It seems this political season is charged with an uncommon level of conflict and anger. Maybe I've just reached that magical age when new music sounds awful, I am never without an umbrella, and politics seem incredibly relevant. It feels like more than maturation, though. We seem to have reached a social boiling point that I can only hope results in a more unified and compassionate world. I am absolutely not here to back any particular candidate, but I would like to talk about practicing patience in the face of anger; for working with the energy of anger so that we can make our best choices from our best selves.
The Dalai Lama talks about practicing patience in his book Healing Anger. He very pragmatically suggests that to work with anger, we have to be skilled in its opposite-- patience. I don't know about you, but I probably heard "be patient" a thousand times growing up, but no one ever told me how. As a child, patience was synonymous with waiting, as if there were any other choice but to wait when dinner wasn't ready, or Christmas was still 2 months away. The Dalai Lama provided these step by step instructions:
1) Develop enthusiasm for patience by deeply acknowledging the destructive nature of anger.
2) Practice patience toward mild discomforts so as to be prepared for more challenging situations.
Many of us rely on anger to feel powerful and effective. The energy of anger is useful, the actions of anger are not. I personally have never acted on my urge to yell at someone, throw something, or punch a wall without some amount of regret. Even if I felt some mild satisfaction at first, ultimately, acting on anger has left me feeling out of control, embarrassed, and small. So what does it mean to say that the energy of anger is useful? Consider the civil rights movement that continues today-- if no one were angry about the unfair treatment of people of color, change wouldn't have happened. Yet many of those angry people demonstrated peacefully, calling calmly for change. They used their anger to motivate effective, non-destructive action. Anger can be the fuel that gets the car going, but it doesn't have to dictate the destination. When we recognize that acting in anger creates more harm than good, and only serves to increase our negative emotion, we can lean wholeheartedly in to patience.
Just like you wouldn't want to learn CPR at the scene of a car crash, patience as a skill must be learned and practiced for mild discomforts. We ultimately practice patience by saying yes where anger says no. Anger tells us that a situation is unacceptable as it is and fights against a painful reality rather than accepting it. You can't fix a problem you refuse to see, which is why acting in anger is so often ineffective-- anger characteristically refuses to accept what is. Patience is accepting a painful reality. If patience could speak to us it would say, "yes, this traffic is moving too slowly for you to get to work on time, and there's nothing to be done about that, so let's watch those negative judgments about how terribly unfair this is without clinging to them, and allow this moment to pass." When we practice patience for minor problems like traffic jams, we increase the likelihood that it will be available to us when we find out our child is smoking marijuana, or when we see an incendiary post defaming our candidate of choice. Patience allows us an opportunity to channel the energy of our anger into actions that are based in compassion and kindness. Instead of telling that so-called Facebook friend how stupid they are, patience creates the space for real listening, real connection, and increases the chances that our actions will have a positive impact rather than deepen division.
When all else fails, when anger has moved our minds towards plans of spiteful, defensive action, FREEZE. The more mindful we become of our triggers to anger, the more time we will have to interrupt the process of experiencing an event, judging it negatively, feeling our anger, and acting rashly. We don't have to be levitating, enlightened monks in order to stop ourselves from slamming that door or hardening our hearts. We just have to become aware and be willing to take three breaths when anger arises. Freezing and breathing helps us get back in to contact with the moment and out of the story of our anger. Patience allows us to interact effectively with our anger instead of being pushed around by it. Patience makes room for our compassion.
"Genuine compassion is based on the rationale that just as I do, others also have the innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering; just as I do, they have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration. Based on that recognition of this fundamental equality and commonality, one develops a sense of affinity and closeness, and based on that, one will generate love and compassion. That is genuine compassion (Dalai Lama, Healing Anger)."
One in four women will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetimes. This staggering statistic may be too low given how hesitant many women are to report abuse and for good reason. Fear of retaliation, financial insecurity, and lack of social support create very real barriers to leaving violent relationships. Those women who have managed to escape often find themselves disillusioned and lost instead of hopeful and empowered. So many of the women I have worked with, particularly those who have children with an abusive ex, say they worry it would have been easier to have stayed with their abusers than to fight daily to maintain boundaries and move on. Let's discuss the re-victimization many women experience when they leave an abusive relationship, but have to maintain contact with their abusers.
