Can there be good news hidden in this crisis?

Can there be good news hidden in this crisis?

Isn’t it incredible how quickly our lives have changed in the last few weeks because of the Corona Virus? Seemingly overnight our way of living has altered dramatically. Yet even among all the anxiety, grief and disorientation there are still glimmerings of good news. It’s this good news that could be the basis for our long-term recovery.

We are all in this together

A striking feature of this situation is how it affects everyone. Not long ago we were watching scenes of flooding in the UK, of refugees flooding across the border in Turkey and the bush fires in Australia and Brazil. Like most people, I found these scenes distressing and they occupied my mind for ages. At the same time, I had the luxury of them not happening to me—they were happening to other people.

All this has changed now. This virus is affecting the lives of everyone on the planet—how we work, socialise, keep our economy afloat—the list is endless. There’s no room to say one country is getting something wrong and another right. We just don’t know. Governments are making up their responses as we go along. They’re trying their best, but they don’t really know what will happen.

Everyone is anxious and uncertain. However wealthy, powerful or successful you are it doesn’t matter. We’ve seen celebrities, royalty and politicians all going down with it. The virus does not discriminate.

So, what is the good news here?

If we pay attention this could be a real wake-up call for how we care for each other. As we witness each person’s vulnerability it’s brought home to us strongly that is the very nature of being human. We all know this but in the rough and tumble of living it can get pushed to the back of our minds. As we focus on making  living, caring for our families and living as best we can it’s all too easy to overlook the importance and uniqueness of each human being. 

Now as we stand side by side through this pandemic, we know that just as each of us is anxious and worried, so is everyone else. Whenever we feel closed in by not being able to go out into the spring air, we can remember that this is how it is for almost everyone. As we struggle to get in supplies, we know that it’s not just us wanting to make our home as safe as possible. It’s as if our personal defences have melted away and we are all vulnerable together.

We are experiencing the reality of our connected world

The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a “wet market” in Wuhan which sold both dead and live animals including fish and birds.  We know that such markets pose a heightened risk of viruses jumping from animals to humans. This is because hygiene standards are difficult to maintain if live animals are being kept and butchered on site. Typically, they are also densely packed allowing disease to spread from species to species.The animal source of Covid-19 has not yet been identified, but the original host is thought to be bats. Bats were not sold at the Wuhan market but may have infected live chickens or other animals sold there. 

If this is correct, then just think of a scenario where a farmer, or butcher takes his animals along to the market to sell. He’s probably done it many times before without thinking about it too much. This time however, one or more of his animals is infected. In the crowded market, somehow the infected animal comes into contact with other animals and humans. The chain of the virus beings to unravel from there on.

We live in a deeply interconnected world. Although we may behave as if we are independent, autonomous entities, the truth is that we are not. It’s not so clear how the virus got to Italy but the fact that it was the half-term holiday around then was significant. There’s a whole group of people who go skiing in February in Europe in Italy, France and Austria. It was as these people came back home that the virus started to spread.

Now as we try to deal with the effects, we see again and again how much we need each other—whatever country we live in, whatever our situation. This does not mean that the co-operation is always there but our awareness of the need for it is growing. Slowly it become something we see more clearly and have more respect for.

Strangely, we are also learning how to suffer. According to Buddhism, understanding the truth of suffering is essential for us to achieve wisdom. It’s only by understanding our human condition that we can be inspired to grow and change. However, suffering is uncomfortable, and we often want to turn away from it. Rather than examine difficult circumstances, we often prefer to distract ourselves from them. Right now, we are surrounded with news about the virus. Anyone we talk to has something to say about it. Newspapers, news programmes and social media are all abuzz with it. There really isn’t anywhere to hide. 

When we ask each other how we are, each of us knows the seriousness of what we are asking. It does not work to just talk about all the places we can’t go and the people we can’t see. We can only reply with a version of how we actually are.

Even the environment is experiencing some good news

We’ve seen that pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen since the isolation measures were put in place. Fish can be seen in the canals in Venice, smog has lifted in Kathmandu. Satellite images from NASA and European Space Agency have shown a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide pollution.

