Empathy: What it Is, What it Isn’t

Years ago, a friend and I were walking across a street because the light was green and we had that little walking symbol saying it was our turn to walk. Midway through the intersection, the car we were walking in front of started forward for no apparent reason; the light had not changed. We yelled loudly to let the driver know that she was about to run us over, and we were understandably upset since we both felt that we’d almost gotten injured or killed. Instead of apologizing, the driver screamed at us: “Have a little empathy! There’s a war!” (the Iraq war had just begun that day) and then drove away. Funnily enough, I’d automatically empathized with her even while she was unknowingly driving forward. Who hasn’t been so distracted that they make mistakes in traffic? In fact, my empathy for her distracted state made me understand that this person wasn’t purposely trying to kill me, which helped. Even so, my friend and I were entitled to react the way a person reacts when they almost get hit by a car, when they are reminded of their mortality. What she really was asking for wasn’t empathy at all; she was asking for absolution and sympathy. She was asking that we not let her know the negative impact that her actions had on us, and she was angry with us for not making her feel better for almost hitting us with her car. What was entirely missing from the equation was her empathy for the people she had almost run over and her empathy for herself.

According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Some people confuse the word “empathy” with the word “sympathy” which is defined as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” In the situation that I just described, empathy allowed me to understand and not take personally the action of this distracted woman who almost hit us. It enabled me to know automatically that she was driving distracted and because of that understanding I was able to yell to her to let her know I was there, the way I would wish to be yelled to if I were about to hit a pedestrian that I couldn’t see in front of me. My empathy may have saved my life, because knowing what it is like to be distracted in a car made me know what a distracted person needs in order to be brought back to focus. Her lack of empathy caused her to feel like a victim: she had no understanding of why we yelled at her, so she took our yelling personally as if we were attacking her. If she’d had empathy, she’d have understood the impact of her actions because she’d be able to imagine what it would feel like to be a pedestrian in the path of a moving car. If she’d had empathy, she’d have treated us how she’d want to be treated if the tables were turned. Most likely, that means that she would have apologized for scaring us and almost running us over. If she’d had empathy, she’d not be asking us to let her off the hook for being a human; she’d be able to do that for herself, and she would be able to accept her mistakes and learn from them.

Empathy is not acceptance, it is not permission, it is not even forgiveness. It is just understanding, and understanding is power.


Reaching Out to Others in a Real Way

When I was in college, I shared a house with roommates, some of us a bit crunchy and wacky, on a street where we were the only college students. The man across the street from us sent a clear message that he did not want us there, from the moment we moved in. He posted a ridiculous amount of “No Trespassing” signs all over his property. The only time he spoke to me in the two years that we were neighbors was when he felt I was trespassing and he angrily told me to get off of his property. We could all feel his hostility. We all made jokes about him and his signs and I felt strong urges to rebel against them.

One morning, I was feeling extremely low: I had just injured myself the night before and was hobbling out the door on crutches. The first thing I saw as I left the house was that neighbor, who was furiously posting even more “No Trespassing” signs. I hobbled past his house near tears, and the next sight I saw was the couple who lived next to the anti-trespassing man. They were a couple in their eighties, and I had not yet met them. I felt them staring at me and I assumed that they were similarly unhappy with us college kids living on their street. I continued to hobble past them when I heard one of them say something to me that I could not hear, so I stopped to ask what he’d said. They wanted to know how I’d hurt myself, and if I needed any help, and they expressed sympathy to me. In that moment, I felt that there was more to our neighborhood than hostility toward our household. I felt more welcome.

Over time, I got to know this couple: he was the town’s former police chief, and she was an avid quilter. He had an incredible rose garden that he nurtured with all of his heart and he often would make bouquets for me. She showed me a quilt that she’d made for him for their fiftieth anniversary from all the ties he’d worn during his career. If these two had not reached out to me over our age, lifestyle, and political differences, I would have never known the welcoming love that was in our very own neighborhood. I would have assumed that we lived in a place that was hostile to our kind. I also felt motivated to be more respectful of this couple who had lived here for so long.

