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On Abuse, Anger, and Self-Assertion

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Welcome to my blog, where you'll find substantive, well-researched articles that blend neuroscience, philosophy, poetry, personal reflection, and the latest life coaching tools in service of helping people engage their full potential. 

 

On Abuse, Anger, and Self-Assertion

Kirstin Hotelling Zona

Hello, Lovelies.

It’s been a couple of months since my last blog, and much has happened in this time. In my last blogpost, I wrote about self-acceptance, and below I explore self-assertion. Together, self-acceptance and self-assertion form the two wings of self-love.

Self-assertion goes beyond acting in alignment with one's core values, though aligned action is how we condition our capacity for self-assertion. Self-assertion is an act of expression (which can occasionally include tactical silence) that communicates a belief in and allegiance to our own self-worth, and to the values that anchor and guide us. 

Self-assertion is a skill, even an art. Neither aggressive nor acquiescent, self-assertion is a form of communication that validates our experience or perspective as both worthy and relevant. It is confident but not combative, determined but not defensive. Self-assertion may be enacted in hopes of securing another's respect or consideration, though real self-assertion is not measured by another's approval but by the degree to which we have honored our truth with integrity, even in the face of indifference or outright hostility—that is, to the degree that we have our own back. 

The skill of self-assertion, and how to practice it, is at the heart of Brené Brown's Braving the Wilderness: The Quest For True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (2017), a book that, like most of Brown's, I've dog-eared with love.

Braving begins with the understanding that "true belonging ... is not something we achieve or accomplish with others; it's something we carry in our heart. Once we belong thoroughly to ourselves, true belonging is ours" (32). What does it mean to belong to ourselves? Belonging to ourselves means loving ourselves—unconditionally; not despite our imperfections and flaws, but including them.

As a core act of true belonging, self-assertion is something we sometimes do (or wish we could have/would have done) in response to actions that either intentionally or unintentionally deny or threaten to deny our self-worth or the worth of values we deem essential to right living. As such, self-assertion can be an affirmation and a rejection: sometimes when we self-assert, we're explicitly challenging or refusing words or actions that deny or otherwise occlude our worth or the values we deem essential to right living. 

Paradoxically, then, the practice of true belonging can at times feel scarily solitary, because "belonging to ourselves" means "being called to stand alone—to brave the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism" (32). As such, the "special courage it takes to experience true belonging is not just about braving the wilderness, it's about becoming the wilderness. It's about breaking down the walls, abandoning our ideological bunkers, and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt" (37). 

I've returned to this last line—living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt—many times in the past several weeks. I want to love from, forgive from, protest from, create from, work from, and serve from my wild heart, not my weary hurt. But the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, and the watershed of pain, anger, and outcry they unleashed and helped to organize in the midst of a growing #metoo movement in anticipation of the midterm elections, stopped me in my tracks: I was taken completely off-guard by my response—by the raw, visceral anguish I felt upon watching Ford's testimony, and by the bone-deep enervation I felt in the days and weeks following.

In my effort to get to the heart of what self-assertion really means, and why I think it's so important for us, right now, to practice it wisely, I'd like to share some of my experience of this event with you, because living from a wild heart has meant, lately, contending with—that is, being with, making room for, and acknowledging, with something like cautious reverence and strategic surrender—the disorienting insistence of my weary hurt, a hurt that feels intensely personal precisely because its agent is a faceless (or rather, many-faced) disavowal of personhood. 

When, after a long day of work, I settled into bed to watch the hearings, I didn't expect to feel what I did: within fifteen minutes of watching Dr. Blasey Ford tell her story, I was blindsided by a surge of hurt so raw, so embodied, and so unexpected that the only possible response was to cry, whole-body sobs, curled up like baby. The trigger for me was when Dr. Blasey Ford was asked to share the most "indelible" memory of her assault. Without skipping a beat, and with no hesitation, she answered: "When Mark was laughing. When Brett and Mark were laughing, having fun at my expense." Dr. Blasey Ford recounted this moment calmly and steadily, which made the tremor in her voice all the more audible. I understood exactly why this moment was seared, above all others, in her mind, as my own experience of sexual assault is anchored in my mind's eye by a similar memory.