The virus has done what climate activists have not so far been able to do. Planes sit idle, and car use is reduced while people stay home. Tourists are not visiting popular destinations. Air quality is improving in most of the big cities.

Probably it won’t last. When this is over, there will be a hug surge to get the economy back on track. People will long for movement and travel. Perhaps though, in this moment of respite, we are learning again to appreciate the planet and our wish to care for it could be deepened.

Our healthcare and support staff are valued for what they do

One of the features of the new normal that we find ourselves in, is the weekly applause from home and balconies for medical staff. These brave doctors and nurses are working tirelessly to do all they can to help the increasing flood of patients.

Added to our gratitude to them is a recognition of the efforts of care staff, supermarket workers, garbage disposal workers, delivery people, postal workers, and all the other people working in vital jobs. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that these people are generally at the lowest end of the pay scale? Personally, I have been amazed at the kindness of the delivery people who bring our groceries. When I thanked one young man for his help at the end of a phone call about getting supplies, he said that at times like this, we all have to help each other.

If we think that middle class people on comfortable salaries are being forced to apply for state aid in droves because of their jobs disappearing, or their pay being cut. Can we hope that this experience will act as a shake-up to accepting the old norms? Will going through this experience give people a taste of how it is for those who live on limited income? Do we dare hope that when we emerge from all this that our health services will get the support they need and the decision is made to look long and hard at the low rates of pay awarded to so many people working in what are currently referred to as vital occupations?

How to make the possibility of good news become part of society after the virus

Like many other people, I have been inspired by the news updates from Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York. The other day, I heard him say that there will be no ‘going back’ when this is over. The experience of the virus has been so strong that it just won’t be possible to go back to how we were.

That could be a good thing. The shock of this virus and its effects has given us much to think about. It’s exposed some of the best and the worst of how we organise ourselves. Perhaps as we come out the other side, we can bring with us the fruits of all we have been through. To do that we need to think deeply and to reflect on what are the elements of our society that we can let go of.

I live in the Netherlands and like anyone who lives in a wealthy country, I have the security of knowing that the government will work to offer some support for me and for my family, and for all the families in the Netherlands. What of the garment workers in Bangladesh whose work has disappeared because big western clothing companies are cancelling their orders? More than a million workers have been sent home. As a poor country, Bangladesh will not be able to offer the same support for those people. As our awareness of each other’s vulnerability and our interdependence grows, can we allow this to continue to be the way things are?

Perhaps we can’t go back but we can ensure that where we are going to will reflect positive changes in how we live, not negative ones.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

Can you make the gift of saying sorry?

Can you make the gift of saying sorry?

We Brits say ‘sorry’ all the time. In most cultures you only say sorry when you believe you have done something wrong. In the UK it is used as a communication tool. We say ‘sorry’ when we accidentally bump into someone or need to squeeze past them. If we want someone’s attention, we tend to start out by saying , ‘sorry to interrupt’, or ‘sorry to ask but…’It’s partly to do with wanting to be polite but it is also part of our difficulty in being direct. Living in the Netherlands, as I do, I have had to unlearn the habit because people find it irritating. Dutch people are very direct.

Being able to say sorry authentically when you know you’ve behaved in a way that was harmful is a wonderful and important skill. Apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships, soothe wounds and heal broken hearts. 

So why can it feel so hard to say sorry?

Let’s look at a few possibilities:

• When we don’t think what we did is such a big deal, so it’s not worth apologising for.

• If we have trouble seeing things from another person’s perspective, we might not see the need to say sorry.

• The truth is that is very uncomfortable when we do realise that we have something to say sorry about. Sometimes we just cannot manage to admit we’ve done anything wrong.

Saying sorry as a gift to yourself

To overcome these obstacles, we need to think a bit more deeply. 

