With all the upset and worry caused by the current Corona virus, it was a bit of a holiday to have something to celebrate. On 9 July 2020 my second book, The Stress Workbook was published. It’s been very heartening to receive so many congratulations from people. It’s particularly special to see people holding your book and getting ready to read it.
All my life I have looked for meaning and ways to work with my habits in order to live more harmoniously. It’s been a natural progression from that to write about things that are relevant to peoples’ lives. My blog aims to pick up on issues that impact wellbeing and offer ways to work to increase your own. So, when it was suggested to me that I should write about stress and show how compassion can help to work with it, I jumped at the chance.
1.We’re going through challenging times
There’s no doubt that the last few months have been extremely stressful. Worry about the virus is one thing but then there is all the fallout to deal with as well. Lockdown and all its ongoing effects have changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined a few months ago. Conversations with friends are opportunities to share how we are trying to manage the strangeness of the situation.
I had a significant birthday in June and had planned to celebrate the passing of another decade with trips to the UK to see family and friends. Obviously, the plan is now on hold. My eldest niece had her first baby during lockdown and as her mother is in the vulnerable category she had to go through the whole thing without her mother’s physical support. One of my nephews has lost his job because of layoffs and the other one had to celebrate getting his PhD in a virtual ceremony. All over the world people are struggling to cope with loss, upheaval, financial hardship, anxiety and uncertainty.
2. Stress is something we all need to cope with
Stress tends to get a bad press. When we talk about feeling stressed, we generally mean we don’t feel well in ourselves. That’s not surprising, as stress can make us tired, irritable, and generally uninspired. However, from an evolutionary point of view, our stress response was designed to keep us away from danger and safe enough to reproduce and raise our offspring. The trouble is that our modern lifestyle is very different from the one our ancestors led. The stress response that was designed to help us run away from danger, or to stand and fight it when we had the chance, nowadays is triggered by traffic jams, lost keys, crowded supermarkets and so on. Our sympathetic nervous system is chronically over-stimulated. We’ve become exhausted by our own reactions!
Although it is only natural to want things to go well in life and for things to turn out as we want, experience has shown us that life a series of ups and downs. We all face frustrations and disappointments. The Stress Workbook aims to show how stress is an inevitable part of life. We can learn to work with it in useful and productive ways that will benefit us.
3. The Stress Workbook points out our unhelpful habits
Of course, as we go through life, we adopt all kinds of coping mechanisms to help us get by. Some of these strategies work well but some of them can stop us being able to understand more about how we are coping.
For example, when we experience stress our tendency is to try and make it go away. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we turn away from it. Sometimes we distract ourselves with a holiday, or TV, or by buying something new. Maybe we try and comfort ourselves but all too often it’s with an extra glass of wine, or more chocolate.
Another habit we have is that we don’t pay attention. Research has shown that for almost 50% of our waking hours we not thinking about what we are doing at that moment, but our mind is wandering off and thinking about completely different things. Have you ever driven home from somewhere and when you arrive, you have almost no memory of the journey at all? Or been in a meeting where you zoned out for large sections of the discussion and when it was your turn to speak, struggled to find the thread? The thing is that this does make us happy but rather stops us from being fully present for our experience.
Both of these habits are example of habits that get in our way and prevent us from moving forward. We need to replace them with beneficial habits—ones that will build our resilience and enhance our wellbeing.
4. We can develop new, useful habits to improve how we cope
With regard to stress the new habit we need to develop is that of leaning into our stress. This doesn’t mean to indulge in stress but to quietly allow ourselves to explore what is happening for us and how it is affecting us. We can begin to notice where in the body we register stress, and how it makes us react. Over time, we can learn to see what triggers our stress and even how to avoid these triggers. Instead of distracting ourselves we become curious to see how this all works and to find new ways of coping.
The best way to work with our wandering mind is through mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness we can learn to be in the present moment. Instead of going over something that has already happened, or worrying about what we’re planning to do next, we can simply be present. When we are present, we can bring so much more energy to what we are doing. We’re more focused and effective and our attention is sharper. That means we can notice what is going on for ourselves and others, so it’s a good strategy in working with stress.
