Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Anger and Compassion

I have always been afraid of other people’s anger. I have some theories about why this is so, but at the age of 45 I have finally come to see that the reasons for my fear are, ultimately, unimportant. Whatever their roots, my fears are proving to be a real hindrance and the real task for me is to figure out how to have a different reaction when confronted with someone else’s anger—especially if it is aimed at me.

Even more basic, I have also been afraid of my own anger. So much so, that I hardly ever let myself feel it. I have always prided myself on being in control, and anger makes me feel out of control. Once I realized this about myself I decided to play with the idea of allowing myself to get mad and see what happened.

I will spare you all the navel-gazing details, but the results of my experiment have been pretty astounding. I have found that allowing myself to wade into my anger and really feel it—to live in it for a while without trying to talk myself out of it or simply cram it down out of sight—actually leads me to a place of greater compassion. Trying to skip the whole process and get straight back to “normal” was what I did for many years and it turned out to be not-so-effective.

When I refused to even admit to myself that I was angry, I was not very likely to know what I was mad about. Often, the trigger for my anger is some word or action that is really just the final straw—the underlying cause is often not obvious. When I let myself feel the anger and live in it a bit I can now sometimes get to what is really there. Usually, it is something pretty basic, like feeling unheard, misunderstood, or undervalued.

Allowing myself to get to the root cause of why I am pissed off has had some great side-benefits. It has let me generate some self-compassion rather than judging myself harshly for even feeling anger to start with. It has also helped me take the next step and feel real compassion for whoever has triggered the anger in me. It has helped me remember that we are all out in the world doing the best we can to get by. Working through what I am feeling—simply letting myself feel it without judging it—lets me feel real compassion and real forgiveness. For myself and for other people.

And it is not the smug pseudo-compassion I felt when I believed I was better than people because I did not get angry. It feels realer and better. So, I never would have guessed it, but letting myself feel angry for a while actually leads to some pretty good results. Who’d a thunk it?

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