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Embracing Anger: Insights from Qigong for Healthy Relationships

Relationships play a pivotal role in our lives.  The need for reciprocal and reliable connections is deeply wired in our nervous system and is associated with our physical and emotional wellbeing.  Consequently, our subconscious is constantly seeking opportunities for social engagement, communication, and co-regulation—a biological imperative rooted in our survival instinct.  Deb Dana, a clinical social worker and therapist, who has adapted the polyvagal theory for clinical and therapeutic purposes, defines co-regulation as “the biological imperative to be connected with others to survive. We hope to meet others who are regulated and welcoming.” Co-regulation is a requirement for a feeling of safety. We all endlessly look for cues of safety in our environment and long to be safely connected with other people.  Even when we are able to self-regulate. 


During healthy development, children first experiences positive co-regulation situations, which subsequently inform their nervous system to engage in self-regulation, mirroring the internal sense of safety derived from external connections.  However, for those of us who as a child didn’t have opportunities for safe and meaningful relationships, our nervous system learned to prioritize self-regulation as a survival mechanism, resulting in an inversion of the developmental integration sequence. Consequently, our self-regulation mechanisms often become mere survival responses, depleting our energy rather than nourishing our nervous system and leaving us with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction. 


When attempts to connect safely with others and co-regulate fail, and we struggle to access our inner resources for self-regulation, our nervous system forces us into a state of confrontation or avoidance - fight or flight - to restore a felt sense of safety.  In Chinese Medicine, the Liver/Gallbladder system and the Wood Element is responsible for mobilizing our energy and activating this protective response.  We could say that the motto of the Liver/Gallbladder system is “protect and defend”.   The power of the Wood energy resides in its capacity to gather all the resources available in our body for us to become powerful, focused and stronger than ever to face the threat (perceived or real).  However, if this mobilization persists or if these actions (fight or flight) are blocked or impeded, it can lead to dysregulation, manifesting as frustration and anger. According to Alaine Duncan, “if what was thwarted was a fight response, rage may consume us. Or if what was thwarted was a flight response, anxiety will dominate.”

 

Anger, the emotion associated with the Spring season and the Wood Element, often surfaces in our relationships. Anger is a natural and normal emotion that protects us from unpleasant experience or harmful external influences and generally indicates that boundaries have been violated and our safety compromised. Culturally, anger is often pictured as a negative emotion, leading many of us to suppress or deny its existence.  However, anger, like any other emotion, serves as a valuable warning sign that an issue requires our attention. When well balanced, the energy of anger can actually be helpful to maintain healthy boundaries and assertiveness in our relationships.  However, if our Wood energy is out of balance, we can experience overwhelming and impulsive anger that bursts out in pushy or inappropriate oppositional ways or toward wrong people.  In a more Yin expression, this imbalance can be manifested in withdrawal, anxiety and depression where we can’t express our needs in a relationship and feel resentful as we break through obstacles, challenges or conflicts, even the smallest ones, we encounter in our relationships.





Qigong practices aimed at harmonizing the Wood Element can help us recognize the sensation of anger in our body and bring the Wood energy back to balance.  Being curious about the quality of the energy related to frustration and anger and staying close to the sensations that anger stimulates in our body, allow this energy to flow through us and be expressed from a place of discovery. Using our breath and mindful movements, we can transform the energy of anger into benevolence — the virtue inherent in the Wood Element.


Relationships are inherently complex, as we navigate the delicate balance between connection and individuation.  Just like a baby from when is born and then at 6 months wants to crawl and get away or a young teenager who strive for independence while seeking comfort from her caregivers, we too yearn for autonomy while cherishing the safety and support of our relationships.  We are unique, complex and sometimes contradictory beings.  It’s easy to criticize the other and being mad at them, but recognizing that others too are wonderful complex beings fosters a sense of benevolence and understanding, facilitating deeper connections.


Cultivating a healthy relationship with ourselves is paramount, as it lays the foundation for meaningful connections with others. By cultivating an intimate curiosity about who we are, our needs and wants, our values and beliefs, and by embracing our inherent worth and our vulnerabilities, we develop a profound understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. We then naturally expand this curiosity when we connect with others, supporting healthy relationships.  Through practices like Qigong, we deepen our relationship with our body, mind, and Qi, increasing our capacity to appreciate each moment in a new way, fostering inner peace and embodying both strength and love. 


Ultimately, strengthening our relationship with ourselves improves our connections with others, shedding new light on our interconnectedness with the natural world. As we remember our place in the great complex web of life, we rediscover reciprocity between all living beings, activating our Wood energy, fostering a sense of connection, co-regulation and safety.


Whether we are in relationship with ourselves, another person or the Natural World, I like to view relationships as separate entities that requires nurturing and care just like the members of the relationships need too.  Instead of focusing our attention on an individual or narrowing our view on a specific situation, it allows us to tap into the creative and expansive energy of the Wood Element fostering benevolence and nurturing the relationship itself.  In doing so, we create a space where everyone thrives.

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