We might think that saying sorry is all about giving to the other person. Of course, that is an important part and we will come to it soon. However, it is important to realise the benefits for yourself too

Often when we know we have hurt someone we feel guilty and ashamed. It can cause us stress. Depending on how serious the circumstances were, it might even keep us awake at night. The whole experience is painful and distressing. When we say sorry, we are healing our own feelings of regret and remorse.

Having to dig into our actions and realising that we did not behave well is a humbling experience. It’s hard to admit we hurt someone and makes us feel vulnerable. Perhaps we can be less inclined to judge how others behave when we reflect on our own behaviour.  

It can also become more possible to forgive ourselves. It puts us back in touch with our own basic goodness and reminds us that we are worthy of forgiveness and it is alright to ask for it. If we are open and willing, we can also learn from the mistakes we made that got us into having to say sorry. That’s a bonus going forward.

Saying sorry as a gift to other people

Research shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable, positive physical effect on the body. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it—blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier.

If someone tells you that they are sorry, it helps you to feel better. The ball is now in your court—you have the ability to forgive the person who hurt you. We can move from seeing them through anger and bitterness to seeing them as a fallible human being. The wrongdoer becomes more human, more like ourselves and we are touched by this. Then we are more able to access our natural empathy, and forgiveness becomes possible. 

Apologising re-opens the lines of communication after the hurt has closed them down. It can even be that going through these difficulties together brings people closer and deepens the trust between them. When you go through something difficult with someone and come through it together, it inspires confidence in the strength of the relationship.

Things to be aware of when saying sorry

The most important thing is to mean it! It’s no good saying sorry just to smooth out a situation. People can sense it when you are pretending. It can do more damage that not apologising.

In the same way try to avoid saying sorry and then adding a ‘but’. This can happen when you are trying to apologise for your part in a difficult situation, but you want the other person to take responsibility for their share. You might say something like, I am really sorry that I shouted but you shouted at me first. This is tricky. Of course you want to explain yourself properly but I find that this is easier if you go all the way first.

The more open-hearted and direct we can be the more space opens up for dialogue and exchange.

Maybe Elton John was right, and ‘sorry’ does seem to be the hardest word.  When we manage it though, the benefits for ourselves and others are very nourishing.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

Five reasons why forgiving is so important

Five reasons why forgiving is so important

For the last few months there has been a strange distance with one of my closest friends. It’s been really uncomfortable. Recently we met up to try and talk some things through and things got heated. She walked out on me, left me sitting. I was astounded and very hurt. It was difficult to know what to do.

My partner, who has also been involved in the whole story, suggested that we buy her a big bunch of flowers. We wanted to break through something. Last weekend we chose some lovely flowers and drove over to her place to deliver them. She wasn’t home—which worked well, but we could leave them with her daughter.

Within an hour of us dropping off the flowers our friend was on the phone and our communication was completely different. The whole tone was forgiving, and healing. We recognised that there had been pain and that there were things to work through, but it all seemed possible.

It was as if a boulder loosened itself from my back and rolled away. Since then I have been doing a lot of thinking about forgiveness and the reasons why it is so important.

It eases your own pain

I have been quite amazed at how relieved I’ve felt since delivering the flowers. The hurt I’ve been feeling is much more in proportion than it was. There is also a sense of feeling better about my own role in whatever the dynamic is with my friend. Instead of feeling helpless, and a bit inadequate, there is more patience and trust that things will turn out well.

It was powerful to replace my feelings of hurt, with a healing action. I could actually sense the resentment in my heart ease and was able to access the affection and love that I have always felt for my friend. Yes, we were offering flowers as a gesture of healing—we wanted to give something to our friend that would unblock things‑but we both walked away feeling lighter, and as if we too had received a gift.

Forgiving reduces your stress levels

We could say that the opposite of forgiving is bearing a grudge. It turns out that when we bear a grudge it has a damaging effect on our wellbeing. In a study carried out bypsychologists at Hope College, Michigan, participants were asked to recall a grudgethey held against someone. Recalling the grudge led to an increase in blood pressure,heart rate and sweating. On an emotional level, participants described feeling angry, sad, anxious and less in control of themselves.