Re-victimization. If you thought your ex was controlling and manipulative while you were with them, you can likely expect things to get worse any time you make a move to establish your separateness. Making reasonable requests in mediation, drawing boundaries around visitation, and signing divorce papers can all trigger escalations in the abusive partner's controlling behavior. They may use guilt by telling you that you have ruined the lives of your children by breaking up the family, or they may use threats and intimidation. All of these situations can feel very familiar and put survivors back in a vulnerable state of mind, one in which the goal to stop the hurtful behavior results in submission.
How to deal: Minimize face to face contact as much as possible. Make sure you are engaging in rigorous self-care before and after any interaction with your ex. Working out, eating well, spending time with friends, completing a project, all of these actions put funds into your emotional bank account. And while a trip to the gym won't magically prevent your ex from being controlling, it will put you in a better position to guard against personalizing his/her destructive behavior. Any effective action we take to build ourselves up lessens the charge of actions meant to break us down. Finally, consider doing most of your emotional processing with a therapist. Allowing an abuser to be the main topic of every conversation with friends and family allows the abuser to continue to take up your life space. Focusing on other aspects of life, however mundane, is not about shame or avoidance, it's about taking out the garbage. We make room in our relationships, our interactions, and our stories for those lost aspects of ourselves to resurface by refusing to fuel the damaging narratives of inadequacy abusive exes wrote for us.
If a survivor is to avoid being roped in to a passive and fearful way of being, she must make a choice about her relationship with fear. Abuse puts us into contact with our fragility as humans and with the darkness of which we are all capable. It does not feel like a choice to let fear write our stories when danger is so close, but it is a choice. Fear is a necessary emotion for safety, fear-based living is a chosen way of being. By fully accepting the truth of our vulnerability we become strong. By believing that acting on fear will keep us safe from all harm, we paint ourselves as powerless. Any choice made in courage helps to rebuild the broken spirit, no matter how small we may feel at the start.
The world is full of options for distracting ourselves from painful emotions. Illicit and legal drugs, shoes, food, television all serve to take us away from difficulty, to improve those moments where we would otherwise encounter anxiety, boredom, or sadness. Distraction isn't all bad and is in fact quite useful when the intensity of an emotion threatens to push us toward poor choices-- maybe if I hadn't eaten that cupcake I would have written my boss an angry email outlining exactly where she could put my poor performance review. When distraction is our primary means of managing painful emotions we may find ourselves perpetuating problems rather than learning from them.
Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun originally from New York sums it up, "nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know." There are a lot of important assumptions built in to this mind blowing quote. If we replace "nothing" with "emotion", then we must believe that emotions 1) will come and go, 2) serve a purpose, and 3) that purpose is to teach us something necessary for our growth. I've never met a 3 year old, who stopped his tearful tantrum in order to thank his mother for taking away his candy. Similarly, we typically view our negative emotions as some sort of potentially never-ending punishment, as entities to be fought against, so that we can get back to our candy-- pleasant feelings, sensations, and experiences. It may feel like a great leap to see our emotions as necessary and benevolent teachers. Just as our parents had to teach us some lessons through negative reinforcement, our emotions must sometimes take on a negative charge in order for us to make changes.
How will we know when it's time to lean in rather than time to distract? The wisdom to know what needs to be done and how is always available to us if we are willing to be still long enough to hear it. But since that is such a dissatisfying answer, here's a more concrete recommendation. When you recognize a pattern, it's time to lean in. I frequently work with clients who find themselves in the same type of romantic relationships over and over again. One person realized that she consistently partners with men who need help and ultimately ends up feeling drained, taken advantage of, and rejected when the relationships fall apart. Her care taking behaviors in all of these relationships were driven by a powerful feeling of guilt. After identifying the feeling, we got to work making room for it, allowing it's messages and sensations to drift in and out during meditation. By allowing her chest to tighten and the tears to flow, as memories of caring for her alcoholic mother arose, she was able to hear the message borne by the guilt-- I am enough. She had felt the need to earn love and connection through acts of sacrifice. Without inviting her guilt in, she would have continued chasing her worth in dead end relationships.