Many years have gone by, and we now live next door to a group of young college kids. They have a small front yard that we can see clearly from many places in our house and yard, and they like to be outside quite a bit. Sometimes they like to do things in their front yard that I don’t want to see from my home, and that I don’t want our children to see, because these neighbors are not terribly shy about their bodies or how they share their bodies with each other. I talked to their landlord to let her know that we will be building a taller fence, because this seems to be the solution to the privacy issue. I realized this morning that I haven’t talked to any of the people living there and that if I don’t, this fence could make them feel as unwelcome in their home as I felt with the “No Trespassing” signs that were aimed at us. I did something just now that I am out of practice with: I walked over and talked to one of them. I let her know that we are building a fence so that we and they can have privacy and that I wanted her to understand that we weren’t building a “Fuck You” fence. She understood and we talked a little more and now I know these people much younger than me and different from me a little bit more, and I hope that they feel more welcome in our neighborhood.

We all can easily have a positive impact on people who are not just like us, and we can allow them to have a positive impact on us. I mentioned that I am out of practice with talking to the neighbors. To be more clear, I am out of practice with talking to the neighbors and strangers that are different from me. I have gotten lazy about it, and a large part of this laziness comes from my habits on social media. I can have conversations all day long with like-minded people of about the same age as me and political leanings as mine when I am on Facebook. I can unfriend or hide the feeds of people who are not like-minded. This is fine to do if I am needing a place to go that is my happy place, but it should not be a substitute for interacting with the diverse real people of the world. When we don’t even look at each other because we’re afraid, or lost in our phones, or just out of the habit of talking to people who are not like us, we increase feelings of isolation and insulation for ourselves and others. If someone is different than me, it is easy to silence them on social media, or tune them out, or rage at them or about them in a way that I might not if we were face-to-face. I feel strongly that it is time for me to spend less time on screens and more time making eye contact with and talking to neighbors and strangers, not just the ones that look like me or act like me, and especially the ones who might feel the least welcome where I feel the most welcome.


Some Thoughts on Grief

Today seems like a good day to write about grief, since a good portion of our country is feeling profound grief due to the election outcome.  Most people do not deal with grief very well, whether it is their own grief or the grief of another.  It is not something many of us have been taught about or given good examples of.  So, when we lose something or someone, it can be difficult to know what to do or how to grieve.  Some of us are afraid that the grief will overwhelm us and we fight it.  Some of us don’t fight it but then don’t know how to ask for help when we are stuck in the grief.

A crucial thing to know about grief is that we all have our own grieving processes with their own paces and times, and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.  There are many ways to avoid feeling the grief to begin with, but even in the avoidance, there can be wisdom.  We may not be ready to grieve or in a place in our lives in which it is safe to grieve.  A person in a war zone cannot afford to grieve in real time, whereas someone who has stability and support and time can.

There are some traps that keep us from getting to a place that we can grieve, and if we are indeed ready to grieve, it is good to know what our traps are.  These are in no particular order, nor is this an exhaustive list, but here are some traps that come to mind:

Getting stuck in wishing things were different.  It is a trap because we are preventing ourselves from facing the loss in front of us by trying to go back in time.  Things are not different and we are sitting here with something that needs our attendance.

Getting stuck in blaming and pointing fingers before we allow ourselves to feel grief.  It may be someone’s fault, but the injury needs our attention first.  Feel the grief and let it pass when it is ready to pass.  If there is someone to be held accountable, you will be much more clear about it after you grieve.

Beating ourselves up for something we could not have foreseen that we wish we’d done differently.  If we could have foreseen these things or done them differently, we would have.  Now we won’t do them again, but before we can move forward, we need to feel the sadness and the grief and the shame.

Trying to minimize or discredit our grief by saying that someone else has it much worse somewhere else.  That may be true, but by allowing ourselves to feel real grief (which is not the same as feeling sorry for ourselves) we can connect with others in the world through shared grief.