When they were asked to imagine forgiving the person, they held a grudge against, theirstress levels fell and the physical symptoms they had experienced subsided. In the psychological domain, forgiveness has also been shown to diminish the experience of stress and inner conflict while simultaneously restoring positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In his book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman reminds us that studies of people posthostility reveal that every time they merely think of the group they hate, their own body responds with pent-up anger. It floods with stress hormones, raising their blood pressure and impairing their immune effectiveness. Whereas forgiving someone we’ve held a grudge against reverses the biological reaction. It lowers our blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones and it lessens our pain and depression.

When we can forgive other people, we are releasing our own hostility as well, so webenefit just as they do.

It’s the only way to free yourself

One of the things that Nelson Mandela is famous for is his insistence on a policy of forgiveness as opposed to revenge when he became President of South Africa in 1994. In one of his most famous quotes on his release from prison he said, 

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

Bishop Desmond Tutu expresses the same kind of sentiment in a slightly different way,

If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.

Both quotes point out that forgiving frees us. That is not to say that it is easy in any way. When we have suffered grievous hurt it can be hard to find our way to forgiveness. Realising that it is the only way to begin our own process of healing can help us find the courage to try.

When we spend time going over the hurt that has been done to us and suffering all the anguish that brings, we are continuously pulled back into the past. Although we might wish to move on, we are still caught in the prison of all our conflicting emotions. Forgiving enables us to move on.

Forgiving helps you to recognise the pain in others

We are not born wanting to hurt others, or with hate in our hearts. Our life experiences shape us as we grow up and mature. If we can take some time to look into the circumstances of the person who has hurt us, we can often find all kinds of clues that help to explain their behaviour. When we take time to explore our common humanity, we can begin to see things from a bigger perspective. 

The person who caused us pain is a vulnerable human being trying to cope with their challenges, just as we are. Each of us is trying to find the way to live a good life and to avoid suffering but experience shows us that that is not possible. Life includes suffering. Sometimes the way we process our suffering can make us hurt others—either intentionally, or unintentionally.

Don’t we also sometimes need forgiveness from other people for the pain we cause them? If we cause pain, don’t we wish for forgiveness?

It contains the seeds of compassion

The road to forgiving can be hard. We need to be patient with ourselves. Compassion itself can be hard. Although we have the potential for compassion in our hearts and minds, our life experiences can make it hard to access. We need to take small steps and build confidence in our ability to care about the suffering of other people and to wish to help them to be free of it. 

Connecting with other people, paying attention to what is going on with them and seeing how alike we all are will help to turn our minds to compassion. Forgiving other people when they cause us pain will help the seeds of compassion to grow.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

4 Things You Can Do When You Dislike Someone

4 Things You Can Do When You Dislike Someone

We are probably all familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe we dislike someone. Perhaps we get introduced to a new colleague at work and immediately we have the sense that we are not going to get on. Or a friend introduces us to their new partner and straight away we are sure we are not going to hit it off. 

It’s not a welcome feeling. It is much more pleasant to like someone and to want to spend time with them. When we dislike someone, we can spend a lot of time managing our dislike, rather than focusing on the content of the relationship.

So, what can we do?

Take Abraham Lincoln’s advice on dislike

Abraham Lincoln is known to have been unusually fair-minded. When choosing his cabinet on becoming president, he astounded political opponents by appointing several of his former rivals to key positions. He based his decision on whether he felt they qualified for the post, rather than personal slights or bitterness.

He is said to have made the following comment, 

I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

How might this help us? We can be open to the possibility that when we met our new boss, or our friend’s partner we reacted to something about them that irritated us. Perhaps it was even enhanced by the mood we were in. If we manage to hold this initial impression as just that—an impression—we can give ourselves the chance to look deeper. 

Making the effort to get to know someone better is a way of respecting their individuality. Instead of going with our prejudices we are willing to investigate a bit deeper and see if we were wrong.

