from Scott Swain’s upcoming book, Practical Empathy
I used to think fear was the emotion underlying anger. Until a woman in one of my Emotional Intelligence Play Groups said it was actually frustration. I thought about that. I tried to think of a situation where anger did not come from frustration. I still haven’t come up with one. So, until a better idea comes along, I propose that while yes, sometimes it is fear, sometimes it may also be frustration.
What if we have more power over our own emotions than we thought? How much can we reprogram ourselves? When we see a car has cut us off or a person saying a “mean” thing to us, we have an instant, automatic feeling in our body. This is an important defense mechanism that can serve to save our lives when we are in physical danger. Sometimes. Other times, it might serve us better to not be drawn into our “lizard brain”.
It is possible to train ourselves, over time, to have more control over our own thoughts, and eventually, even the “automatic” feelings that occur when our senses are stimulated. This process is actually quite simple but can take quite a bit of practice to master.
At STAGE 1 we react automatically. We may withdraw, dodge, become defensive, or attack. We are allowing our fear, frustration, and/or anger to rule us. We may even blame the other person for saying or doing the “wrong” thing.
STAGE 2 comes when we begin to take responsibility for not just our reactions, but also our feelings. How? By asking ourselves, “What needs or values of mine are not being met when this thing happens?” Let’s call this “self empathy”. The thought process: That person called me a thing I don’t like. I wanted more respect, understanding, or consideration.
After practicing that self empathy, at some point we can move to STAGE 3 where we ask ourselves, “What might be going on for that other person to motivate them to say such a thing?” This is empathy for the other person. The thought process: That person called me a thing I don’t like. Why? Maybe she lashed out because she wanted more acceptance or appreciation for her ideas?
With the practice/repetition of pausing to re-characterize similar situations as not being an attack, eventually, we react less and less often to harmless stimuli in a defensive manner. And the more we see ourselves reacting with peaceful curiosity to more situations, we appreciate the power that comes with knowing we are in control of all aspects of how we process stimuli.
To put it simply: We are merely teaching our brain: Let’s not react defensively when we are not in danger.
Same concept and different angle
Let’s go through a similar thought experiment but with a slight shift of perspective to gain a deeper understanding of this idea of using our Practical Empathy (PEQ) practice to address anger.
Starting over with the same general method: we first learn to self-empathize with our own situation and anger in a specific way and then move to empathizing for the person who stimulated our anger.
This time, I’ve created a slightly more simple image. Please study this image a moment before continuing.
Now let’s examine each of the following stages:
Stage 0: Frustration / Anger.
Stage 1: Add self empathy.
Stage 2: Add empathy for other.
Stage 3: Practice so you develop:
Stage 4: Automatic / subconscious empathy for other. Eventually, Stages 0 thru 3 barely happen, if at all.
Why? With practice, the brain begins to see a pattern of “That other person did a thing and the typical outcome is for us to find that they were acting in accordance with their needs/values.”
So with each repetition of this pattern of “initial defensiveness -> empathy -> ah no defense needed” we are training our brains to eventually realize the “initial defensiveness” is not necessary in most situations.
Let’s say you are in often in traffic. Someone is driving in a way that stimulates your anger or frustration. You self-empathize by identifying your feelings and needs. The first ten times, this is all you do:
“I’m pissed off because my needs for security, respect, efficiency, and consideration were not met.”
The first time you try self empathy in this context, you probably don’t notice any difference in your feelings. It will take a few times. Then, at some point, you notice a difference. You feel lighter. The self-empathy was satisfying enough or enough of a release/relief that you feel open to trying empathy for the driver(s) that stimulated your anger.
So then, for the next few times that you are stimulated by other drivers, you first do self-empathy and then empathy for the other driver(s).
“[First the self empathy] I’m pissed off because my needs for security, respect, efficiency, and consideration were not met. [Now the empathy-for-other] Hmmm why was that driver going so slow in front of me? Perhaps he was meeting his need for efficiency or security? Maybe if he is late one more time for work he will be fired? Maybe he just got a call from the hospital that a loved one is ill?”
During these last few times, after putting yourself in the other driver’s shoes, you start to notice something. Your initial anger or frustration is a bit less each time. The self-empathy comes easier and faster, too. And the empathy-for-other that you are having for the other drivers is ending up at positive feelings because of acceptance and understanding of their actions. The more this happens, the more your brain associates those positive feelings with the initial stimuli, and the less your brain will associate the initial stimuli with the negative feelings you used to have.
So, with less of those initial negative feelings comes less need to self-empathize. And this leads to a shift where our initial reaction becomes:
Automatic empathy with the other person!
Do you feel evolved now with this new knowledge? Joking. Not joking. Hoping you choose to try this next time a situation comes up where you feel your anger rising. Easier said than done, right?