Bypassing grief altogether by withdrawing into or flinging angry cynicism.  This is a way to keep ourselves isolated from others by either throwing our pain at them like a hot potato, or shrinking away from them by retreating into a bitter cave.

If we are ready to move past our defenses and feel safe enough to grieve, it is important to know what our style and pace of grieving is, and what kind of support we require.  I am a person who grieves by talking it out with someone I trust deeply and then crying, violently and for as long as I need to cry, which has varied from one big episode of tears to weeks of crying jags.  I don’t want advice, I don’t want to be told that everything happens for a reason, I just want to cry.  I cry until the tears dry up, and I am immediately launched into problem-solving mode.  This is my way and I’ve grown comfortable with saying so.  My husband has a much slower and quieter style of grieving that requires less contact.  We’ve learned to respect each other’s grief processes and paces and we each know how to ask for what we need, because we know how we grieve.  I ask to be held while I cry, and I ask to be heard while I talk and talk things through.  He asks for the time and quiet space he needs.

Knowing how we grieve helps us to let others know how to help us.  This is important because when we communicate our needs to others, even if we need some space, we allow them to support us.  It is important to feel that support when we grieve, and it is important to be able to give that support to others when they do.  The grief will someday pass, and when it does, our energy will be freed to move us forward again.

For more on grief and loss, go here.


Learning to Have a Balanced Relationship with the Internet

Earlier this year, I noticed that my relationship with the computer and the TV screen was out of balance. Both were getting more of my attention than the people and things in front of me. It took a family road trip during spring break for me to become aware of what was going on. On this trip, we brought along board games and a 1000 piece puzzle. When we weren’t out exploring the natural beauty around us or eating delicious food, we worked on this puzzle or played board games. Somewhere in the middle of the week, I noticed that we did not once turn on a TV and we barely checked into social media, nor did we have any desire to do so. I decided that I wanted to keep some of our vacation with us when we got home.

We cut back drastically on our TV time, and I cut out much of my unnecessary computer time. Our habits changed. I noticed that, as I got accustomed to having more quality time in my days, I started to relax more. Things calmed down. I started reading books more, doing puzzles, playing games, and feeling more patient with my children. Then this election season started heating up. This has been an unsettling election season for everyone. It has filled me with a sense of anxiety. Most people I talk to share that same feeling. People who are voting differently than I am are also expressing anxiety and frustration. Until just recently, I noticed that I was dealing (or not dealing) with these feelings by slipping back into the habit of getting on the computer and letting my time and energy get eaten up by it. I noticed that doing so increased my anxiety and frustration and even feelings of disgust, while simultaneously decreasing my motivation. It was a big energy suck.

A couple of weeks ago, I caught myself in the middle of getting online for no good reason. I realized that these computer sessions were robbing me of large amounts of my day in small increments, and leaving me feeling terrible. Fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there: I added those times up and realized that every day, I was losing at least two hours of time mindlessly surfing through election news and that no good was coming from it. I decided to change things up a bit. I’d been meaning for a while to practice all the songs on piano that my children are learning, but I hadn’t found the time to do this. Now, many times when I feel a temptation to go online for no good reason, I sit down and practice the piano. It takes about 30 minutes, and it really feels good to learn this instrument. I also have a great appreciation now for how hard my children have been working to learn it themselves. I don’t feel terrible afterwards, either. Instead, I feel inspired.

I imagine that balancing screen time with life will be an ongoing challenge for me, but I feel like I have more tools to deal with it than I did before. I still check in with the election numbers, but in a much more balanced way, and I am sure that after this election something else will be a draw for me. I am not about to get rid of my Internet access, so I have to change my relationship with it. The challenge is to know where the line is between empty activity that drains me and more meaningful activity that informs and motivates me.

