted then boundaries do not properly form.
Some people will go on to create instead over-emphasised fear based defences which become hard fortress like walls from which they peer over at the world. Others will have no real boundaries at all and leave themself open to invasion and enmeshment or abuse.
Good boundaries give us protection and they give us the resources from which to say “no” when we feel a boundary invasion occurring. The state of having no boundaries creates a lack of safety whilst the hard defended walls that substitute for boundaries have as their bricks a mix of fear and anger as their primary material.
One of the key differentiation points between Body Psychotherapy and conventional counselling and psychology is how the body is viewed and treated in the therapy process. We use the body with grounding, charging and discharging exercises, to create a set of boundaries through the body with clients.
The exercises also assist in the release of trapped trauma in the body through the reworking the bodies unconscious disposition in body and muscular posture. The exercises shift one away from tense fight or flight contracted holding, and instead take the person into an unconscious body resting state of relaxed safety within the brain and nervous system.
These set of exercises also make a person grounded which means to live in a present time, embodied state of awareness moment to moment. Unless we are grounded it is very hard to have the flexible and operative set of boundaries that makes us safe in life.
An ungrounded person without boundaries must retreat into their heads in a hyper-vigilant stance from behind the fortress of their defensiveness where they try to analyse everything from a place of mistrust and paranoia. In this state they live in fear much of the time and may exert control in order to feel safe.
Alternatively they can dissociate a lot of the time which means they “go away” or are “off with the fairies” a lot of the time and so avoid feeling their bodies or making contact with environments or other people. These defences were possibly those we used in childhood to survive our problems, hurts and traumas and now they have become primary defences in the way we deal with adult life.
It is common for these people have a need for a large boundary of safe space around them which is at odds with how the majority of society engages in social dynamics. Other people appear unsafe as they appear to “invade your space” when in fact they are operating from what is regarded as safe neutral space to a majority of others.
The issue is that as children the appropriate safe boundaries and lessons on social engagement failed to be learnt and the person is now socially dislocated. Such a person will typically exhibit accompanying awkward behaviours in social settings and so may set themselves up for bullying or teasing or rejection. This outcome will only reinforce their conclusions about life and others being unsafe.
One of the real problems is that such people fail to see their role in such dynamics and effectively become victims to life circumstances because of it. They may communicate a verbal “yes” when in fact they want to say “no” but do not. They sabotage their own rights by not being able to communicate their needs and wants when it is appropriate to do so.
This is normally an indication of a person who had no right or no safety in saying “no” as a child to their parents or teachers. Physical or mental/emotional abuse may have resulted for that child and so now they say “yes” even as their bodies go into fear and trauma.
As adults they may blame the other person and become a victim to them at the same time which is not the complete truth of whatever dynamic has occurred. They will claim the other person is unsafe, untrustworthy, rude, bullying or oafish but yet they will not see how they needed to communicate their needs and wants but did not do so.
It is every adult’s responsibility to communicate boundary needs as and when this is required. People who are run by their fears will often use a psychological defence known as projection. Projection is the act of taking one’s own unconscious disowned issues and fears and projecting them onto the other person with whom you are interacting.
In many cases that person has triggered you as to remind you of a parental figure with whom you have unresolved fear and anger issues. Unfortunately the person who projects onto another person their negative “stuff” will normally fail to own it as such.
Typically they will believe it really is about the other person when clearly it is not. The person who does the projection will feel unsafe, in fear or angry and will become a victim to that person. Nothing is ever resolved. This is one of the most commonest dynamics that therapists face and must deal with clients. It also goes on in day to day life and relationships for many people and affects their quality of life.
In body psychotherapy we alert clients to their projections and assist them in making them conscious and reclaiming them so they can then be healed. We must teach any such person how to have a “no” and how to switch their primary defence from a victimising one (immobilise, flight, collapse or dissociation), by firstly getting them grounded and embodied, accompanied with good body boundaries.
Once the client has started to experience their bodies again and experience both energy and feelings through the body again, then we allow the clients to reconnect with their emotional life in such a way that they do not traumatise or become overwhelmed through emotional or energetic “flooding”.
This process is basically about increasing their Window of Tolerance (WOT) of their Autonomic Nervous System where they can feel and contain emotional arousal without the brain and nervous system signalling that need to evoke a survival response in order to remain “safe”. This is an embodied process as emotions live in the body and are evoked through bodily-inclusive processes and techniques.
It is quite common for adults with a high IQ to struggle with these processes. Their mental intelligence is not mirrored in their emotional intelligence (EQ) which may be quite underdeveloped and which means they shun their feelings and instead retreat into their heads and live from there. These people are often sceptical or rationalise away any attempt to get them into their bodies or their feelings.
