“Be aggressive!” Assertion, anger, and the Liver channel – Education Series

Have you ever lost control in a fit of rage? Or maybe you’re more the sort to keep your anger bottled up inside. Either way, supporting the Liver Channel could help you to be appropriately assertive in your environment.

Anger is an essential emotion that gets a “bad rap.” There are so many times when anger is absolutely appropriate and necessary – of course you’re right to get angry when your friend betrays your trust, when you get cut off in traffic, when someone willfully hurts you or takes something belonging to you. Anger, when expressed appropriately, helps us to set our boundaries and protect ourselves. Anger allows us to manipulate our environment to benefit us. Without anger, we could hardly get anything done! Anger, in effect, promotes our assertion, creativity, hopes, dreams, goals, and ideals. And you guessed it – anger is the correspondent emotion of the Liver channel.

In Chinese medicine, the Liver is likened to an army general. It is important that the general keep his “eye on the prize,” holding a long-term vision with a gentle firmness. Though the general’s aim is to win the war, he can be flexible and keep on pushing forward into possibility when a battle does not go as planned. In the same way, the Liver is connected to our dreams and aspirations. Think about Martin Luther King Jr. gently but firmly voicing his dream, holding fast to a future he was yearning for. Such visionaries are excellent examples of the energetic of Liver when it is in balance.

When Liver is in balance, we are able to assert ourselves in the face of some wrongdoing, and to push forward into our goals and visions while holding a fluid vision of the future. Consider a seedling pushing forth out of the dirt – it aspires to grow upwards towards the sky into a tree. If it encounters a blockage, like a piece of concrete, usually it makes its way around the block to find another way up. Someone with a healthy Liver channel is like this seedling: when they come into contact with an obstacle, they course-correct to make the best of the situation.

Conversely, when Liver is out of balance, a lot of symptoms we often think of in relation to depression may present, for example apathy, listlessness, and all-or-nothing thinking. Alternatively, issues with anger could show up as the person fails to correct their vision when met with contrary events and they push into the conflict beyond the point of usefullness.

When the Liver channel goes out of balance, a lot of other issues can show up. In the Chinese medicine model, the Liver is most importantly responsible for “smoothing the flow of Qi” throughout the body. This includes emotional flow (having fluidity in emotional states, as opposed to rigidity, holding onto emotions and getting stuck in one way of thinking), digestive flow (consider the Western medical understanding of the Liver producing bile to aid in digestion of fats), and more. When the Liver is struggling (for example, when you don’t express your emotions – resentment and held anger in particular injure the Liver channel), things tend to “get stuck” in the flow of Qi.

One of the major causes if illness in Chinese medicine is unexpressed emotion. The Liver channel helps us to express emotions and influence our environment when it does not serve us. Holding onto emotions can injure the channels, leading to many symptoms, pains, and complaints.

The Liver channel starts at the outside corner of the big toe nail and travels up the inside of the leg, around the groin, and ends at the rib cage. Pains in these regions may be associated with Liver channel issues, especially rib cage pains in the region known as the hypochondrium (above the navel and on either side of the rib cage). The original phenomenon of “hypochondriasis” (a psychological term meaning that a person, “hypochondriac,” is afraid that they are sick, but there’s not really anything medically wrong with them) included complaints of hypochondrium region pains – Chinese medical practitioners could recognize that these pains may stem from Liver channel Qi disharmonies, and provide relief to these patients, while Western medical doctors may not have a physiological explanation for the pains (if you have severe pains in your abdomen or ribs, talk to your Western medical doctor! This blog does not replace medical or psychological advice!) The Liver also opens into the eyes, and helps to keep them moist and functioning well, so issues with the eyes could indicate disharmonies in the Liver channel.

Put it into practice

An emotional practice that I find helps to keep the Liver channel moving smoothly is to see emotions as “weather” in the sky of your awareness. When anger shows up, I endeavor to notice it the same way I would notice that it is rainy. “Oh hey, anger is present right now.”

Having raised the anger to the level of consciousness, I have a choice – I can let it go, or I can take effective action. I take a moment to consider why I am angry and whether there is anything I can do about the stimulus in the moment. If the answer is no (e.g. someone cut me off while driving), I let it go: make a fist and smack it into my hand gently, sing, voice it to a willing listener or to an empty room, write it down and rip the paper up, go for a walk or jog, or play an instrument. If there is something I can do about it (e.g. my professor changed the due date on a paper and now I have two finals and three papers due that week) I take action immediately (in this case, maybe I email the professor, express my concern, ask if there’s a time we can discuss the issue in person). Now I don’t always remember to engage in this practice, and it is just that: PRACTICE! (When I forget to do this, I  remind myself that I am a beginner, now and always – another practice of mine.)

Next time you notice you feel stuck in an emotion, especially anger, consider how you could take action or let it go. If you need a little support moving the Qi, you can massage the top of your foot between the first and second metatarsal bones to give Liver a little extra love.

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