Knowing the difference between positive and negative online behavior is key. It starts with awareness and intention, and goes further if you have other options to choose from. If I am going onto the Internet with no awareness of my inner state of being and no intention at all, I can easily get sucked in. If I don’t know what else to do with myself, I can easily get sucked in. Maybe I am uneasy about something already, but I haven’t checked in with myself. Perhaps I have 15 minutes to kill before I go somewhere. I open the computer in a state of uneasiness with no real goal in mind. Maybe I look at some polling numbers that increase my uneasy feelings. Then I click on an article that talks about those numbers. Now I’m feeling downright anxious. I get on Facebook, unconsciously seeking some sort of camaraderie to make me feel less anxious. Instead, most of my Facebook friends are posting about politics and not in a feel-good way, and then on the “trending” side of the page, there is some article about some horrible thing some person did to an innocent child. My anxiety has shot up and my belief in humankind has tanked and now I look at the clock and realize that those 15 minutes have passed and I have to rush out the door because now I am late. I bring all that anxiety with me to wherever I am going, and none of it was necessary.

If I enter the vast world of the Internet with awareness, intention, and a list of options other than the Internet to choose from, things go differently. If I build in a moment to ask myself how I am feeling, I might discover any number of things. Maybe I am hungry, maybe I am stressed, maybe I feel great, maybe I am bored. Knowing what I am feeling is important because it is possible that there are things I need to address in myself before I can go online. If I am hungry, eating is a better choice for me than going online. If I am stressed, I’d be better served by taking a moment to address the underlying causes of my stress. If I feel great, I might want to spend some time just feeling great. If I am bored, this could be a great time to play the piano.

If I still feel like going online after checking in with myself, the next question to ask is what I want to get out of going online. Knowing my intention helps me when I am tempted to drift into the sea of online options. I can refer back to my original intent if I notice that my mood is sinking. If it is a recipe I am looking for, then I try to stick with that. If I am looking at election news or something similar, I ask myself if I am going online to quell my election anxiety or just for information. I can get information online, but only I can deal with my anxiety, and I have options for that: sitting quietly, meditating, talking it out with my spouse, and so on. Am I going on Facebook to see what my faraway friends are up to today, or am going on because I feel lonely? If it is from loneliness, then I need to give myself attention rather than give my attention away on the computer. Once I’ve checked my mood, my intentions, and my other options I feel like I am in charge of my Internet sessions rather than it being the other way around. I spend less time swimming in circles in the vast online ocean, and more time in the real world. I have more time and energy to spend with my family and friends, to pursue more inspiring endeavors, to do something tangible and real in the last moments of this election, and even to write posts in this blog in hopes of inspiring others to join me in spending more time in this lovely reality that exists beyond the Internet.


The Power of a Sincere Apology

I have been wanting to write this blog post for a few years now.  The original inspiration for this post happened back when my daughter was in preschool and a classmate bit her.  When I asked her teacher if the classmate had been told to apologize, she said that they don’t encourage insincere apologies at that school.  While that answer didn’t satisfy me, it intrigued me and launched me on a quest to try to figure out how to teach my children exactly what a sincere apology is.  On this quest, I’ve observed my own defenses around apologizing, I’ve witnessed my children exploring all manners of insincere apologies, I’ve been the recipient of insincere apologies and I’ve watched politicians apologize insincerely just for appearance’s sake, mostly because they got caught doing something.  In fact, today my daughter overheard me talking about Trump’s recent “apology” about the taped conversation where he was caught demeaning and sexually objectifying women.  She wanted to know whether or not his “apology” will now get him elected.  I suddenly felt inspired to write about the difference between sincere and insincere apologies, so here I am doing so.

