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Transforming Difficult Emotions Into Powerful Resources

Have you ever felt like throwing your computer out the window? Ever wanted to punch your boss in the nose? How about scream so loud, you’d make the whole office shake? If so, I’d say you are alive and well!

Anger is usually a sign that something needs to change. It is also the normal, natural response when things don’t go easily or as expected. When we’re faced with limitations, obstacles, or hardships, we automatically respond with negative…or shall we call them difficult…emotions. I think it’s fair to say that people with disabilities experience a greater number of limitations and hardships, and therefore must learn to manage a greater dose of frustration and upset. Thus, how to manage these difficult feelings is an important issue for us.

Traditionally, people have two ways of handling strong emotions. We repress them, which makes us easy to get along with and socially acceptable. Or we express them as we feel them, which lets the “steam” out and allows us to immediately feel better. But both methods have a down side. Holding difficult emotions inside can make us shut down emotionally or become weak or ill. Letting the anger out freely usually scares others, thus breaking trust and often destroying the roots of relationships. So the question becomes, “Is there a way to manage difficult emotions without becoming a victim or a bully?” Yes! Of course. Doing the Monster Dance!

Dancing with Monsters

A world-renowned dance teacher named Anna Halprin first introduced me to the Monster Dance when I was in my late 20s. At that time, I was struggling with my status as a little person. I had blamed everything in my life that didn’t work – namely my love life, my career, and many relationships – on being 3 feet 8 inches tall. In my mind, being a little person was the source of all my pain, and there seemed to be no way out.

Despite my despair, I allowed my closest friend to persuade me to sign up for her mentor Anna’s dance class, which lasted for almost an entire year! This friend, who could sell ice to Eskimos, had said, “Anna is no ordinary dance teacher. She celebrates differences! Her passion is to work with people who are crippled, overweight, and challenged with cancer or disabilities. It’ll be great, I promise!”

My first impression of this 62-year-old maverick was “Wow!” Her movements were as fluid as rain. Her creativity was ingenious. Her ideas were revolutionary. Even more impressive, Anna had had her colon removed while battling cancer during her early 50’s. That didn’t hold her back; she still danced every day, taught in her school, ran her business, and traveled the globe. She was a triumphant warrior, ablaze with artistic expression and zest for life.

Coming to Terms

Typically, we’d begin Anna’s class with “movement ritual,” which was her unique concoction of yoga poses. We’d bend, stretch, and breathe in a series of postures that flowed in slow motion. Because of my short, stout limbs, I had difficulty performing the poses, though I soon realized my lack of precision didn’t matter to the instructor. But it surely mattered to me. Every morning, I held back my tears as I peeked at the others with their long limbs, flowing in and out of perfect postures.

Each week, Anna led us into new movement explorations. Some days we’d move to a drumbeat, other days we’d explore the movements in isolated parts of our bodies like our legs or chest. I rather enjoyed exploring the movements when I did them by myself. But when we worked with partners, I hated it—my difference in size could not be avoided. Overwhelmed by feelings of shame and envy, I wanted to just disappear. It didn’t take long to figure out this class was much more about dealing with “issues” than about learning “dance.”

The most astounding exploration, however, was the Monster Dance. “The Monster Dance allows the Monster inside of us—our pent-up ugly emotions like anger, jealousy, and sadness—to be expressed and released in a creative way, without hurting ourselves or any one else,” Anna said.

She wrote the word “E-motions” on the board. “E-motions are energies in motion,” she stated. “Human beings have a whole range of energies that must move, especially when it comes to those nasty emotions. But,” she said grinning from ear to ear, “the Monster Dance gives us great relief. We can take something ugly and turn it into art. We can take our difficult feelings and sing a song, beat a drum, or write a story about them. We can draw our monsters, and we can always dance our monsters!”

Then Anna said, “Everyone, get your large drawing pads and crayons. Close your eyes and sense inside yourself. Feel that place where you have stored your anger, resentment, sadness, and rage. See it. Feel it. Let yourself really be with the monster inside of you and then draw it.”

A whirlwind of red and black crayons swept across the large news-press pads. About half an hour later, we pinned up our monster drawings on the wall and stood across the studio facing them. Anna led the way as she gazed at her drawing and moved across the wooden floor, putting on the face of her monster, making the movements and the sounds of her monster.

Walking Tall

“No way,” I thought as I watched. “I’m not doing that!” I stood there motionless, frozen with intimidation. Then I saw the others beginning to grovel, howl, and contort. They were letting their monsters out! I watched for a while, still stiff with fear. Then, somehow, I let myself begin to feel what I had been holding inside for over 20 years: HUGE rage. “YYYAAAHHH!” I screamed from the bottom of my gut. “I hate you! Get away from me! Leave me alone!” I let my monster out as I stomped and hollered across the studio.

I couldn’t believe what had just come out of me. My huge voice, my enormous intensity, my gargantuan power. I opened my eyes and looked down at my body. I was still only 42 inches high but I felt like I was 10 feet tall!

A few years later, I met a group of folks that shared Anna’s perspective on letting difficult emotions move in a safe way. In this group, the approach was more therapeutic, less artistic. Here, we stomped our feet and screamed into our hands. We hit pillows with our fists or bats while we screamed out whatever we were mad about. We got on the bed, then pounded our arms and legs as hard as we could and screamed into a pillow. As a whole lot o’ shaking was going on, I noticed a sense of inner strength and peace rising up within each of us.

In my studies to become a psychotherapist, I learned still more about the value of letting out repressed emotions. Another approach was to feel the anger without the large, aggressive movements or loud sounds. This time, I learned to sit quietly and simply let the anger move through my body as I breathed deeply. My feelings were just as intense, only now I contained them with an expanded breath.

As my personal and professional work continued, it became crystal clear that when anger is repressed, it tends to make people feel weak, confused, or victimized. And when folks let their ugly emotions out safely –either creatively or therapeutically–they become empowered individuals who think clearly. I realized that, when we express and release the surface “junk,” a deeper self emerges. That gives us access to our divine nature, our Big Selves.

Out of the Box

The Monster Dance offers a variety of styles for expressing difficult emotions without scaring or hurting others. For some, artistic expression is most effective. For others, aggressively beating pillows or screaming into their hands offers a huge relief. Still others find it useful to sit quietly and let anger move out with their breath. So, be BIG! Break out of your little “comfort zone,” give these a try, and find the modality that suits you best.

When you do the Monster Dance, you give your anger and frustration a chance to “process.” Then, what needs to change becomes very clear. Sometimes it’s your own perspective, attitude or beliefs. Sometimes you need to let go of an unhealthy relationship, job, or habit.

Practicing the Monster Dance in any of these forms will build your creativity and confidence, your courage to take risks, your clarity of mind and the passion to do the things you dream of. You’ll feel good about your self, and even experience healthier sexual functioning. Best of all, it gives you real tools to deal with everyday difficulties.

People with disabilities especially need a way to let out “steam”, to express and release pent-up frustrations, and to access the internal resources that build strength of character and freedom from victimization. So, next time you feel like punching your boss…but hold back, remember the Monster Dance in all its forms! You can take out your journal and write about your anger and resentment. You can draw a picture of your Monster. Or, better yet, you can slip into the bathroom or go to your car and scream into your hands while you stomp your feet.

Break out of that box!

Do the Monster Dance and uncover your innate courage and confidence.

Do the Monster Dance and find within yourself everything you need to Walk Tall.