When I was 4 and 5 years old, I was sexually assaulted on several occasions by a male babysitter. The moment I remember above all others was the last time, because standing behind my babysitter were two of his friends, two tall boys I'd never seen before. As my babysitter tried to coerce me to do his bidding, the boys behind him looked down at me. I can still recall the feeling in my body upon hearing their laughter and seeing the cold, unfriendly look in those boys' eyes: that strange mixture of adrenaline and slow-motion calm that the perception of danger provokes. Though I didn't have the words for it then, I felt intense humiliation and betrayal, and acutely, unambiguously unsafe. And while I know now that what my babysitter, whom I adored, did was terribly wrong and the farthest thing from loving care, I hadn't, at that point, consciously understood this to be so—until I saw in those boys' eyes, and heard in their laughter, the true nature of my babysitter's "affections."

And in that moment, something in me rose up, and resisted. I said—I can still hear myself, my loud whisper—No. I backed away. I don't remember what happened next, but I do remember telling my mother the next morning, when she was doing dishes at the kitchen sink. She immediately put my little sister and me in her big green Volkswagen van and drove, in silence, to my babysitter's. While I stayed in the car with my sister, she went inside. Several minutes later she emerged from the house, got back into the car, looked straight ahead in silence, and drove us home. She never spoke about it to me, but nor did I see him again. 

As I watched Dr. Blasey Ford recount her story to the nation, my own whispered No, a word she and so many other women vocalize in vain, as well as the pain of my own experience, came flooding back. But what unnerved, and with some distance, sobered me the most, was the presence of another voice in my head, equally resonant and familiar: a rational, wise, adult voice, my own: Come on, it wasn't that bad. He didn't even rape you. You’re overreacting. I cringe writing this, confessing to these words here, let alone in my own mind, but I do because I want to own and underscore the insidiousness of those actions that abuse another's physical and emotional integrity, and why, when such actions are normalized by systemic and collective ways of thinking, the process of healing becomes both essential and exhausting. 

As I cried on my bed, I gave myself a lot of love: I approached myself with, above all, compassion. I wrapped my arms around myself in an effort to hold the little girl I once was. And I chose to notice, with curiosity instead of criticism, my own internalized voice of denial, how familiar it felt, how believable. I honed in on, and felt, my raw anguish just as I honed in on, and felt, my own effort to deny its validity. And in that moment, I clearly understood the profound, nearly unbearable weight of Blasey Ford's bravery, and the sad inevitability of Kavanaugh's confirmation. 

For many days following the hearings, and then again after the confirmation, I allowed myself to mourn. Not indulge, not give up, not wallow, but healthfully mourn. To feel my own pain, and the struggles I’ve encountered in life as a result of that early assault, as well as the pain of the millions who experience daily acts of denigration because their bodies have been coded as at once violable and invisible.

I chose to grieve, to connect with the enormous collective pain of disavowal, and how profoundly real—and important—it is to admit to and feel the hurt that such disavowal can generate. And to feel how ubiquitous that hurt is, and how that ubiquity is not a reason to shrug off the hurt as inevitable or “just the way it is,” but, on the contrary, a reason to notice and feel it all the more.

In the wake of such enormous and unexpected emotion, I wanted to feel because I want to heal what was clearly calling out for attention. I’ve learned enough on my journey to know that what we resist persists, and what we feel will heal.

That said, I also know the sometimes-slippery line between feeling-to-heal and becoming mired in what seems like justified and productive resentment and blame: all too often we mistake sensations of anger and rage for sensations of hurt, of wounding, and therefore conclude that in order to heal the wounds of being wrongly treated we must hold on to our anger, fuel our rage—that letting go of indignation is tantamount to self-betrayal.

Anger, without a doubt, can be a vital and even life-saving emotion. This is especially so when we’ve been subject to abuse and its attendant mechanisms of control, such as gas-lighting (which can be enacted by both individuals and collectives, as when we deny or invalidate someone’s trauma-response as over-reactive, hysterical, emotional, or playing-the-victim). One of the most damaging effects of something like sexual assault is the way in which victims are often made to feel that their pain is outsized and unwarranted, an experience that, over time, leaves one radically disconnected from not only the very wound that needs healing, but from the self-authority and thus self-presence that is, ultimately, the only agent capable of healing that wound. In such instances, anger is what Tara Brach calls an “intelligent emotion,” alerting us to an unmet need that cries raw and pulsing behind the rage.

