September 22, 2021

The Most Mindful way to Deal with Anger.


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I always enjoy driving with my son.

Why? Because if I ever start shouting at another driver, he reminds me that being angry isn’t going to change anything—other than, maybe, give me an early heart attack—and that the driver who cut me off might have just heard some bad news or had some other reason for his absent-mindedness.

He helps me remember a fundamental truth: although I can’t change what other people do, I can choose how I react.

I try to adopt this stance in other aspects of my life as well, with varying degrees of success. Knowing that what anyone does always has an explanation helps me have more compassion for them when they behave “badly,” instead of getting angry about it.

This isn’t to minimise the responsibility we all have for changing what we’re doing if it’s causing harm. But when someone acts in damaging ways, it may be because of some kind of trauma from their own past experiences, and in that sense, it’s not their “fault.”

They may not be able to see the hurt they’re causing or understand how to change it. All I can do is try to nudge them in the right direction and make sure I’ve solid enough boundaries to prevent me (and anyone else) from being collateral damage.

Refusing to collude with something potentially harmful that someone is saying or doing can be difficult, especially if they’re a member of my family or a social group that I identify with and want to be accepted by.

For example, I used to find it hard to speak out against any sexism—casual or otherwise—that’s expressed in the group of men I like to hang out with. But I discovered that if I state my objections as a personal belief with no implied judgement of anyone who doesn’t agree, combined with a genuine curiosity about where their attitudes come from and whether they even really believe it, then my point of view, sometimes, creates curiosity and even motivates others to rethink some of their own assumptions. All this is done while steering clear of any suggestion that I think I’m on any moral high ground.

I also try to bridge the gap between my actions and anyone else’s—considering the difference between ideal behaviour and what actually happens—with kindness and humour.

In my experience, the only time that anger is an effective or appropriate response to someone’s behaviour is if they are harming someone vulnerable (including myself). And if I judge myself harshly, I’ll do the same to others, and that will get in the way of either of us changing for the better.

Pointing an accusing finger at my partner and playing the blame game when we’ve upset each other is probably more about projecting my own fears about not being good enough and will only cause her to shut down and get defensive.

We try to talk about what’s happened so we can uncover the reasons and agree how to move on. Instead of arguing about which one of us is “more wrong” when we’re in conflict, we try to uncover the explanation behind what’s happened.

I start with the assumption that we’re both doing our best, and so any actions which have fallen short of love and kindness must be the result of some unhealed wound in one or the other.

By not judging other people, and looking for explanations rather than condemnation, I’ve noticed I become more interested in how someone is feeling and why they’ve acted the way they have.

It’s a truism that the only way we can change the world is in our own lives, and I hope in my own small way I’m creating more opportunities for dialogue and connection, leading to better mutual understanding.

In any case, I feel like I’m accumulating more friends and avoiding making enemies, and that can’t be bad!

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