A different look at where anger comes from, and how to engage with it.
by Mike Thomas
Anger is a neurophysiological state that drives upholding boundaries. This is so often misunderstood, it’s nearing epidemic levels. Rage is unchecked anger. Anger is simply the feeling and impulse to protect when boundaries are threatened.
When anger is suppressed, or when it’s not acknowledged as the subtle awareness of a breached boundary (or about to be) internally, it can easily escalate into rage.
When rage happens, anger has been bypassed unconsciously in lack of awareness, or it has been suppressed, resulting in an amplification of that feeling.
The actions that people so often mistake for anger have been shamed, misplaced, and/or ignored when rage presents itself. When mental violence (judgment, for example), or physical violence is expressed behaviorally, the underlying anger wasn’t appropriately expressed. Rage (and violence in some form) is the result.
Then people often go on and on about the “problem with anger,” completely missing the vital understanding of the neurophysiology that needs to be addressed in order to facilitate an angry person shifting from a survival state to a state of safety. (Important note...we never (or rarely, anyway) think WE are the one who’s angry, irrational, etc...that’s what makes it an unconscious issue.)
There’s a great deal of “projection” of our hidden shadow issues onto others in this culture, and a corresponding “denial” of those “undesirable” traits within ourselves that goes with this process. If we unconsciously fear expressing anger, our unconscious defense mechanisms hide anger’s existence within our own experience to “protect” us from discovering that “undesirable” or “shameful” trait inside. This is quite genius, because it keeps us from escalating our own survival state into “immobilization,” which is what happens in the trauma response. So we need to be gentle with ourselves if we expect to address this issue effectively.
Think about someone that you perceive as “dangerous,” or some variation of that concept...perhaps you view them as “unreliable,” “manipulative,” or whatever word implies you do not trust them. What happens in your body? How does your breathing shift? What sensations do you experience? Are you aware of your body? Or are you thinking about what you’ll say to them, how to avoid them, or judge them in some way? Maybe your judgment is warranted and justifiable...but we are very poor judges of character when triggered into a survival state. So cultivating awareness of this state of anger is critical if we are to improve this handicap in awareness.
These above responses are all possible expressions of the survival response in our human neurophysiology, and it disconnects us from the present moment awareness of bodily sensations, and the sophisticated human brain functions associated with the human prefrontal cortex including: self-reflection, empathy, compassion, forethought, impulse control, and many other functions of the prefrontal cortex.
So when recognize this physiological process happening in our own bodies, we can “be the change we wish to see in the world” by simply noticing this survival response, and suspending judgment to properly address this neurophysiological state. We can do this by simply focusing attention on breathing and bodily sensations. You see, the centralized networks in the brain, including the “Default Mode Network” (DMN) has a job to do in order to make sure we survive, and ultimately stay safe. In a triggered state of survival we O.W.N. ”Observe,” “Witness,” and “Narrate” about O.A.T.S, “Others And The Self.” This “O.W.N.ing” about “O.A.T.S.” happens when the DMN is activated during survival responses. (Referencing Dr. Dan Seigel’s work, here)
Although the survival response keeps us safe, it uses a tremendous amount of energy, and cannot remain operating for long periods of time without serious consequences. One of these consequences is an overtaxed “medial prefrontal cortex,” or “mPFC,” which is involved in impulse control when we have an impulse arise to physically or verbally attack someone else who APPEARS to be threatening in some form. (The term “ego fatigue” is used to describe a neurologically overtaxed mPFC, leaving it unable to control impulses until it recovers...which doesn’t happen if it’s always triggered. This is what happens in many conditions, such as ADHD.)
The fact that the brain is simply exhausted from controllingbuncobsciousxsurvivsk impulses is an important distinction, because we are lousy judges of character when triggered into a survival state, and we’re ironically judging someone who is at their worst as well. The other person you are judging is clearly in a survival state if they perceive judgment or criticism from you, which escalates the survival response for you BOTH. See the problem here? (Referencing Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s work, here)
(It’s also important to understand that a severe drug addict has these constant survival impulses fatiguing their ability to resist another fix. This is why it’s so difficult to hold compassion for an addiction who “should know better.” They might, but their neurological capacity to resist is overwhelmed by a survival response that perpetuates a deep shame for not being capable of staying sober. They need specific support to overcome this...see Dr. Gabor Mate’s work on addiction for references and the research science behind this.)
Unfortunately, the primal, survival aspects of neurology do not have the sophistication to honor diversity, and will amplify all potential threats of anyone who appears outside of our “tribe.“ This concept of our “tribe” is assessed unconsciously, and we do not know it is happening other than a “feeling” that we can trust someone else. If we get a certain “gut feeling” about someone that is uneasy and triggers a lack of safety, we will perceive ONLY the worst parts of them, leaving them in an impossible position to connect to us, regardless of how well they behave. (Referencing Dr. Stan Tatkin’s work, here)
Kind behavior from someone we have unconsciously assessed as dangerous (outside of our tribe) will only seem like a ploy to let our guard down. ***Cue Michael Jackson’s song, “I always feel like somebody’s watching me!”*** This unconscious survival response includes “hyper-vigilance,” and is often the root of paranoia.
