Part 2: Transforming anger with compassion
This is the second in a series of columns about anger and how it impacts professional and personal life for lawyers.
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” — Mark Twain
During these difficult times, many lawyers have struggled over the past year with painful emotions including depression, anxiety and anger.
Anger is a powerful emotion that can be intensely uncomfortable and evoke shame, self-judgment or blame at the source of anger.
Most of my clients tell me that they don’t want to be angry or be perceived as “out of control.” They tell me stories of intense pain following an episode of yelling at their child, sending a hostile email to a colleague, or “losing it” at the grocery store, and ask for techniques to stop being so angry.
In Part 1, I suggested some strategies to help reduce the intensity of anger. There is also another pathway to work with anger: looking at the innate wisdom of anger. If we can harness the natural intelligence within anger, we can develop strength and compassion rather than cause suffering from our emotional reactivity.
Psychologists recognize that anger is an important signal letting us know that there is an obstacle in the way of our well-being. From this perspective, anger has a natural intelligence and energy that requires careful attention to understand what is causing this intense reaction.
Rather than trying to stop anger, what might happen if we met our anger with what Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach calls “mindful compassionate presence”?
Mindful compassionate presence refers to the ability to go inside ourselves to truly understand what we are thinking, feeling and experiencing in the present moment. By turning toward the source of the anger, we can develop more wise understanding of the triggers as well as begin to formulate a skillful action to meet the situation.
Using the mindfulness technique called the “U-turn” can be a helpful way to explore our anger reactions with more mindful presence.
To begin, when you notice that the emotion of anger is present, or when you realize that you have been lost in thoughts about being angry (perhaps obsessively going over an argument or re-reading a negative email), take a moment to pause. Feel your feet on the floor and your body being supported in your chair. If it is helpful, allow your eyes to close and take a few deep breaths. See if you can relax and let go of any obvious tension in the body and mind.
Now, notice your present-moment experience, including your thoughts, sensations and emotions. Try not to judge your experience but simply note what is occurring.
For example, you may notice tension in your chest, irritability or anger, thoughts of blame toward another person. What happens if you intentionally regard your experience with kindness and compassion?
When you are ready, take a few breaths and come back to the present moment. Take a few moments to jot down what you observed. Were you able to identify any feelings in addition to anger? Could you identify any specific needs that were not met? Often, unmet needs can be discovered underneath the initial experience of anger.
Marshall Rosenberg, creator of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, compiled a list of universal human needs that can help us understand ourselves better and strengthen our connection between people. (https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/feelings-inventory). These basic needs include connection, honesty, play, peace, physical well-being, meaning and autonomy. If these universal needs are not met, we may experience anger as our first reaction (again, remember the threat detection system in the brain that perceives negative experiences as dangerous).
Imagine a time when you felt that your peace or security was being threatened or you received negative medical news. Underneath the feeling of anger may be a whole host of deeper feelings that need attending to. These can include feeling afraid, annoyed, confused, disconnected, disquieted, embarrassed, fatigued, pain, sad, tense and vulnerable and a yearning. When we can identify these feelings, we begin to discover new ways of responding to ourselves and others with more honesty and depth, which can help us meet our human needs.
Once we are able to identify our human needs and feelings, we can provide ourselves with compassion and care. We might ask ourselves: What do I need most right now? This may include reaching out to a friend, therapist or family member, or taking quiet space for healing.
You might even gently place your hand on your heart and imagine saying to yourself: “It’s OK; I am sorry this hurts.”
You may decide that you are ready to go back to the source of the anger and utilize skillful communication informed by your inner exploration. Instead of focusing on what the other person did, you might share your basic need to feel safe, honest or well and would like to find a way to do that together with the person. You may also recognize that the anger can mobilize you to become active in social justice or political systems with additional wisdom about what matters most to you.
Compassion is actually an action word. It is defined as awareness + empathy + action. Once we are aware of our feelings and needs and can create space and kindness for ourselves and our experience, we are able to act more skillfully.
Compassion does not mean that the anger should or will go away. In fact, for some of us, the anger we experience as a result of social injustice and racism can actually fuel us to remain action-oriented rather than complacent.
However, over time, we can be overwhelmed by the pain we are experiencing or begin to feel burned out and hopeless.
In contrast, when our own personal actions to end oppression are met with self-compassion, it can lead us toward a deeper and even more sustainable dedication to end injustice.
Coretta Scott King said: “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate action of its members.”
This compassionate action requires us to look deeply into the source of our anger with curiosity and kindness, which can lead us to true transformation.
Dr. Tracey Meyers joined Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in August 2020. As a clinical psychologist and mindfulness instructor, she meets with clients regularly, leads groups, writes articles, and makes presentations to the legal community. More information can be obtained at lclma.org.
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