It is a great pleasure to share this guest post from Ian Gawler. We have attended many retreats together over the years and it is wonderful to have a blog from him on my site.
How busy are you? Most people I speak with feel that their lives are becoming busier and busier. So, imagine this – maybe with a little help, it is possible to slow down, relax, and actually achieve more!
How might this be possible? Speaking personally, I came home from a great meeting last week. A lot had been achieved, good ideas developed, new possibilities explored; all in a great atmosphere. Keen to tell my wife Ruth about it, first we went to do what we do each evening, and that is to meditate together.
Paying attention to our body
As I settled into my posture, I noticed this buzz in my body. A fine trembling, tingling sort of a buzz. It occurred to me that this excited energy, left over from the meeting was a good thing, but how it might lead some people on into drinking too much or some other excess.
Also, it seemed to be in stark contrast with what it would be like to come home from a tough day – feeling depleted, despondent, even exhausted. Such a state, left unnoticed or unmanaged, could lead to other unhelpful activities, not the least of which may be engaging with the family or our partner in a poor state of mind.
The promise of meditation
Meditation offers this wonderful promise of being able to let go of our busyness and regain our balance. Whether we are excited or depleted, up or down, balance is better. With our body and mind in balance, we think more clearly, we react more appropriately, we are in a better state to relate well with others. We are likely to be fresh, vital and at ease.
In such a state, there will be no compulsion to talk, but an ease with doing so. We will have no compulsion to be spoken to, but an ease with listening. We will be free to relax in a healthy way or energised to take up something new when the time is right.
Four keys to meditation
In my experience, there are 4 keys to meditating in a way that reliably brings these benefits. Preparation, Relaxation, Mindfulness and Stillness. These are the essence of what I call Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation.
Put very simply, having prepared well, we relax. Relaxing deeply, we become more mindful. As our mindfulness develops, an inner stillness is revealed; naturally and without effort. We rest in open, undistracted awareness. This is Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation.
Oh yes, and at the great meeting last week, we began by sitting together and meditating. Two of those who gathered had never done such a thing before. They were guided very simply to aim to let go of whatever they had been doing earlier and to bring their attention to what was going on right now.
To assist this, there was the suggestion to be mindful of the sounds around about us, then the breath and that natural feeling of relaxing with the out breath. Then we simply rested quietly for a few minutes. Finally, we reminded ourselves of our motivation, to help as many people as possible through what we were addressing at the meeting.
How this can help
Having done this, the atmosphere in the room was transformed. Peaceful, calm, clear. After this short exercise, one of the group could not help speaking out. He said that on arrival, he had been really preoccupied with the busyness of what had been happening before this meeting and he felt his mind was all over the place. In fact, he had actually been concerned that he was in a poor state of mind to give the presentation he was required to do, but that, after that short quiet time; he now felt clear and ready.
Just having a conversation like that seemed to me that we began our meeting on a very real and open level. It rapidly developed into a meeting everyone went away from feeling where we had achieved a lot, deepened friendships and left felt energized. Not a bad return for around 3 minutes of quiet time…
So maybe it is possible. Slow down and accomplish more.
Dr Ian Gawler has played a role in pioneering and popularizing meditation and other mind-body techniques in the Western world. Since 1981 Ian has led many meditation groups, and with his wife Ruth, a GP, presented many workshops and meditation retreats.
A long-term cancer survivor, Dr Gawler co-founded the world’s first lifestyle-based cancer and multiple sclerosis self-help groups and convened Australia’s first Mind-Body Medicine conference, Mind, Immunity and Health.
Ian is a regular blogger and has authored six bestselling books including his latest Blue Sky Mind. He has also co-created a meditation app for people affected by chronic degenerative disease.
Dr Gawler was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to the community in 1987.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is with great pleasure that I invite you to read this lovely post from Tor Magne, from Norway.
I believe small practices in our daily lives can make a significant impact in cultivating mindful awareness, kindness and compassion. Here is a simple practice I would like to share with you:
As often as you can during the day, close your eyes and place your hand over your heart for a short moment. Can you feel the child within you? What does the child think? What does it feel? What does it see?
