Standing in Your Strength While Staying in Your Heart

Man seated on sofa with hands on knees“My wife tells me it’s like I’m two different people. She can’t deal with how angry I get, and then I turn around and I’m so kind, almost too kind. I’ve tried so hard. I spend so much agonizing time managing myself.”

John is coming to see me for psychotherapy. He tells me about his childhood—lack of attention, drunken family scenes, unexpectedly finding pornographic pictures at age 9, sexual abuse, and no one to protect him.

As we talk, he notices that there is some tightness in his left leg above his knee. He puts his hand there and says, “It’s like it is tense, stuck, frozen. It is familiar. I used to feel this for days when I was a kid. The only way I could cope was to go away as much as I could. I would stay out all night. I’d hang out with an edgy crowd. I was literally running away.”

If this tightness could speak, I wonder aloud, what would it be saying?

“Help me!”

What kind of help?

“I just want to … I just want to rip them apart, punish them, hurt them.”

Frozen rage, huh?

“Yes, it feels good to say it out loud, to own it. They are stupid hillbillies, stupid hillbillies.”

John notices that the tension in his leg is loosening up. Soon he begins sobbing.

“They are immigrants, they have nothing, nothing, no education, nothing,” he says. “I feel so bad for them.”

John is having two strong feelings—anger and compassion. He feels a little anger, and then it dissolves into understanding and compassion. And when he is feeling so kind, he suppresses the anger. So, these two feelings kind of cancel each other out.

I notice that both of John’s hands are moving now. Can he focus on them for a little while? Can he show me with his hands how his anger and his kindness relate to each other?

John moves his hands, palms facing, toward each other.

John is having two strong feelings—anger and compassion. He feels a little anger, and then it dissolves into understanding and compassion. And when he is feeling so kind, he suppresses the anger. So, these two feelings kind of cancel each other out.

“There is something between them that keeps them from reaching each other,” he says. “It’s like an emptiness, but it keeps them apart. I don’t know why this moves me so much, but it does.”

There are tears on John’s cheeks. Is it like the empty space, the vacancy, when he left and went away as a kid?

“Yes, that’s it. It’s like that. I left. I left everything. I ran away.”

There’s a long silence while John looks at his hands. He puts them down on his legs.

“These complete me,” he says. “They fill me in as a person. My anger was always so disconnected from me. I would let it out, but it was wild and disconnected—just lashing out. It still happens sometimes when I fail at suppressing the anger. When I do shut it down, I become so very sweet, but like a little child. No wonder my wife thinks I am two different people.”

So, I say, you just understood some new things? Let’s take a couple breaths and just be with these insights.

“It is really strength, actually—all kinds. The strength of a just kind of anger in my right hand and the strength of kindness and compassion in my left.”

Yes, I understand. We go back to his hands. Can he explore how they are with each other now?

John moves his hands silently and tenderly toward and around each other. They are protecting and being protected. Minutes pass.

“I’ve been waiting for a long time for this moment,” he finally says. “I am feeling how the two hands go together. I can be strong, or even angry, in a new way when I am also connected with my heart. I won’t feel ashamed. I won’t need to be two different people—a scary man and a sweet little boy—anymore.”

John takes a deep breath, leans back on the couch, and spreads out, relaxed and taking up more space.

A Powerful Lesson

This is a powerful story about disconnecting power as strength from power as heart and disconnecting both from oneself. There are many forces leading us toward disconnection. In John’s case, these were family experiences.

In other cases, it’s the feeling that to be a good person and not cause harm, one must give up having power. For some men, it may be being called a sissy for being sensitive or kind. For leaders, it may be the mistaken belief that power can be gained and sustained only by use of force and exploitation: oppositional power.

As John discovered, breaking the natural link between heart and strength may cause an emptiness or incompleteness where anger becomes threatening and kindness naive. Power with heart can heal, repair, and serve well-being. Stay in your heart while you stand in your strength. This is the key to right relationship with your power—both personal and role power.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed.

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  • Anna

    Anna

    April 8th, 2016 at 10:11 AM

    It must be so hard to realize that your family and your experiences form growing up could be causing you all this unnamed rage that you may be feeling. It would be terribly difficult for many of us I believe to come to grips with that reality.

  • William

    William

    April 9th, 2016 at 12:20 PM

    We might think that we actually have something that is physically wrong with us without ever thinking that this could be stemming from emotions instead. I know that I have been like that before, tightening us being tense and frustrated and it would physically make me ill. If I wasn’t so in tune with myself I would have probably thought that I was having a heart attack!

  • jeb

    jeb

    April 11th, 2016 at 11:16 AM

    There are parts of me too that feel it is easier to disconnect from the pain and the anger that I feel than it is to allow them to integrate. I think that there is a fear for me that if I fully feel them as a part of my everyday life then those feelings will totally overwhelm me and I can’t ever be free of them. Having that disconnection while making it like I am two people helps me to at least enjoy the good parts of my life without feeling that they are ruining everything else.

  • Lola

    Lola

    April 12th, 2016 at 7:23 AM

    Are you saying to use your heart for your strength and not just your anger?

  • Cedar Barstow

    Cedar Barstow

    April 26th, 2016 at 1:10 PM

    Yes, Lola, I am saying that your heart is strong, even stronger than anger. I am saying that you don’t have to choose between your love and your strength. They are connected. They are part of each other.

    And I appreciate the empathy expressed by others commenting here. You are showing that you understand this client’s dilemma. And I wish for all the blessing of not having to live as two people.

    Cedar

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