Empathy, Anger And The Person At Odds With Themselves
Recently, many things have happened that have gotten me feeling extremely angry. Violently so. To the extent that I feared that I would do something or someone damage.
Now, there’s some who would say that if someone did something that angered us, we should perhaps try to consider things from their point of view. To empathize with them.
I don’t know about you, but when someone’s done something wrong by me (whether intention or not) and I tried to empathize with them, I found it impossible to even start. It was as if there were two opposing emotional forces within me, cancelling each other out.
There was that part of me that said I should empathize with the person. But, in swift response, there was another part of me that would say that if I did empathize with the person, even if it were in my own consciousness, I would be giving ground. I would be selling myself short, and hence have little right to feel angry. It felt rather self-righteous, but also wary.
So I was stuck, and often settled for keeping quiet. On the surface. Inwardly, I was seething like bad, overcooked soup. It was so damn frustrating! I couldn’t even express anger, and to stand up for what I believe is right by me!
Then I read something by Ann Weiser Cornell called the Radical Acceptance of Everything. Weiser Cornell suggested that the best way to help with being stuck in this way is to allow, equally, space for all emotional parts of ourselves.
It was like being the UN Secretary General, whose job it is to equally allow all the dissenting countries in the UN to represent themselves. Weiser Cornell wrote that by doing so, each part is allowed to “say” its piece (or pieces), and this will lead it to transform.
So I decided to apply radical acceptance to all parts of my emotional experience. In the spirit of self-empathy (see my previous article), I empathized first with the angry part of me, “reassuring” the other part that I would give it equal space later. So, what really angered me? Which part of what the other person did really pressed my buttons? What was at the core of my anger?
Then I empathized with the part that says I should empathize with the person who’s done wrong by me. What were its intention for pushing this “should”? What were its central concerns?
I waited and listened and sensed, allowing my mind to flow freely as if in a daydream, so that each part might take material from my imagination to parse together its Morse Code - its central concerns - in a way I could digest.
This is what I got:
My angry part was really hurt that someone whom I entrusted and kept giving a second, third and fourth chance, would do the same thing to hurt me again. I felt betrayed. No, more like I felt invisible because that person did not have me enough in their mind, to register that what they did would hurt me. Then came sadness. Does this mean that I’m not important to this person, or worse, that there was something about me that was so…forgettable? Then an anger, like fire in the belly, which said – No More! I WILL make you sit up and notice me. Because the relationship is important. I’M important!
My wanting-to-empathize part revealed fear at its center. Fear of losing the relationship should I allow the angry part to take over and lash out. Fear of the very chance to make this person finally notice me, and take me on board. Fear of being wrongfully angry - and the humiliating sense of having my Self reduced as a result – for I have been wrong in the past. It counselled caution.
Both parts were trying to help me preserve my Self and also the relationship. When I saw the common ground, both parts softened in my body, and I could relax the tension both brought there.
With this relaxation came some clarity of the whole situation, of my rights, of the relationship with this person, and of what might be going on for the other person. I took all that I learnt from both my parts, and had a talk with this person. I was also able to take on board their response, stand firm to insist that they see where I believe they still did not see me, but relax a bit of my expectations when I understood where they were coming from.
So, in times of anger, it might help to practice some self-empathy before you go onto the next steps of asserting yourself and then finally empathizing with the person who has done wrong by you.
One reason why anger stays is because the reason for our anger is not appreciated. We owe it to ourselves to at least appreciate this reason first, before making a demand from the other person to do the same.
A final note. Radically allowing all parts of us, to make space (another one of my earlier articles – hint, hint), is a very simple but powerful practice that allows us to grow, especially when we’re at odds with ourselves.
Sam and I are really keen to start out our FOCUSING PARTNERSHIP course/ initiative. If you’re interested, please PM us on this page so we can get an indication of how many people want to do it.