5.We don’t necessarily see compassion as a means to work with stress
If we’re asked how we cope with stress, it’s likely that compassion is not the first tool that springs to mind. However, developing compassion for ourselves and other people helps to widen our perspective. Our focus on our own problems is lifted, as we take into account what is happening for other people. When we’re going through hard times, it’s all too easy to wonder, ‘why me’? Compassion teaches us to see that everyone, whoever they are, has difficulties and worries. We are not being singled out for special punishment. It’s just how life is.
Going on from this, we can take a fresh look at our reactions to events that cause us trouble. Let’s take an example. Say you had a work meeting that went badly and left you stressed and depleted. The event of the unsatisfactory meeting is one thing, but our tendency is then to pile on our reactions. We feel responsible for the meeting going wrong, while also feeling some anger towards those who did not agree with your point of view. So, we blame ourselves and blame other at the same time. Then we feel even more stressed and miserable. Learning to work with how we respond to difficult situations is an important act of self-compassion.
6. The Stress Workbook is packed full of practical, workable advice
Because this is a workbook, it’s full of reflections, exercises, worksheets and meditation scripts. The Stress Workbook is designed to flow as a continuous story and so the exercises are embedded into the text. This means that you can read the theory and then quickly put it into practice.
I have also included many stories from the workshops that I have given. They’re a great way to see how other people manage stress—where they get stuck and how they resolve it.
In theory you can begin at the beginning of the Stress Workbook, take your pencil and work through everything step-by-step. I suggest pencil because you might want to erase stuff and write something different. It means that you are evolving a set of strategies to work with stress through the power of compassion from the beginning of the workbook.
Do let me know how you get on. I always love to hear!
Have you ever met anyone who did not want happiness? Certainly, I haven’t. I have met people who have funny ways of going about trying to be happy but never anyone who was just not interested in it.
The funny is though, that wanting happiness and having it are two different things. In the first place, we don’t always know what will make us happy. Even when we work it out, we can’t always make it happen—we might long for someone to love but are not able to find the right person. The irony is that even when we do get what we are looking for, it does not always make us feel as good as we expected.
Happiness is tricky—partly because we have some funny ideas about it. Let’s look at four of these.
We confuse happiness with pleasure
In evolutionary terms, pleasure acts as an incentive for keeping us alive. So, food, sex, caring for our children, and accomplishing our goals cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine that make us feel happy. This search for good feeling has helped to keep the human race going, but these feelings were designed to be temporary. Think about it—if we only mated once and never needed to again, we would see a startling fall in the birth rate. Pleasure is something that is so enjoyable that we want to experience it again and again. However, it is designed as a temporary state with a specific purpose, rather than something that will last forever.
Sadly, we often seem to find this hard to accept. Our search for happiness can become narrowed down to the pursuit of pleasure. Once we have it, we to hold on to it– or at least try to repeat it as often as we can.
The trouble is that we so often mistake transient pleasurable experiences for lasting happiness. We have evolved to a place where our happiness is not based on survival alone. Yet so often we settle for the quick fix, pleasure-based route to happiness, without taking into account the full range of potential effects.
Perhaps we feel a bit low, so we surf the internet for a bit, then drink a coffee and checkout the news channels on TV. We could take some time to look into the low feeling in order to understand and resolve it. However, our impulse is to distract ourselves from it and not deal with it. It’s as if we are aiming to run our life as a series of good moments, with as few bad ones as possible to interfere with our final score.
We imagine it will last forever
So, we can see that from an evolutionary perspective, happiness is designed as a reward for keeping ourselves alive. It is not meant to last forever. In our modern western culture though, there is the idea that we should be happy all the time. We make choices based on the belief that they will make us happy now and into the future. The idea that our preferences or circumstances may change doesn’t seem to come up. We don’t consider that our future selves may see things differently from how we do now.
Anyone who has been divorced, or had a great new job turn out to be disappointing will have experienced this for themselves. When I was a young teacher in London, I decided to cash in my teacher’s pension so I could go traveling. It felt like a great decision at the time. Suddenly I had a good reserve of money to finance one of my dreams. Years later, when I left teaching, I deeply regretted not having a pension fund to carry forward.