Whether you feel anxious any time you try something new, or feel hopeless whenever you set a goal, emotional patterns provide us the opportunity to contact a greater understanding of ourselves. Rather than starting another Netflix series at the first sign of a familiar negative feeling, try opening to it with non-judgmental presence. Opening is not narrating, but experiencing. Instead of talking to yourself about why you feel the feeling, just be with it. Allow the guilt, fear, boredom, and anger a soft place to land long enough to connect with their lessons, and those difficult emotions will soon be history.
I used to get annoyed when people would make reference to lessons "the universe" was teaching them--use of the words "spiritual" and "journey" were truly cringe-inducing. All of these words are now a regular part of my vernacular. My resistance was about my disconnection and self-doubt. I am no stranger to choosing smug intellectualism over raw fear and sadness, but every time I have turned toward a feeling, I have found a sense of presence that I can only explain as the universe, or Spirit, or God showing me something I need to know.
These days the universe is trying extra hard to teach me about boundaries. In The Matrix, (nerd alert!) the Auricle tells Neo that he shouldn't worry about the vase he is about to break, but that what will really "bake his noodle" is whether it would have happened if she hadn't said anything. So maybe I see boundary issues with my clients because I'm looking for them, but maybe the issues are there to be seen. Boundaries with parents at all levels of dysfunction and dysregulation, boundaries with bosses and friends-- everywhere I turn there seem to be people struggling to find their voices, validate their pain, or stop feeling resentful. These are all boundary tasks.
Brenè Brown said it best when she defined a boundary as a line between what is ok and what is not ok. This is one of those practices that is simple but not easy. We struggle to let others know what is ok and what is not ok for so many reasons. With functional parents, we are navigating the difficult terrain of longstanding power differentials-- I can't tell my mom it's not ok to come over without calling, that would be disrespectful! With friends, we are struggling with how much we can ask for or say no to without damaging the relationship. With a dysregulated parent we may be weighing the possible punishments we will incur if we don't bend to the parent's will, and are likely fighting longstanding patterns of guild-induced helplessness. So many factors shape our willingness and perceived ability to give voice to our wants and needs.
My boundary struggle is about fear and a "not good enough" narrative. When someone is testing or pushing a boundary I feel my chest tighten, my face harden, and fear begins to take over my being. If I lean in to that, I see all the times my needs were minimized or dismissed, all the experiences that taught me it is not ok to disappoint, disagree, or disengage. These experiences planted a seed that my worth is about my ability to make others happy, and I have been trying to rip out that taproot for a while now. It continues to be challenging to separate my desire to act in kindness from my training as "a good girl." Conversely I find it easy to overshoot on boundary setting, engaging anger as a means of feeling powerful enough to make my point.
One issue that arises frequently is mistaking a boundary goal with a validation goal. Sometimes we draw a line in the sand, not to define what is ok/not ok, but as bid for understanding. We don't just want our friend to talk about something other than her horrible life, we also want her to understand why that is tiresome and straining to the relationship. Boundaries can be set and maintained without explicit communication. Validation requires voice, and we often go hoarse asking for validation from unwilling or incapable sources. When we feel that someone must hear us and make changes in order to move past a feeling or an experience, we are handing our power to that person in a way that will inevitably leave us feeling ineffective. When we use our voices to demand respect and validation, we actually undermine the very boundaries we are trying to establish. We weave a connection and create a dependence on the other person when we hitch our happiness to their understanding.
I think the best we can do in embracing our boundaries is to 1) Identify the barriers to truth within ourselves-- the memories, the restrictive self-definitions, the negative feelings we seek to avoid 2) Get quiet and still enough to connect with our inherent wisdom and 3) prepare to be kind to ourselves when we screw up. Boundary setting skills are contextual and constantly in flux. Maybe it's ok that I can ask my boss confidently not to call me on weekends, but quiver at the thought of asking my partner to acknowledge the work I do around the house. If we are expecting to flip the switch to perfect, painless boundaries, we will get in our own way. I wish I could say it gets easier, but I just don't know that yet.
Dr. Candice Creasman
Therapist, author, and counselor educator. Articles with tips and tools for living your most authentic and joyful life.