A wise person once said, “Hell is other people!” That being true, what’s a being to do? We have little to no control over the actions or reactions of someone else. The good news, however, is that if we develop the tools, we potentially have 100 percent control over our reaction to a given situation. It doesn’t mean we won’t experience difficult emotions; it means that we can manage those emotions before they eat our heart out.
Mindfulness, present moment awareness, allows us to notice emotions arising. If you find yourself stressed out at family events, for example, slow down and notice what is coming up for you: “Oh, that’s anger in my chest,” or “that’s anxiety in my stomach.” Labeling the emotion puts more space between you and the situation, allowing you to observe what is occurring instead of being hijacked by the emotion. Once you label the emotion, your brain calms down. Then, you can soothe yourself by placing your hand wherever you identified feelings constriction and consciously sending yourself softening and soothing thoughts. Imagine placing a warm compress or warm oil on the hurt.
The next step is to acknowledge that it’s difficult to feel this way, and give yourself love and encouragement by way of an affirmation like, “This too shall pass.” Everything really does change; the good changes and the bad changes.
Continuing with the example of feeling stressed out at a family event, let’s imagine a situation where someone attends an annual family dinner at Aunt Martha’s house – and it always seems to lead to emotional chaos.
If I knew I had to walk into that lion’s den every year, I would prep my tool-box for the occasion. I would try to stay grounded, literally feeling my feet on the ground, imagining the floor under my feet going straight down into the center of the earth. I would also carry a “here-and-now stone” in my pocket to have something tactile to hang onto and ground myself when Aunt Martha starts her bad behavior. A rosary or mala necklace works the same way.
These grounding techniques help to keep you from getting sucked into the hurricane. You are in your body, noticing your breathing, feeling your feet on the ground and, if you are sitting, your bottom in the chair. You’re feeling the stone in your hand while simultaneously witnessing the show.
When you can look at what is occurring dispassionately like this, you can be curious about what factors might be causing the bad behavior. That opens you up to the possibility of having compassion for Aunt Martha, as she is ranting and raving. You might wonder what happened in her life that “made her” behave like this. We all have the need to be seen, heard, and loved. Perhaps Aunt Martha has a gaping hole in her soul, where one or all of her core needs were not met in childhood so she has been layering on fear, anger, and rage for years. Or perhaps she is filled with shame, and on top of the shame is fear that someone will find out, so on top of the fear is anger. Who knows? We are complicated primates!
Anger corrodes the vessel that contains it, so don’t be that vessel! It’s not healthy to have the cortisol and adrenaline released in your body when you feel fear or anger but don’t actually need to fight, flight, or freeze. A grizzly bear is not chasing you at a family dinner!
It’s a blessing to know that you can choose to “let it go and let it be” for your mental health and well-being. Remember, though, that letting anger go isn’t the same as excusing someone’s bad behavior. You are letting the anger go to benefit your body, mind, and soul. Knowing that you are not letting the person off the hook but are simply letting go of the anger in your body allows you to stand your ground by taking the high road. According to the Mayo Clinic, the high road of forgiveness can lead to:
Taking care of yourself is a priority. If you don’t yet have the tools to handle difficult emotions, please don’t beat yourself up about it. With practice and support, you will move in the right direction. Until then, if a situation is too painful, it is appropriate self-care to protect yourself by avoiding it if you can.
I was reading an article about Hands of Peace, a non-profit that takes teens from the Middle East and America and has them work together to open their hearts and minds. They have professionals in conflict resolution present, as well as student mentors who are alumni of the program to show these kids how it’s possible to come together for peace.
I was impressed by a quote about anger from one of the teens, a 16-year-old Israeli named Inbal. At first, she worried about the potential anger that could erupt between the different groups. She then discovered what role anger played in the process of finding resolution: “I was afraid of anger,” she said, “but I figured out that it’s a way for people to show their pain. Pain is something we can all relate to. What helps deal with anger is empathy and providing a space for someone else’s pain.”
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