On a lighter note, I have a Danish friend who became a Buddhist nun some years ago.Whenever it’s too hot to wear socks I have the treat of seeing a tall, slender woman in long,maroon robes with a tattoo of an iguana coiling up her left ankle. The frisky young womanwho, some years back, thought this tattoo would be an addition to her image, apparentlydid not envisage the possibility of herself as a nun in the future.
We think money will make us happy
2006 saw the publication of Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of the key findings that he highlightedis that over the last fifty years, the standard ofliving in the US and Western Europe has roughly doubled. No surprises there, you might think. The shock came with the second half of the finding—levels of happiness have stayed the same. Think of what it takes to double our standard of living – the compromises in work–life balance, the increase in the number of families where the only way to manage is for both parents to work, the stress of the increase in pace and variety of the modern workplace. It’s shocking to find that none of that has an impact on our basic level of well being.
The way we adapt to what we have and the extent to which we compare what we have with others comes into play here.
One of the most startling results to emerge from research into happiness is that big lottery winners, after experiencing an initial period of euphoria, tend to return to their normal levels of happiness within a year. The huge rise in their financial and then material resources is not enough to lift their happiness levels long term.
The trouble is that we adapt to what we have and so become used to it, and when the gloss of having it fades, we want something more.
The process of adaptation we experience with material possessions seems to work in the sameway for life experiences – so career moves, lifestyle changes or new relationships, ratherthan transporting us to new levels of happiness, eventually settle down until they become simply part of our normal pattern of happiness.
Along with adapting to what we have in life, we also suffer from comparing our lives with other people’s. So, your new car may be satisfying while no one else in the street has a better one, but as soon as someone turns up with a newer model then you become less satisfied. We’re pleased with our pay rise as long as we’re the only person to receive one, or if our rise is greater than anyone else’s.
We compare ourselves with our peers, people with roughly similar lifestyles. The lives of the super-rich are far beyond our reach, while many people feel comfortably far away from the very poor. Studies of Olympic medallists show that bronze medalists tend to be happier with their medals than silver medallists because they compare them- selves to people who did not get a medal at all, while silver medallists believe they just missed a gold.
We look for happiness outside of ourselves
We’ve seen that pleasure is based on external circumstances, such as our job, where we live, or what we like to eat. Although the benefits are short- term we can often mistake this for happiness, overlooking the possibility of something more reliable. A more helpful view is to say that there are two kinds of happiness: the short-term, pleasure-based experience and a more lasting happiness. The first kind is much easier to attain than the deeper happiness,which requires effort but once established serves as a reliable basis for wellbeing.
Giving ourselves the time and space to explore and develop this lasting happiness is oneof the deepest acts of self-compassion we can engage in.
So, how do we access this deeper kind of happiness? Firstly, we need to recognize that it isnot about looking outwards but depends on having an inner peace of mind and heart. Thisis the basis for self-awareness and the awareness of others – the foundation of compassion– that enables us to view our actions and those of other people with greater clarity. It canbe developed by working with both our basic attitude and with the actions we take whiletrying to be happy.
Meditation is the best way to get a handle on how our minds work. It helps us to work with our basic attitude and the habits we have. Bringing awareness into our actions means that we are more able to make the right decisions.
A deeper meaning to happiness
Sometimes, it’s worth asking ourselves how we value the happiness of other people. Is their happiness important to us? Would our happiness be important to them? Do we consider out happiness to be the most important? On what basis?
There is a simple question we can use here as a measure of whether or not our actions will be a source of lasting happiness:
Do they bring real benefit to oneself and others,or not?
Actions that bring benefit automatically result in happiness and help us to develop our compassion. We need to develop a clear sense of discernment to enable us to analyse our actions clearly in the light of this question, and to identify the habits that lead us away from lasting happiness even if they initially seem to bring pleasure.
It might seem a lot to take in but reflecting in this way will help us to navigate the tricky path of happiness. It could help to put things into a different perspective.
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.
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.
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.
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.