We all came into this world as children. Even though we might be grown-ups now, we still have the child, with all its developmental stages and with all its particular perspectives on life, within us. We can never get our childhood back, but many wisdom traditions, old and new, have always claimed the importance and the possibility of living in close contact with the child within. I can appreciate and rejoice in the child I was, and I can grieve the child I was never allowed to be. At the same time, I can, in numerous ways, experience that the child still lives within me. That child is still alive.
I learned this practice from Kailash Satyarthi, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He managed to make the royal family, government officials, politicians, artists and certainly many TV viewers do this practice while he was holding his speech in Oslo City Hall. This simple practice seems to have a central place in his work which has two indisputable and non-negotiable goals: to regain the childhood and freedom of children who have lost these.
In his speech he said: Friends! We live in an age of rapid globalization. We are connected through high-speed Internet. We exchange our goods and services in one single global market. Thousands of flights every day connect us from one corner to another corner of the globe. But there is one serious disconnect and that is the lack of compassion. Let us inculcate and transform the individual´scompassion into a global compassion.Let us globalize compassion.Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we are to teach real peace in this world… we shall have to begin with the children.” I humbly add, let us unite the world through the compassion for our children. Not a passive compassion, but a compassion that transforms the world and leads to justice, equality and freedom.
What is compassion?
Compassion can be defined as a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a deep commitment to try do something about it. Unfortunately, it is very often easily misunderstood as little more than softness. But the fact is that among all the constructive emotions we have, compassion is the only emotion that requires a deep and intimate contact with pain, darkness and our uncomfortable and broken places. In other words, compassion bridges, connects and makes whole that which is separated and disconnected. Without compassion there is no healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our compassion is innate
We are all born with compassion. It is an innate gift and capacity we all have. We know that an infant cries in sympathy to the sound of another infant crying. But it doesn’t cry to a recording of its own voice. As we grow older, conditions and life experiences have a strong tendency to cover up this beautiful gift we all have. The good news is that compassion can always be reawakened. Through practice it is something we can cultivate grow.
Connecting with the child within us
Satyarthi reminded us of the oneness and interconnectedness of everything when he said: Childhood is the most precious gift we have. If childhood is lost in one part of the world, the childhood of the entire humanity is lost. Children’s future, and thereby the future of the Earth, is totally dependent on people uniting in a globalized compassion. The practice of feeling the child within and seeing this moment through the eyes of the child, is a well-tested method. Its effect is often that compassion and tenderness is being awakened and cultivated. If you are up for it, feel free to stretch and expand your circle of compassion to include not only yourself and people who are close to you, but everything and everyone. Don’t forget the stars and galaxies. There is no limit.
The world gets united through compassion for children. If we can feel the child within us, the world becomes a different place, Satyarthi said. When we are connected with the child within us and see the world through the eyes of the child, the world is very beautiful. The world is very honest. The world is very simple. The world is very truthful. He also said that a globalized compassion, a transforming compassion, a movement that can create peace, freedom and justice. It is something we can bring forth, as an impulse from within, with ripple effects, if we are able to feel the child within us. I can’t think of a better way to start the New Year.
Tor Magne Handeland works as a spiritual care provider in a hospital in Norway. He is also the leader of the Norwegian Mindfulness Association. On a daily basis he works with both patients, families and staff, and he is particularly passionate about the importance of presence in the relationship between patients and health care professionals.
I am delighted to share this beautiful exploration of how we can use stories to investigate our new year goals, what we want to build on and the changes we want to make. Thank you Kate!
Although each moment represents and offers new beginnings, I do find the beginning of a new year especially exciting. It feels like the mother of new beginnings, a crisp fresh start, a blank page, even though in all practicality it is only one day sliding into another. I feel the same excitement about the beginning of a new year as I feel when receiving a new book; familiarity with the main outlines of the book and aware of my intention of purchasing it, but unknown of its content and implications for my way of understanding, seeing and relating to life.
Work and stories
Ken Wilber, an American writer and philosopher, calls himself a storyteller. In an audio program called Kosmic Consciousness with Tami Simon, he presents that a part of being human is reflecting on those things that arise around you. On the one hand we live our lives and on the other we make theories and maps about it, philosophise and reflect to make sense of our experiences. When you hook all these things together, you tell coherent stories.
So, we all have stories concerning work in various degrees. It could be that you are currently unemployed or haven’t yet stepped into work life, or that you find yourself in a job you dislike or one that you find fulfilling and meaningful. For quite a few of us work represents a blend of sometimes contradicting stories. It can both be meaningful and exhausting, giving and stressful.
