Emotional intelligence is a core component of the Protect & Nurture self-defense curriculum I designed and teach. Yet just five years ago the only emotional experiences I could name in my body were rage and… moody.
Yes, I thought “moody” was an emotion.
For most of my life I viewed my emotions as the enemy. Unpleasant, disorienting feelings that I lacked the tools to understand or process. I grew up in a family pattern of emotional repression, acting out, and avoidance. I received no training in emotional intelligence and communication at any level of my schooling. From the brief surveys I take in my workshops, my experience is typical.
In 2014 I started working with a therapist as an absolute last resort. Running my business was draining me and my personal life and relationships were a mess. I bonded too quick, let resentments build up, and pushed people away when it became unbearable to be treated poorly. I had no capacity to be present with myself. I sought constant distraction through food, compulsive dating, and being a workaholic to avoid dealing with my feelings.
Like so many people I work with now, I saw emotions divided into two categories. I did all I could to avoid the emotions I perceived as negative (anger, fear, sadness, jealousy, guilt) and would cling tightly to those I saw as positive (happiness, contentment, anticipation). The more I pushed away the negative, the harder it became to feel the positive, until I lost touch with them completely.
My turning point was the realization that all emotions are neutral. They are neither positive, nor negative, but simply information signals that provide data about my world and the energetic resources needed to act. In essence, I learned to see my emotions as allies, not as enemies.
Had the Pixar film Inside Out been released a few years earlier it could’ve saved me some trouble. In it we meet Riley, a young girl going through a big life transition, and her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. As the story progresses we see how her emotions attempt (in their own way) to protect and nurture her. I watched it with tears in my eyes and went back to see it the following week.
Anger and Fear are the self-defense emotions. And I love how they are personified in Inside Out. I even have the Funko toys in my room to remind me that it’s ok to be angry and afraid (and sometimes I bring them to our workshops).
Anger is the emotion that monitors our boundaries, whether we have set them consciously or not. Anger fills us up with energy when someone crosses our lines, treats us with disrespect, or tries to hurt or take advantage of us.
In our culture women are typically conditioned not to feel or express anger. They are discouraged from speaking up for themselves, talking back, or being argumentative. A woman who stands in her powerful anger is viewed as bitchy or difficult. Men are typically conditioned to only express anger. They are rewarded for displays of aggression and assertiveness, whether they are correct or not. Men who display sensitivity, seek collaboration, or (worst of all) cry are mocked, shamed, and sometimes shut down with physical violence. The gender-based conditioning we receive around our emotions is immensely harmful to all of us.
To be able to defend ourselves we need to be able to fully feel and tap into our free-flowing anger. Anger can be disorienting to feel and express, especially if it’s been repressed for so long. Growing up around at least a half-dozen family members who repressed their anger until they exploded I resolved to just not feel anger. And in so doing, I repressed my anger, and thus robbed myself of the ability to create strong, healthy boundaries in my relationships. I had unwittingly continued the cycle of family trauma.
Where there are problems with anger, there are problems with boundaries. To begin healing my relationship with anger I learned to create strong, healthy boundaries. Our family patterns inform how we relate to others and how we allow ourselves to be treated.
Anger is an edgy emotion with a lot of baggage. Wielded without skill or personal responsibility anger can cause tremendous harm to the people we most care about (including ourselves). Skillful anger is a core self-defense skill, so it’s very important for us to do our healing work around any trauma we have related to anger.
Fear is the emotion that tells us to that we may be in danger, to pay attention, and sometimes to act immediately. Fear brings stillness and hyper focus or sometimes agitated, fast-twitch movement. Fear is the emotion that guides us to change lanes quickly, to end a date early, or to avoid walking too close to the edge.
In our culture fear is used to manipulate us into taking action as consumers (i.e. buying, clicking, voting). News media disproportionately creates fear and panic to get and hold our attention. Irresponsible politicians use fear to manipulate and control populations. Taking all of this in we become overwhelmed and desensitized to feeling and responding to subtle fear in our lives when it matters most.
Fear can manifest as anxiety in our go go go, high-stress, high-pressure lifestyles. My own anxiety was an impediment to being able to trust my fear instinct to guide me out of unhealthy relationships.
Robbed of our capacity to fully feel and experience fear in the present moment, we lose access to our most powerful self-defense warning signal: our intuition. To know how poorly we use this skill in modern life, just think of how we react to someone who says they are afraid or how routinely we mock and belittle sensitive people: those most able to detect dangers early.
Embracing fear was a huge challenge to my ego and masculinity. When I summon the courage to acknowledge when I am afraid I access the resourcefulness to navigate potential threats.
By learning to fully embrace my emotions I gained the capacity to invite healthy connection into my life, protect myself from emotional abuse, identify and heal trauma, and open to a deep social intelligence that had laid dormant most of my life.
As a self-defense instructor I believe that in reclaiming our relationship to fear and anger we gain the most valuable personal safety skill: embodied awareness.
Jordan Giarratano is the curriculum designer and head instructor of Fighting Chance Seattle. You can learn to work with your emotions in his 4-week course: Impact: Warrior Body, Mind, and Heart or tap into your emotional self-defense tools in a one-day workshop: Self-Defense for Women. Men’s group and Men’s Allyship courses coming in Oct/Nov 2019.