Many people who shun their feelings and bodies will often then only look at themselves through a lens or filter of their mental life which represents their ego consciousness keeping them defended and “safe”. Their safety is only that they are safe from feeling their feelings and reclaiming their split off and disowned painful aspects of self. They are actually still quite stuck and wounded by remaining one dimensional in their way of relating to others and life.
What is quite common is to see a person who lives within a self controlled and/or controlling of others stance to life. They tell themselves they are adjusted, healthy, well and advanced. Occasionally a major emotional eruption occurs, normally centred around rage/anger or of great fear. They collapse and the wallpaper that is the mental/cognitive reliance simply cannot help them in these moments.
When they get themselves together again they dismiss that incident as an aberration, a “moment”, irrelevant, or blame others for their losing control. Instead of getting help they instead tighten control and increase their resolve to be better, to be perfect, to be in control, and to wallpaper themselves over again with some social mask.
For those who can see they are in crisis there is another way. In body psychotherapy the most common technique is to have a client empower themselves through feeling their feelings and the power in their bodies. Once connected to feelings one notices new resources never imagined before.
We engage these emotional resources and their strength by having them protest in a symbolic way towards someone with whom they feel unsafe with, upset with or angry with. In real life they may actually avoid this person or be a victim to them by not standing in their truth and boundaries around them.
Without our voice of protest or “no” we can never have an authentic “yes” to life and others. Many victims become pleasers but yet do not fully say “yes” when pleasing. They normally operate from using pleasing as a measure to prevent anger, rejection, abandonment or abuse from another. They are not in truth with themselves or others. They are unsafe and make others unsafe in the process.
If you look at the ills of many people who come into therapy one finds the disowned protest and the suppressed “no” of the child buried in the unconscious and seen in the way the body character arranges itself. One notices how many of these people have become “good” and they have deadened themself to their unprocessed feelings of anger, hatred and despair.
They can only protest indirectly and passively and this is normally directed at the few “safe” people left in their lives. They create trouble and issues in their relationships, with friends and family, at work, and with therapists who they firstly perceive as “good” but who then quickly become “bad”. They tend to become more isolated as a result and trust even fewer and fewer people as a result.
One of the key ways forward in body psychotherapy for such persons is to have their protest and in the process learn to awaken to and tolerate their feelings. There is no future for adults in relationship who present outwardly passive, but inwardly judge and have secret thoughts and feelings and then passive aggressively punish others. The anger and hatred must be directly and consciously engaged and then discharged through expression in therapy.
The writer and philosopher Thoreau wrote that most men live lives of quiet desperation. What he meant was that for many people they were conditioned in childhood and by schooling to be passive and “good” and the cost in doing so was to reject and disown vital energies and emotions that give us permission to go after our dreams.
We play safe instead of playing and exploring at all. We observe instead of engaging. We are dead but still living. Inside us lies the repressed anger. Hatred and protest that was denied is like acid and creates psychosomatic illness such as depression when not dealt with over time.
We certainly need socialisation of our anger as a feeling so we are socially adaptive and acceptable, but the path lies in integration of such emotions and not their disowning or repression into the body and our unconscious life, or by masking it over with cognitive wallpaper of rationalisations.
A useful technique in body psychotherapy is the process of hitting a foam cube with a martial arts wooden sword or baton. It is far from the stereotyped image and urban myth that such processes create an angry person or a rage-aholic or that it wires neural pathways into making an out of control person. As the Sunday Times newspaper alluded to, it has the opposite effect.
Anger is a primary emotion that is a critical part of our human design. We would not exist as a human race without its presence in our brain and nervous system as a core survival response mechanism. Anger is designed to create safety and to help us survive and so in this respect it is no different to our other emotional survival responses.
All the survival responses such as fight (anger), flight, attachment or freezing or dissociation use either the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) in either its Sympathetic state or its Parasympathetic state. The brain does not lay down a new neural circuit for anger per se, it uses its brain and nervous systems, coupled with the mood chemical processes of the Hypothalamus and other glands in the body to effect emotional survival response expression of all types.
The three most commonest forms of entrenched angry personality have different roots. The first is the neuro-developmental trauma that occurs in the womb as the brain of the foetus develops and results in an enlarged limbic system Autonomic Nervous System mechanism of such areas as the Amygdala. Such children and then adults have been shown to develop a more or less emotionally reactive brain and personality which has anger/rage as a primary response mechanism.
The second type is the modern methyl-amphetamine based drug user who indulges in the hyper-arousing drugs that society is now awash in. The drug psychosis as well as the milder hyper-aroused, anger fuelled states of being represent a new form of unhealthy charged anger individuals. Steroid rage is along the same lines as this drug induced form of anger issue.