Listen to Henry Longfellow

The popular nineteenth century poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also has a quote that is relevant here.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

Even if we follow Lincoln’s advice and take time to get to know someone we dislike, perhaps we decide we still dislike them! We might not consider people we dislike as our enemies, but we certainly don’t want to spend time with them. Even thinking about them can stir us up and make us upset.

I have thought about this quote from Longfellow a great deal and often use it in workshops. It is a challenging idea isn’t it? To understand, without consultation or confirmation, that the person we are struggling with will have all kinds of suffering in their lives. To do this we need to remind ourselves that everyone wants to find some kind of happiness in their lives. Maybe some people go about it in ways we don’t understand but still, they want to be happy. At the same time, we want to avoid pain and suffering and yet, inevitably, life has many challenges. 

So, the person we dislike will most likely also be dealing with all kinds of pain and disappointment—just like we do. Reminding ourselves of this does not necessarily mean we will begin to like the person, but we might start to feel a kinship. If we can shift our focus from the characteristics that they have that annoy us and look instead at their vulnerability, our dislike can maybe take a back seat.

Look for the things you like

One of the things that happens to me when I do decide that I dislike someone, is that I almost resist finding out things about them that are positive. It’s as if once I have decided that I don’t like someone, then I don’t want to be shown that my dislike is unfounded and unnecessary. When I realise that this is happening then I can give myself a shake and try to take another look. It’s not something I am proud of and that spurs me on to try a bit harder.

One way to do this is to observe how other people interact with them. If people you get on with, also get on with the person you feel you dislike is it possible you are missing something? Have you met their family—partner, children? How do they all seem together. Seeing people with their families can help to soften a negative impression.

You can also look more closely into the person’s character. It is hard to dislike everything about someone—although for me there are a few politicians that challenge this idea. Perhaps they have a sense of humour or are kind to animals. Are they good at their job or a great cook? 

Is there anything that you share? Do you have a similar taste in music, art, books? Have you both enjoyed  a recent movie, or TV programme?

It takes effort to look past your own opinions but if it helps in finding a place of ease in this uncomfortable dynamic then it is well worth it.

Give the person you dislike the benefit of the doubt

Once we have decided that we dislike someone it can be hard to cut them some slack. It becomes easier to expect to be annoyed with them, or to judge their actions. This is where we can really try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Again, being able to do this requires that we pay attention. Instead of jumping to a judgement, or an opinion we will need to pause, and to look deeper. Before we decide that the person who we dislike is behaving again in a way we dislike, we need to take time to check if there is some room for doubt. Could it be possible that we have misunderstood, or somehow got the wrong end of the stick?

In practicing giving someone the benefit of the doubt, the Golden Rule can be helpful. The rule recommends that we, treat others as we wish to be treated. There are some important clues here. We need to remember that it is likely that there are people who dislike us! For some people, we will be that person they dread meeting, who presses their buttons. It does not feel so good to realise that you are someone’s object of dislike. We might feel it’s not fair, or that we don’t deserve it. Perhaps we wonder how someone as well-meaning as we try to be could be disliked. 

So, in addition to these four things we can do when we dislike someone, we can ask ourselves what we would request of someone who dislikes us. The answer to that question contains a whole lot of clues that we can use when dealing with our own dislikes.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

Bringing Compassion to Anger

Bringing Compassion to Anger

It is a great pleasure to share this wonderful post from Russell Kolts on working with anger.

Anger can be a tricky emotion, both in how it plays out in us and in how it impacts our interactions with others. While many people will have sympathy for those who struggle with anxiety or depression – perhaps wanting to offer comfort or reassurance – the response to those who struggle with anger is often less than sympathetic.  

That’s no one’s fault, actually.  It’s a part of how anger evolved, with angry facial expressions and body language designed to signal dangerousness.  Think about how you feel when you see someone wearing an angry expression on their face.  Do you find yourself wanting to help them, or to get away?  