Insincere apologies come in various forms.  There is the apology that is meant to silence the anger of the person who has been wronged.  When this happens, the person who has been wronged is flipped into the position of wrongdoer if they aren’t silenced by the apology.  If they are not satisfied with the apology, they are met with an indignant form of “What do you want?  I said sorry!”  Another kind is the apology that is actually a plea for comfort.  When this happens, the person apologizing doesn’t really own what they have done, but wants to hear “It’s okay,” because they want to know that they are okay, that the person who is hurt still loves them.  The person who was wronged gets flipped into the position of comforter.   A close relative to this sort of apology is the kind where the word sorry is followed by justifications and evidence that the wrongdoer is actually “a good person.”  In this scenario, the wronged person is made invisible, eclipsed by the need of the person apologizing to clear their name.  Trump’s “apology” is a good example of that sort of apology.  He talks about how he is different now, but never once mentions what he did wrong then, or who he wronged.  There is also “Sorry if you feel hurt,” which makes the wronged person seem crazy and overly sensitive and there’s the “Sorry, but…” which turns the apology into an accusation or an excuse that absolves the apologizer.  The most transparently insincere form of apology is an aggressive-sounding “Sorry!” which sounds more like an insult.  The insincere apology comes in all these different varieties, but the result is the same:  the wrongdoer avoids culpability and at the same time invalidates the feelings and the experience of the wronged person.

A sincere apology demands accountability from the wrongdoer and validation of the wronged person.  This grows from brave self-examination and a willingness to hear from another that you have had a negative impact, that you have hurt them, that you have been imperfect.  This is not for the faint of heart.  When you truly apologize to someone, for a moment you give control of the situation over to the person you’ve wronged, because in order to truly apologize to someone, you must permit that person to express how you hurt them.  To sincerely apologize, you need to acknowledge the pain you caused the person you are apologizing to.  If you are truly sorry, you offer to make amends to the person you hurt, and you let that person decide what those amends could be.

If you are not ready to do all of the above, then you are not ready to apologize, and you could use a little more time to examine what’s going on for you.  You may notice yourself wanting to take any of the paths mentioned above to the insincere apology, and wisdom can grow from that noticing.  You might notice that you are about to say “sorry” but what you really mean is “Please tell me I’m a good person.”  You need to hear that from someone, but not from the person you are apologizing to.  That someone is you.  If you can tease out what you need to do for yourself from what you need to do for the person you wronged, you can move forward.  Acknowledge your goodness to yourself, and acknowledge your wrongdoing to the person that you have wronged.  To accept your humanity is to open up to the greater humanity.  This is the power that lies in the sincere apology.


Gossip versus Troubleshooting

My daughter has entered a grade level where she and her classmates are trying to work out some complex social dynamics. Children huddle and talk about some other child that they don’t like. I have been trying to work through my own emotional reactions to this so that I can find a way to talk about it with her without scolding her for it. I confess that some of my attempts to do so have been unsuccessful. There is history here: I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I have scars from this sort of exclusionary behavior. I also have engaged in it myself. I still struggle with finding the difference between talking about someone just to gossip, and talking about someone in order to find ways to solve a problem that I am having with that person. There is a big difference between gossiping and troubleshooting.

I grew up believing that to talk about someone behind their back is gossip, period. A teacher once said that even saying something nice about someone behind their back is gossip. I’ve learned over time that talking about someone who isn’t there can sometimes have a positive impact. A person in an abusive relationship can gain quite a bit by talking about it to someone else. In my psychotherapy practice, my clients discuss many of their relationships with me, so that they can navigate the issues that they are having with people in their lives and come up with solutions. Sometimes, we all need to discuss our feelings about someone with a person who can help us sort out those feelings and then figure out what to do. This is productive and much different than gossip.

Gossip is not productive. No problem is being solved when we gossip about another person. If anything, we want that outsider to continue to be offensive so that we can keep talking about him or her. A while back, I noticed that I was engaged in similar behavior via Facebook. I might be out for a bike ride and get angry with someone who was being dangerous or inconsiderate, and I would notice myself already composing my Facebook status about that inconsiderate person, rather than say something to them in real time. I made a rule for myself: no posting about someone on Facebook or venting to someone else as a substitute for confrontation. As a result, I’ve spoken up for myself more and I’ve learned that most people rise to the occasion. Posting on Facebook rather than speaking would have robbed me of a chance to learn that.

I am still working on this while trying to help my children with it, but I think I am getting better at navigating this particular problem. Here are some good questions to ask when tempted to talk about someone behind their back: Can I directly address the person I am upset with about what they are doing? If the answer is “yes,” then do so. If the answer is “no,” then ask this next question: Am I talking about this person in order to seek help in solving the problem, or am I locking the problem in place by gossiping? If it turns out that I am gossiping, there is another question to ask: What do I get out of having the situation locked into place, and is that something I actually want? These questions hold great potential for inner change and external connection if they are answered honestly.