Mining our anger by pausing with it, feeling it without reacting to it, asking ourselves what unmet need is calling out for attention (the need to matter? To belong? To be loved? To feel in control? To feel valued? To feel seen? And so on…), and then responding to that need by first giving ourselves that which we seek, is a life-skill that I’ve been practicing and teaching for the last few years, and it’s been a game-changer: the practice allows me to lean into the feelings of hurt and fear (the emotions that always underpin anger) without paralyzing myself in the process. I can lean in and touch my own pain and thereby fortify compassion for myself, and for others, for the things I stand up for, just as I work to find the words, the means of expression that will enable me to brave my truth, to show up with vulnerability, to fortify my courage, and to connect with others in the making of a safer, kinder, more value-driven world.

So many people I know and work with are struggling with overwhelming anger in the face of rising hate crimes, xenophobia, mass shootings, natural disasters, and a governmental administration whose policies appear at times to be insensitive to these realities, if not complicit with them. And while I understand the source of such anger, I feel a strong desire to caution against indulging it, because doing so keeps us armored up—afraid, rigid, reactive, and worst of all, disconnected from our pain and therefore the source of our own healing: the remarkable human capacity to feel, with intention and compassion, our own fear and hurt, and, by way of patient presence, to heal ourselves.

True healing is only something we can give to ourselves, which means that chronic anger—an emotion that keeps us focused externally—prevents internal healing in the name of self-preservation. But invulnerability in the guise of self-preservation is the insidious cost of anger unexamined. What my own journey of healing has taught me, above all else, is that true self-preservation necessitates feeling fully—with curiosity and compassion, and very often slowly, bit by gentle bit—the very pain we’ve been avoiding when we focus obsessively on the person or circumstance that has hurt us or caused us to feel afraid.  
 
Circling back, then, to my experience while watching the Ford-Kavanuagh hearings, one that was shared by the majority of women I know: the voice in my head (my own voice!) that was denying the validity of my pain just as I was feeling it can be understood as not only the internalized voice of a larger cultural devaluation of women/women’s sexuality, but also, importantly, a coping mechanism: it’s tiring—exhausting, really—to feel our pain fully, without the prophylactic of shaming (ourselves or another) or blaming. It’s much easier, in the short run, to focus instead on feeling angry, telling ourselves (and others) that our anger is testament to our resistance, to our survival, our strength; to our refusal of what we deem wrong—that is, to “self-assertion.”

But when we devote ourselves to anger in an effort to self-assert, we in fact abandon ourselves. This is the conundrum and the crime of abuse, how we often spend years, lifetimes, seeking apology or amends or empathy or recognition from, or “justice” for, the perpetrator of our abuse—and thus stay “bonded” to them. While holding someone accountable for their violations is critically important, doing so will not, in and of itself, heal our pain. Healing is an inside job because no one else can feel our feelings for us. We can—and should!—seek support (sanctuary, solidarity) in our efforts to heal, but such support can’t, ultimately, stand in for the often-exhausting work of feeling what needs to heal.   

Self-assertion demands, then, both vulnerability and courage, what Brené Brown would describe as being afraid and brave all at once. True self-assertion enables us to simultaneously fight for what we think is right without pinning our capacity to heal and to thrive on the outcome of our protests. True belonging—what I also call self-love—is an act of self-assertion in that it is "not passive. It's not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It's not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it's safer. It's a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are" (37).

Self-assertion is the No I whispered clearly to my babysitter. It was Dr. Blasey Ford telling her story on national TV. It is the act of every woman, and man, who has come forth to share, honestly, her or his own story of abuse. And self-assertion is also, equally and instrumentally, crying alone on my bed, holding myself like a beloved child, feeling the watershed of raw, unfiltered pain, letting it unfurl without judging or repressing it. Both are necessary to the internal healing upon which communal, and therefore cultural, transformation depends.

If you are struggling with feeling overwhelming and/or chronic anger or resentment, or if you find yourself absorbing abusive actions in the name of “compassion” and forgiveness, Brené Brown’s wonderful book will help you take back your power and access your courage in the only way that every truly works—not by defending and armoring, but by getting real with your own pain and your own capacity for self-presence, an act that is, for most of us, the scariest of all, but which grants us, finally, freedom.

That my experience of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings and their aftermath has been so pungent and embodied as to feel especially private, but was in fact shared by thousands of other women who recounted responses remarkably like my own, has helped me find not only grounding and strength, but also deep-belly, whole-hearted hope, a hope that is by the day becoming conviction, that we are, as a nation and beyond, building a bridge of healing and transformation from our collective island of weary hurt to the shore where our wild hearts stand tall and beckon.  

As always, I welcome your responses or questions, and ask that if this has been helpful, you share it with a friend. 

Loveand with gratitude, 

Kirstin
 



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