by Ryder Johanson, L.Ac.
In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to a lot of people with strong opinions on the protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd and other black men and women by police. As a white guy, I don’t feel like it’s my place to mansplain the police brutality/structural racism/Black Lives Matter situation and how people should be responding. But I just keep thinking about what it would take to get me emotionally to where many protestors now are.
How angry would I have to be to line up against a line of police in riot gear? What kind of experiences and suffering would have to happen for me to risk my health, safety, and freedom like many of the protestors are doing? How much would I have to suffer first? What would it feel like to feel like there was no other way to have my voice heard?
Anger is probably the most vilified of emotions—and I can see why. It’s the emotion driving some of the worst crimes and unkindnesses humans inflict upon each other. People who are angry are likely to lose control and do things that disturb the peace in our households and our communities. Most of us learn early on that it’s not OK to be angry.
But in my experience, anger is often a cover emotion for significant past wounds underneath. It’s the Protector aspect of ourselves that’s standing up for the wounded, scared Inner Child. Maybe a big, scary display of our outrage can prevent us from getting hurt the same way again. With sadness and fear we feel disempowered and even hopeless. Anger, in contrast, is a huge rush of energy and a sense of empowerment.
To borrow a term from one of my favorite spiritual teachers, anger arises when we feel like a situation is “unworkable”: we feel like we deserve better than we’ve got and it doesn’t look like there’s any way for us to get it. And so we think that maybe a big show of aggressive energy will be able to make a shift in a stuck, unworkable situation.
Figuring out if and when and where and how to express anger is a bigger subject than I’m going to try to tackle here, but I think it’s important that we understand that someone who is very angry is usually very hurt underneath. Moreover, anger can be a powerful tool to motivate us to stand up for ourselves and set good boundaries. Very often, some of the biggest changes I see in my patients suffering with autoimmune diseases come after they start speaking up to their family members or their employers about the things that are bothering them.
Most of the time we use coping mechanisms to distract ourselves from our anger. We all know about coping mechanisms like mind-altering substances, comfort eating, TV, playing with our phones too much, but even “healthy” activities like extreme exercise and spiritual practice can be used to distract ourselves from the emotional pain in our minds and bodies. But that anger is going to keep coming back until we take the time to heal our past wounds and find a way to feel more empowered going forward.
I know personally it can be a big relief to have an angry outburst and get something I’ve been bottling up out in the open. But I’ve felt even better, more lasting relief when I’ve realized that the angry parts of me are just trying to stand up for the sad, scared, disempowered parts of me. Moreover, it’s made it easier for me to see that same dynamic playing out over and over in our society and have compassion for other people.
Ryder Johanson treats autoimmune and other chronic diseases with Traditional Chinese Medicine at Middleway Medicine in Talent.