This idea of someone outside of our tribe being dangerous can manifest as anyone who is “different,“ which could be any human being than ourselves, our family, our community, our religion, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our beliefs, our values, and the list goes on, and on, and on…
When the DMN is active during a survival response (which remains overactive in unresolved chronic stress and trauma), we end up over-thinking, and turning off our more lateralized networks involved in breathing and sensation, particularly the “Temporal-Parietal Junction.” By focusing on breathing and our sensations, we can counter this survival response and in turn balance our DMN activity with bodily presence, allowing our nervous systems to begin calming down.
Truly, conflict resolution begins within our own self-awareness, and then the more sophisticated parts of our brain can come online to assess if we are truly in need of protecting ourselves, or if our primal brain response was truly the issue. We will never know if we do not practice this mindfulness in stressful and conflictual moments.
If we are habitually suppressing anger, we’ll be so unaware of our own appropriate boundaries that we’ll likely be argumentative and ready to fight, flee, avoid, or dissociate into our own world of apathy or numbness to the outside world that seems so uncertain, out of our control, and “full of bad people.”
A person who has a belief of “bad people” and/or a “dangerous world” being everywhere indicates that they have a nervous system stuck in survival mode. There are plenty of issues to be addressed as we all learn and grow in this world, but focusing attention on danger/threat cues will ensure those issues perpetuate. What if instead of seeing “bad people,“ we could see their “tragic expression of unmet survival needs” (referencing Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” here) in our world as an opportunity to support ourselves and all others to cultivate the very best parts of ourselves through neurological safety?
A general and widespread misunderstanding of anger implies that we are mostly repressed around appropriate boundaries, and likely most of us are perpetually in a survival state. How could we collaborate and create a more sustainable and compassionate world that embraces diversity as an asset? Honoring our emotions, every one of them, with acceptance is a great start. From there, we could begin to notice how much better we all feel when we see the greatest parts of ourselves, and we would then start seeing greatness in others as well. Perhaps we could begin this process with a few moments per day of sensing the breath and bodily sensations?
“Oh right, I DO have a body! I forgot that fact while I was busy trying to strategize how to survive this dangerous world!” When we get lost in our heads, it’s ok. We can be gentle with ourselves about that too. We can just simply shift attention back into mindful awareness of the present moment whenever we notice we’ve drifted off into our survival strategies. It’s only human to do so, and judging ourselves or others will only create more triggered nervous systems.
If we truly understood this as a society, our crime, prison/punitive system, and general fear around “dangerous people” would shift to compassion. Why? Because when “dangerous people” are understood for the unmet needs that are underlying their apparent behavior dysfunction, their capacity to function in a more sophisticated way opens up.
Our brains quite literally cannot learn in a state of survival. So if we continue to punish those who behave in a dangerous way, and feel the accompanying state of survival in ourselves as righteous judgment, we are actually BOTH experiencing survival states, and are therefore unable to access the sophistication of our cerebral cortex that is capable of compassion. Compassion is only accessible in a neurological status of Safety… Otherwise we are just being agreeable at the expense of our own boundaries. Then anger is appropriate to feel, but we are suppressing for the sake of appearances. That will only result in repression over time, and the resulting denial from that process. The correlations between repressed anger and rage and the number of psychological and physiological problems are clear. That unexpressed anger will ultimately either hurt our own health from not releasing the resulting tension patterns in the body (The connection between autoimmune issues and repressed anger and rage are quite clear, as it is so eloquently laid out in Dr. Gabor Mate’s book, “When the body says no”), or it will suddenly come out in explosive rage that could hurt someone else.
We CAN create a better world, and it begins within your own self-awareness, and then expands outward as you integrate these awarenesses in your life. Would you like to see this world become better than it is? If you’re aware of a problem in need of addressing, it’s within you already. Projection works both negatively AND positively. Because you notice something that could be better, it’s now your responsibility to practice that in your own life.
Notice who inspires you...is it the person who tells you what to do? Or is it the person who lives what they teach, integrating into their lives with integrity, honesty, and humility? Perhaps the person that could inspire you most is the one looking back at you in the mirror. What vision inspires you? How will you live that and fine-tune it in a way that the world benefits from learning from your example?
So what’s good about anger? Awareness of anger as bodily sensations, and a healthy expression of boundaries is a sign of self-awareness and integration...Not chronic rage and violence, which is often mistaken for anger. So where will you go from here?
It’s a beautiful day, especially if your nervous system is in safety enough to notice those sophisticated details that allow new awareness to emerge. Look at that beautiful person staring back at you in the mirror. Do you see it? Do you see the beauty of your intention to inspire through your example? Good, then it’s more likely that everyone else will as well. Everyone who’s engaged in this game of empowering human greatness will notice this beauty in you because they’ve chosen to awaken their own passion and inspiration inside...and we’ll always do it better together.
Know Yourself and Be Empowered,
Mike Thomas, Educator, Writer, HFL Empowerment Coach, Holistic Fitness Trainer, and Spiritual Strategist is the innovator and co-owner of Holistic Fitness Lifestyle and has been trained and certified by Dr. Matt James, of The Empowerment Partnership, and Board Certified by the Association for Integrative Psychology as a Master Practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming, Master Practitioner of Hypnosis and Mental Emotional Release® Therapy.