In Praise of Criticism

When I hired our children’s piano teacher, he stated clearly that he expected us (the parents) to participate in their lessons so that we could help our kids practice in between.  The biggest struggle with practicing at first for both of them was being told they’d made mistakes.  There were several power struggles in the beginning, because neither child liked being told that they had made a mistake, that they’d played the wrong note or held a note for too long or not long enough.  It was hard work for me to hold my ground through their sometimes volatile resistance, and it was hard work for them to accept the criticism.  I explained that mistakes teach them how to play.  I explained that they couldn’t learn much of anything without making mistakes.  I explained that I love them even when I am showing them where they missed the mark.  I explained that making mistakes does not make them bad people.  Learning to accept criticism has been just as important as learning how to play the music itself.  We are all impressed with how much they have learned as a result of being able to accept criticism.

I’ve heard people speak out against praising children too much, or even at all, because they can become addicted to praise.  I do not agree with this stance, and I do not withhold praise, but I do think that praise without criticism in a relationship is meaningless and that the converse is true as well.  And I don’t mean that they should happen simultaneously: I have never been a fan of the criticism that starts out with a compliment.  That always feels like a bait and switch to me.  In the course of helping my kids learn piano, if I only praise my children when they hit the notes right, they have no idea that they have ever hit them wrong.  If I only criticize my children without telling them what they are doing right, they have no idea that they have ever hit them right.  I want them to trust fully that when I say that they did a good job, I mean it.  When I tell them that they made a mistake and need to work harder, I mean that too.  They can trust me to reflect to them how they are doing.

The ability to give and accept healthy, truthful criticism is crucial for the growth of any good relationship.  Healthy criticism addresses behavior; unhealthy criticism attacks a person’s being.  Because so many people have had the unhealthy kind of criticism, it can feel painful at first when you are on either end of the healthy kind.  Like everything, it takes practice.  You might be afraid of being seen as harsh or mean when you want to tell someone that their actions affected you negatively.   You might feel unlovable when someone tells you that your actions impacted them negatively.  The important thing to remember, whether giving or receiving criticism, is that criticism alone does not change who you are as a person; it does, however, give you the opportunity to learn about yourself and that learning can transform you into a more truthful person.   You do not become a harsh being when you tell someone that they did something that hurt you, you merely have let that person know that they had an impact.  You do not become a bad person when you discover that you hurt someone unwittingly, you merely have found out that you had an impact.  What you do with that awareness makes all the difference.  If you face your fear of criticizing, your criticism can transform a relationship that was previously not hitting the mark.  You will find out whether your partner or partner-to-be can handle your truth.  If you’ve been given criticism, and if you know yourself well enough to understand that you’ve missed the mark, you have an opportunity to change behaviors that may have kept you from being able to be in a good relationship.  On either side of criticism is a golden chance to learn more deeply how to live and love truthfully, and that is worth all the risk and vulnerability involved.


Harnessing your Anger to Move Forward

The other day when I wrote the post about name calling, I’d been sitting on a half-written version of it for a week or two. I have many posts like this, ones I’ve started and then gotten stuck on, so there is a massive pile of drafts waiting for me to write. A conversation on Facebook between a total stranger and my husband triggered me into finishing that draft. In that conversation, the stranger called a politician a “bitch.” My husband expressed disappointment in this person’s behavior, and was treated with the response, “a bitch is a bitch.” This made me angry. I started writing a response to this random stranger, when suddenly I realized where that response would take me: into a conversation with someone who has made it very clear that he has no intention of changing. I could picture myself feeling more angry. I could picture myself wasting energy and time on it. I stopped myself from writing to him. I felt the anger until it transformed into an inspiration to take action: I wanted to write a blog post for the first time in over a year. Not only that, I still want to keep writing. All because I harnessed my anger and asked it what it wanted from me.