And yet, people who struggle with anger are indeed struggling.  In this blog post, we’ll explore how to bring compassion to the table in working with our own anger, and perhaps in how we relate to others who struggle with anger as well.

A Compassionate View of Anger

In de-shaming the experience of anger, it can be helpful to understand it in the context of Compassion-Focused Therapy’s (CFT) three-systems model of emotion, developed by Professor Paul Gilbert. This model considers anger through the lens of evolution, recognizing it as having evolved to help us recognize and respond to things that threaten us, alongside other threat emotions such as fear, anxiety, and disgust.

Considering this, we can see that anger isn’t something that’s wrong with us.  In fact, it’s a sign that our threat systems are working to try and protect us. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Anger isn’t our fault.  We didn’t choose to have these emotions, and we didn’t design how they would work in us.

You may find yourself thinking, “Yes, but my anger has caused a lot of harm.  I’ve hurt the feelings of people that I really cared about.  I’ve acted out my anger in ways that have caused problems for me and others at home and at work.”

In making these observations, you’re noting one of the tricky parts of anger – it evolved to motivate us to fight when we are threatened, so unrestrained anger can often result in behaviors that are hurtful or which have lots of unwanted consequences.  This can be particularly true for those of us who grew up in situations in which outbursts of anger were modeled by our caregivers, or which didn’t teach us how to handle things well when anger comes up.

So even though it isn’t our fault that anger comes up in us, it’s our job to take responsibility for working with it so that our behavior reflects the person we want to be.  This involves being honest with ourselves about the fact that we struggle with anger, and taking a good look at our relationship to our anger.

Considering Our Relationship with Anger

Take a moment to consider what it’s like when you are angry and behaving angrily, and how it feels afterwards:

  • How does it feel in your body?
  • Do you enjoy or dislike feeling angry?
  • Do you feel empowered by your anger or ashamed of it?
  • What sorts of behaviors do you engage in when angry?
  • How do you feel about those behaviors?  How do you feel about yourself during and after doing them?
  • How do you feel after the anger episode is over?  
  • What do you do then?

These questions are meant to give you a head start in unpacking your anger, so you can consider factors that shape how it plays out over time, and perhaps identify obstacles that may prevent you from taking responsibility and working with it in helpful ways.  Take a moment to consider these questions, maybe even jotting some responses down on a piece of paper before continuing on.  

The Problem of Avoidance

For many years, we’ve had lots of effective anger management techniques, which guide people to do things like identifying situations that their anger, come up with plans for how to work with anger the anger that comes up in response to these triggers, and teach practices for working with the body and mind to handle anger in helpful ways (for example, slowing down the breath, creating some distance between you and the object of your anger, and considering helpful ways of responding).  For those who struggle with anger and are committed to working with it, a quick internet search provides lots of options in the form of books, websites, and other resources which describe many helpful practices for managing it.

The problem is that many people who struggle with anger often don’t use those resources, and may even resist acknowledging that they struggle with anger to begin with.  One of the biggest obstacles that keeps people from working with their anger is avoidance.  Avoidance can take lots of forms: blaming others for “making me angry,” rationalizing or explaining away our anger-driven behavior, or shifting our attention to something else and pretending that nothing happened.  The problem is that all of these strategies get in the way of us acknowledging that our anger-driven behavior is causing us problems, taking responsibility for this behavior, and working to do better in the future.

Why do we avoid?  Obstacles to Taking Responsibility for Our Anger

In my experience, there are at least two common factors that can get in the way of people working with their anger:

  • We may enjoy feeling powerful. Anger evolved to get us moving in a way that can feel very energizing and powerful in the body, with a corresponding feeling of urgency in the mind.  In this way, anger can feel very powerful.  Especially if we don’t often feel powerful in other areas of our life – for example, at work or in our familial relationships – these powerful feelings can be seductive. If we feel disrespected, it can feel powerful to put them in their place or to finally get our way, can’t it?  Anger can also function as a secondary emotion, helping us avoid experiencing emotions that feel more vulnerable (and less powerful) like fear, sadness, or anxiety.   This is tricky stuff! Think about it – would you want to give up the only way you had to feel powerful in your life, even if it came with negative consequences?  It makes sense that it would be hard to give up, doesn’t it?
  • We’re ashamed of our anger and its consequences.  Often, admitting we struggle with anger – the first step toward taking responsibility for working with it – means admitting we behave in ways that cause terrible pain in others, and often in the people we love the most. This reality, that I am hurting the people I love or I am behaving in ways that are the opposite of the person I want to be, can be deeply painful.  It can be much easier to ignore our angry behavior, blame it on others, or explain it away rather than to face this uncomfortable truth.

People can experience one or both of these obstacles in tandem.  Tricky though they are, if we look at these obstacles, they can help us understand how to do a better job of working with our anger.  If we’re going to work productively with our anger, we need to find other ways to feel powerful, and we need to stop attacking and shaming ourselves for having it.

Compassion as True Strength which Helps Us Work with Shame

When doing group therapy with people who struggle with anger, I sometimes ask questions like, “What is more powerful, the anger you use to avoid vulnerable-feeling emotions like sadness or fear, or compassion, which will help you face and work with all of the experiences that come up in your life?” 

Compassion, defined as having the willingness to notice and be moved by suffering and the motivation to help alleviate and prevent it, gives us a way to turn toward pain, suffering, and struggle – not with judgment or condemnation, but with the recognition that “This is hard, and I want to do something that might help.”  Anger lashes out, but compassion stays with the suffering, looking deeply into it, so that we can begin to understand the causes and conditions that produce and maintain it (as we’ve done a bit here with anger), so that we can do something helpful.  

In considering this, our groups came to the conclusion that while anger may feel powerful, true strength lies with compassion – which empowers us to be honest with ourselves, to acknowledge that although it isn’t our fault that we experience anger and that we didn’t choose to struggle with it, that if we want to have happy lives and good relationships, we need to take responsibility for working with it productively.

Compassion can help us do this.  Instead of seeing the angry version of yourself (or others) as a jerk who creates all sorts of problems, what if we see them as someone we dearly care about who is struggling with emotions that they haven’t learned to control? 

What if – recognizing that anger is a threat response – we consider what that angry version of the self (or that angry person) would need to feel safe and accepted? 

What would they need to be at their best, even in this difficult situation?  

We could even imagine ourselves – this compassionate version of ourselves that we’re operating out of now – in their place, considering what might be helpful in handling this tricky situation that triggered the anger, in a way that would be about working with things in a way that minimizes harm for everyone. If we were at our kindest, wisest, and most courageous, how might we handle this situation in a way that would be helpful?

That’s true strength.

That’s compassion. 

Russell Kolts is a Professor of Psychology at Eastern Washington University and Director of the Inland Northwest Compassionate Mind Center in Spokane, Washington, USA. He has published numerous articles and written several books about CFT and compassion, including The Compassionate Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger, An Open-Hearted Life: Transformative Lessons on Compassionate Living from a Clinical Psychologist and a Buddhist Nun (with Thubten Chodron), CFT Made Simple, and Experiencing Compassion Focused Therapy from the Inside Out.

How to overcome stress and stay connected these holidays

How to overcome stress and stay connected these holidays

We all know that Christmas is a big opportunity for stress. The combination of having to appear to be having fun, while coping with all the frustrations and extra work can be a real downer.

One of the things we need to know about stress is that it closes things down. It’s hard to feel joyful and enthusiastic when you are stressed. We tend to close in on ourselves and set up a kind of survival regime to get us through. Maybe it does help us to struggle along but it does not help us to care for ourselves, to open our hearts to others, to learn anything about the habits that lead to the stress in the first place.

Let’s take a look at some ways we could set about making connections this Christmas instead of going into survival mode.

Connecting with yourself as the basis to overcome stress

Do you ever feel like the people in this snow globe at Christmas—all in your festive gear but not able to communicate how you are really feeling? The holidays can be a strangely lonely time, even when you are surrounded by people.