I go about living my work life filled with meetings with clients, deadlines, project writing and working to reach the company’s objective and key goals, as well as create stories around my work experiences. Now and then I remember to pause and step back to take a bird’s-eye view of what I am up to, but rarely do I view work life with such a wide-angled lens as I do in the beginning of a New Year.
The written stories – the work year of 2019
Can you relate to the feeling that arises when you decide to disengage from your otherwise busy life and sit down to read a book? You actively make a conscious decision of doing something else, of pausing. The beginning of a new year is a little bit like that for me, but instead of sitting down with a book, I sit down and take a reflective look at my work biography of the past year. It is a great way for me to acknowledge all the time set aside for work in 2019, for remembering and for finding areas for future growth and development. I look back at moments of joy and accomplishments, moments of difficulties, struggles, sadness and hiccups, as well as all the people I have connected with in different ways.
Looking back at challenges experienced, challenges overcome and what factors supported me in overcoming them, gives me the opportunity to reflect upon areas I have felt growth and in what areas of my professional life I still feel stagnation. Noticed areas of difficulties, open wounds or standstills are particularly interesting for me to take a look at. Not always comfortable, but I often find that within the areas I most tend to procrastinate or overlook lies the hidden gold for development.
If you took a look back at your work biography of 2019, where would you find learning and growth? In what situations didn’t things go according to plan or you made mistakes. In what ways might that have affected you? Anything you are particularly thankful for having experienced at or through work the past year?
The unwritten stories – the work year of 2020
“Today is where your book begins…the rest is still unwritten”. These words come from one of my go to energetic, inspirational, feel good songs by Natasha Bedingfield. By taking a curious look at the work year that has been, I find an opportunity arises to identify what changes I would like to incorporate into the stories that are still unwritten for the new year. Often I have an idea or headlines for the upcoming book of 2020, but how work life in itself will actually develop…well that is a completely different story. I do find though that having some sort of an outline gives a sense of direction and movement. I create the outline by reflecting around what could be helpful for me to be more aware of in how I relate to myself, clients, or how I engage with my colleagues and boss. Also reflecting on what habitual ways established “often not the most helpful ones” would be beneficial for me to work with in 2020.
Letting the questions and reflections shed some intentional light on different areas of my work life without making hardwired goals that I end up measuring myself up against. For me bringing intentionality to my present and future work life creates movement and development in areas that I have experienced stagnation and seen unhealthy patterns. It feels like being both the author of a book as well as the main character, instead of just being the main character.
Are there any areas where you maybe experience stagnation or procrastination when it comes to work? Any wounds from 2019 that needs seeing to in 2020, and if so how can you best tend to them? Let’s say you were to be the author of your own 2020 work life book, how would you outline it? What new beginnings would you like to consciously bring to work for growth, further development and self-care for the year ahead of you?
The uncertain work stories…
The clients I am honoured to work with from day to day are those who for different reasons find themselves outside of work. It could be due to health issues, lack of education, redundancy and so on. No matter the reason for being currently unemployed I always ask my clients to take a good look at what activities have felt meaningful and given them energy in the past, and what particularly they have enjoyed through previous interests’, hobbies, studies and/or work. Holding the clients’ reflections about the past up against the backdrop of present values, interests and preferences, gives important clues for possible areas for work in the future. Finding oneself in between jobs or living an uncertain work story can be quite a challenge. It can also be an opportunity for a new beginning. What in your past can be of value for the future? What small step can be taken today to bring you closer to getting a job if that is what you aim for?
It can be both exhilarating and daunting to sit with a blank page before you. A new year filled with uncertainties, plans, hopes and aspirations. When the beginning of the new year 2021 is here, the work story of 2020 will have been written. To what degree you consciously take part in the story writing is up to you. The pen is there, the semi blank pages ready to go…have fun!
Kate Bredesen works as a job consultant and mindfulness instructor at iFokus Arbeidsinkludering AS in Norway. She is a former nurse and reflexologist, with MBSR teacher training from IMA. Kate has been teaching mindfulness since 2011. Through her daily work she teaches mindfulness to staff and clients and is passionate about supporting people in strengthening their connection to work, whether they are currently unemployed, on sick leave or find themselves partaking in demanding work life.
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.
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.
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.