The first time I can remember consciously harnessing my anger to take action in my life was the moment that essentially led me to choose to become a therapist. I was working as a cashier at a retail store, and I really hated this job. Another employee at the same store had been promoted to manager, which was a position that I felt I was more qualified for. I hated working under her. Honestly, I hated her. One day, she said something to me that offended me so much I could barely contain my feelings of rage. I went home for lunch shortly afterward, and all I could think about was how much I hated her. I was just so angry.

At the time, I was reading a book called “How to Get What You Want and Want What You Have” by John Gray, and in it was an exercise about feeling one emotion and then feeling the emotions that come next.  The theory was that emotions, if felt, move, and that under each emotion is buried more deeply another.  I came home and sat there with my anger, and I wrote about it, how angry I was with this woman at work. I wrote until the next feeling came; sadness. I felt sad that she got the position at work that I wanted. After the sadness came fear: I was afraid that I would be stuck at this unsatisfying job forever and never get to do something that gave me satisfaction. Once I felt the dissatisfaction with my job, the hatred and anger transformed into something else: motivation. I knew that I needed to take action and change my life. This woman was not keeping me from being happy. I was. I had taken this job because it was a no-brainer for me. It was safe. It did not require any responsibility from me and I could do it with my eyes closed. It was also mind-numbing and soul-destroying. And it was not this woman’s fault. I needed to change my life.

I resolved that moment that, even if I didn’t know what it was I wanted, I would spend the next year ruthlessly trying to figure it out. It took less than a couple of months after making that resolution to discover that I wanted to be a therapist, and that is what I did. All the energy that had been stuck in my hatred and anger was now freed up, and I focused it on all the work that it took to go from being a cashier stuck in a job, to applying to graduate school, attending graduate school and doing the post-graduate work to become licensed and to build a practice. That was more than 16 years ago, and to this day, I have never been stuck in the way I was before I learned to feel and listen to my anger.

When we throw our anger and other difficult feelings at people, especially to trolls, without experiencing it for ourselves, we hand over a great treasure to someone who does not recognize its value and definitely who does not deserve it.  When we instead spend time with these emotions, the world becomes bigger, freer and better than we could have imagined.


Name Calling as a Way to Bypass Anger

The other day when I was running, I made a huge mistake in the middle of a busy intersection. It was completely my fault.  I was ending an exhausting run that was having a negative impact on my cognitive functioning: in short; I was totally out of it.  I got to an intersection, all I saw was green, and I sprinted forward.  Cars all honked, and from behind, I heard a man’s voice yell, “ASSHOLE!!!!!” He and all the honking cars were long gone by the time I realized that the green light was an arrow for those honking cars to turn left, and that I had sprinted right into their path.  I understood why everyone was so mad, and had I been able to, I would have apologized and moved on.

As I ran on, I thought about that man who hollered “asshole.” He was understandably angry; I don’t blame him for feeling angry. He had no way of knowing that I made a mistake and that I was sorry. He’s probably had a collection of unpleasant car versus runner experiences.  Maybe he has a boss who treats him poorly, and he felt more comfortable taking his pent up rage out on an anonymous person.  Things were moving fast, he reacted.  He would have had another expletive for me if he’d realized I was a woman.  Calling me an “asshole” might have released a bit of his frustration, but I doubt that it gave him any long-term relief from his feelings of anger.  Here’s why:

Name-calling is a bypass for the ownership and real-time experiencing of feelings like anger, rage, frustration, and helplessness.  It’s like the game of hot potato: one person’s actions trigger feelings of anger in another. Rather than hold and experience that anger, that person hurls the potato in the form of words like “bitch,” “stupid,” “asshole,” and so on. The recipient of the name-calling reacts angrily to being called those names and throws the hot potato right back but with some extra fire added to it.  It doesn’t take long before the entire interaction is no longer about the original offense, and everyone is enraged.  The person who was angry in the first place has guaranteed that they will never get any sort of apology from the person who offended them in the first place.  In fact, they might feel justified because this person, instead of apologizing reacted in a way that a “bitch” or “asshole” would.  Now, two people are angry instead of one, no one has owned up to or apologized for the original offense, and no action has been taken to enact any sort of change.