As the lead up to Christmas gathers pace, why not take some time to check in with yourself and see what you are hoping for from the holidays.

Whether you are religious, or not you can ask yourself what is important to you about this holiday. Is it having family around and lots of good things to eat and presents to share? Or is it about having a few days off from work and routine in the middle of winter. Whatever it is, it will help you to set an intention for yourself—a kind of inspiration for the holiday.

Then at the other end of the scale, try to see what it is that triggers stress for you.

Take a moment to sit quietly and then ask yourself these questions:
  • At what times do I experience a high level of frustration over relatively small events?
  • How does it feel in my body? 
  • What do I do about it? 

Going through this exercise will help you to identify the times when stress can creep up on you, so you can prepare for it and hopefully, avoid it. Allowing yourself to use your body like a stress barometer shows you the effect that stress has on you. Spending time thinking about how you deal with stress helps to get you off the survival treadmill and really consider how you can ease your stress.

Connecting with the present moment

So often when we are busy our minds are just rushing away with us thinking ahead of all there is still to do. That’s particularly sad at Christmas when there are so many enjoyable rituals in getting ready—like making the cake. 

So one way we can ease a feeling of stress is to connect with the present moment. For example, try not to hurry with making the cake. While you are mixing it, don’t think about making the mince pies, a present for grandma and whether you have enough wine in the house. Instead, try focusing on simply sorting your ingredients for the cake, weighing and adding them in the correct order and mixing it all to a delicious consistency. Take time to smell the fruits and the brandy. Allow yourself to enjoy the texture of batter. Remember to make your wish and just be with the making of the cake. When it is in the oven, you can go on to the next task and approach it in the same way.

Connecting with a sense of enjoyment and celebration helps to dissolve stress

The more we can get our stress into perspective, the more chance we have to enjoy some of the magic that there can be around Christmas. We said earlier that stress closes things down and one of the first things to go is any sense of enjoyment and celebration.

Allow yourself time to look around you and see the things you enjoy. I am a big fan of Christmas trees both indoors and out in the open. There is something about all the lights and glitter on a dark winter evening that just says home and love to me.

What is it that you enjoy most at Christmas?

Connecting with family and friends

Probably if we are honest, one of the biggest sources of stress is how the family is going to manage together over the holidays. It can get complicated with all the in-laws and the extended family. We all know that awful tense feeling that can come when uncle George manages to come out with the opinions that we know will drive our teenage daughter to distraction. Or when grandma insists that we don’t know how to put on a Christmas like they did in her day. You dread the moment when your sister-in-law, who always manages to make you feel like bargain-basement wife, arrives for dinner looking as if she just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, along with her two immaculate children. You, on the other hand, hot and bothered from the kitchen feel less than glamorous.

Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind while the family dinner is underway:
  • Everyone around the table wants to be happy—just like you do.
  • None of them want to be anxious, or worried, or miserable and yet, inevitably they all have times when they are—just like you.
  • Chances are that each one of them have their own insecurities about the family gathering—just like you do.
  • Perhaps some of them are even intimidated by aspects of your behavior–what a good cook you are, how you juggle family and career—who knows?

It can help so much if before your irritation arises you can put yourself in the shoes of the person irritating you—perhaps they are more like you than you think.

Connecting with the rest of the world

As well as closing things down, stress makes us lose perspective. Whatever is going on with us seems so much more important than anything else that is happening in the world—which in the scheme of things, really does not make sense.

During the holiday period you can counter-act any tendency to feel that getting the lights working on the tree is more important than, say, global warming by consciously allowing yourself time to think about what is going on for everyone else in the world. Many millions of other people are celebrating Christmas around the world, with traditions that may be very different from your own. There are also millions who are not celebrating Christmas and it is just another ordinary day for them. Then there are the millions who whether or not they wish to celebrate Christmas are not able to because of poverty, or war, or persecution. Keep them in mind also.

So, a very merry stress-free winter holiday to everyone!

Pin It on Pinterest