The third form is the person who has disowned their anger as a general principle in their developmental psychology or who has some form of trauma that creates the same effect. This article is geared around this third classification of personality as the first two types require different interventions to effect stability and containment.
What is true is that we each tend to evoke a primary survival response strategy such as flight or freeze/immobilise or fight as our choice of adaptation. Victims and those in chronic fear or submission are stuck in using some form of flight or dissociation or collapse or attachment as a primary survival mechanism. As explained already these choices lead to victimisation, collapse, illness in the body and mind, and a lack of ability to effectively relate and socialise in society with others safely.
The key paradox of rewiring our brains and nervous system into becoming our primary state of survival response is that it creates a state of being actively alert, grounded and feeling resourced to stay present to whatever dynamic exists and deal with it. One may still run when needed, or freeze or dissociate if that is appropriate, but in general one will stay present and be confident and relaxed in an alert sort of way.
The fallacy that working with anger creates more anger sounds reasonable but is in fact not true. If one becomes resourced and confident in the mind and brain, and finds oneself present, grounded and alert, one will not have fear for the presence of integrated anger means that fear no longer dominates one’s state of being.
The best tradition that shows us this truth is the martial arts tradition. When a student starts a martial arts they are often anxious and in fear as they fear being hurt or humiliated. If they are guided, taught, and coached in conditions of safety then they learn how to harness and discipline their fear and anger such that they become confident, grounded and alert in a healthy way. They have no fear as a way of being in life. They are resourced through the discipline of grounding their anger back into a disciplined way of being.
Body psychotherapy does much the same with the emphasis of the emotional and mental aspects of the person being made conscious in respect to their emotions, but no techniques of martial arts defence are taught as a resourcing strategy. The result is still quite similar. Both types of graduates show the relaxed and confident natures which are socially and mentally in balance and they often find a sense of spiritual awareness developing from their new quiet but confident natures.
In body psychotherapy the therapist helps the client to be mindful of images, feelings and unconscious elements becoming conscious as the hitting process evokes the “fight response” and the emotions of anger. These are made conscious and integrated. Some people are completely cut off from their anger whilst others are in touch with repressed anger that needs processing and clearing.
The various outcomes that arise in such processes have deep meaning and inform both the therapist and the client of much about the client’s defences, rules, beliefs, and emotional state of health. Most clients find and initial fear quickly passes and they find the processes empowering. They may even encounter pleasure beyond the anger which is their original emotional feelings of play, exploration and curiosity that only being safe can allow such positive states to exist.
The anger makes one safe so these positive feelings can be experienced. We learn again to be safe and to no longer need our other defences such as being walled off from others. As our fear recedes we feel again, we feel our emotions and our bodies. Pleasure returns as do our other emotions. We get curious again and start to play and explore as we feel safe to do so. We relate better to ourself and others.
Life changes for the better. We are LESS angry and LESS fearful than before. Depression and other bodymind psychosomatic illnesses and conditions heal over time. Life becomes a positive experience again. We grow and feel safe and resourced. The anger work is no longer the focus of therapy.
We are done with that and move on. We work developmentally on higher actualisation and positive psychology principles. We evolve and grow authentically and trauma and victimhood are memories of the past.
Some people try to treat life as a Monopoly board game when it comes to their anger. They try the old trick of acting like they have just picked up a Community Chest card that says “Go straight to GO and bypass your emotions and anger and pickup $500”. Such wallpapering over our emotional life never works. We fool ourselves and maybe a few others but never does this defence work long term. It is sabotage lying in wait to claim us.
People in denial and people who disown vital aspects of themselves just simply tend to act them out instead. Passive aggressiveness of living in denial result. Often these persons resort to controlling others instead as their way of doing life. They are unconscious to their emotional life and often are not self aware or have strong emotional intelligence(EQ).
Fear and anger are actually related and understanding their natures and how to be and work with these emotional energies for safety, happiness and health is key work in body psychotherapy. Where are you in emotional life and emotional intelligence? Are you in fear or living in your head as a way of being in the world.
Health and wellness are states of bodymind unity. One will struggle to heal if healing strategies do not approach the human condition from such a unified presupposition. We teach a range of body grounding exercises designed to compensate for many in our technological who live more or less in an ungrounded state. Body psychotherapy goes beyond talk therapy to include the body and emotional life in the healing process.
We work with clients who have trauma issues, anger management issues and psychosomatic issues that result from having a poor relationship with one’s own emotional life. If you want to get beyond your victimisation, safety issues, anger issues, health issues, or the related issues mentioned in this article then give us a call.