If you feel the urge to call someone a name, whether directly or in a Facebook conversation about, say, a politician, take a moment to own and feel your anger.  Notice any desire you have to throw that anger at someone else, notice just how uncomfortable you are with the feeling of anger.  Get to know what it feels like in your body.  Instead of hurling the word “stupid,” “bitch” or “asshole,” acknowledge the fact that you are angry.  Allow yourself to be angry.  Tell yourself, “I feel angry.” And then, instead of hurling an insult at whoever has offended you, say to them, “I feel angry.”  Tell that person why you are angry.  It can sound like this: “When you cut me off just now, I felt angry,” or “I am angry at this politician that you like because I feel like he/she is not taking my values into consideration,” or “I am angry because you didn’t show up when you said you would.”  This might be awkward at first, but the odds of a reasonable conversation and even an apology are greatly increased when you resist name-calling.

If you are on the receiving end of name-calling, you do not have to take the bait and engage in the kind of fight that you’ve been invited to engage in.  Let’s say someone calls you a bitch or an asshole.  You can acknowledge that person’s anger and invite them to have a civil conversation.  It might sound like this: “I can see that you are feeling angry with me, and I can accept that, but I am not okay with you calling me names.  If you would like to continue to have this conversation, please do so without the name-calling, or I will have to end this.”  Be willing to walk away if the person cannot respect this request.

There is nothing wrong with anger, and there is nothing wrong with feeling anger.  Anger has a job: it moves you to action so that you can change a painful situation.  Throwing it at people by name-calling, whether anonymously in a passing car or comment thread, or in person, only increases the anger exponentially while keeping you stuck in the same situation.  When you resist the urge to name-call, you make space for anger to do its powerful job.


When Loss Hits Us Unprepared

Yesterday, I wrote about pruning the roses for spring, something I willingly do on my own terms.  Sometimes in spring, plants get pruned on the weather’s terms. Things get ripped brutally apart from the weight of a heavy snowstorm, and you are left with broken plants, trees, bushes. You were excited about the potential fruit on your tree, or the flowers that were swelling in their buds, and now you are saddened by their demise. The plants need to stop with the budding and focus their energy down into their roots, then use that energy to heal what is left of themselves. This takes time, and while the plants heal, they can’t produce the harvest they’d been working toward.

An unexpected, unasked-for spring pruning can be heartbreaking. We abruptly face the fact that we are not going to have what we’d been hoping for, what we’d had before. The apple we saw in the bud is gone, and it is not coming back. Like the tree, we need to stop the forward motion toward the potential of that particular season, and focus our energy on accepting what is right in front of us. We can pick up the broken pieces and put them in the compost, allowing them to rot in order to feed the next season’s budding tree. Some plants will never be quite same again, others will bounce back with an even better harvest, and others will take much longer to heal but over time will grow into abundant producers. It depends on the plant and the severity of the injury. If you adjust your expectations based on these factors, you will accept each plant for what it is and what it is capable of doing.

When you unexpectedly lose a relationship, a job, a loved one, you are suddenly forced to stop moving forward. You are no longer walking on the path you’d been hoping to stay on. It is heartbreaking, and it is shocking. Your focus changes from potential and future and you are here, right now, in the wreckage. It is important to understand that it takes time to heal, and that things will change from what you’d hoped for and expected. Allow yourself to focus inward, and don’t let anyone try to rush you through this process. You will not be the same person you were before, and you need to adjust your expectations based on the person you are right now.   It takes time to allow your broken parts to disintegrate into fertile material for the growth that will happen later, when it is time to move forward again.  Take that time now and take it for as long as you need.  Grief moves at its own pace, and the best you can do is allow yourself to be in it while it is with you.  It will eventually move over enough to make room for you to experience life, harvests, and love again, in whichever new forms they come.

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