If our emotions were M&Ms, my box would mainly be the one colour. Don’t get me wrong, it would certainly contain a range of colours to reflect my rather broad emotional vocabulary, but there is one which is well out of proportion to the others and that is anxiety. I have felt it so much and for so long now that it’s just become my “normal” state, and to be relaxed is a privilege. After having little luck with various therapies, relaxation strategies, and anti-anxiety herbs, I’ve just about given up and accepted that I will take this anxiety to the grave with me. But while reading Heller and LaPierre’s “Healing Developmental Trauma”, I came across a different perspective on chronic anxiety which might explain why it’s so ingrained and difficult to change in some people.
The authors suggest that behind chronic anxiety may be anger which has been disowned and “split-off”. They give the example of “Paul” (pp. 278-281) who was abused and neglected by his parents when he was a child. It was too dangerous and frightening to be angry/aggressive towards someone he was completely dependent on to survive, so that anger was shut down. Instead he turned it against himself, which served many other purposes. While it might seem counterintuitive it helped to preserve his self-image; without the anger (acted outwards at least), he did not feel like his father and therefore completely “bad”. It also gave him a sense of control; if abuse is caused by him rather than things outside of him which he has no control over, he can prevent further abuse. The result of turning this anger inwards though is an overactive, dysregulated nervous system, hence the chronic anxiety.
I can really see myself in Paul and it’s made me wonder about situations I’ve been in where anger was the appropriate reaction, why I didn’t feel it, and whether this has contributed to my own chronic anxiety. I don’t remember feeling particularly angry when I was bullied in school. Perhaps given the power imbalance between us, it would not have been safe for me to fight back with anger, and I did not want to be like my bullies. But did I still feel anger on some level, and if so where did that energy go? Am I internalising it which is what my constant anxiety and tension is about now?
Chronic anxiety caused by split-off anger is a complex issue to deal with. But the story of Paul gives me hope. We must first begin by exploring our fear of anger, first of other’s anger and then our own. When all that anger is being directed at ourselves, it can take a while for us to even realise we are angry. It sounds like Paul had a very gentle, patient and capable therapist who could work through this with him and, when Paul began to own and integrate his aggression, his chronic fearfulness greatly diminished.
So as I examine my box of M&M emotions once again, I wonder whether they are more like Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstoppers with their outer shells concealing other colours beneath. I wonder what those colours may be, whether they are red as in Paul’s case, or could they even be another colour for me?