The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, 13th century Persian scholar and theologian

Fake it ’til you make it – overcoming impostor syndrome

Not long ago, I began a mindfulness meditation group. Not necessarily because I felt I had anything to offer, but because experience leading meditation is a pre-requisite for a mindful self-compassion (MSC) workshop I’m hoping to attend next year, and also because meeting like-minded people in my city can be difficult.

As the group membership grew (numbers are currently at 144 and rising), so did my feelings of inadequacy. Previously, these had been limited to questioning the relevance of these written musings, given everything worth saying has already been said before – and by far more illustrious and capable people than I. But now, people were counting on me to impart something worthwhile in person. Quelle horreur!

I began preparing for the group’s first meeting. I looked back through my previous articles, dug out some old resources, listened to the meditations with a new interest and mocked up an agenda. I reminded myself that it was not my research; and all I had to do was relay it in a cohesive way. And, I reasoned, there would probably only be three or four people there. But, as the RSVPs for the meeting hit 20, that feeling of being woefully inadequate increased.

Like all good MSC practitioners, I explored this feeling further and discovered that I wasn’t afraid of facing the group, but rather being judged by people I knew. Would they think this undertaking made me self-important? Would they question exactly what qualified me to lead this group, the way I myself was? Essentially, would they call me out for what I felt I was – an impostor?

Fortunately, as it is with naming any fear, articulating these thoughts made them more manageable. Likewise, MSC practice gave me a chance to honour my feelings and to realise that many people face feelings of inadequacy when they embark on new challenges. And, something a friend told me many years ago re-entered my consciousness: fake it ‘til you make it. Yes, if I was an impostor, I was going to be a damned good one.

The meeting day arrived and, just as I was leaving, I discovered that my wallet was missing. Locating it set me back about 15 minutes and, in the end, I arrived late. But, as I was driving, it occurred to me that I could use my embarrassment to show how MSC can help soothe the frustrations of everyday life.

Apart from being understanding, the group was engaged and curious. Just like me, they were eager to meet new people and develop their mindfulness practice. Many of them – particularly those with no meditation experience – asked questions; all of which I answered with ease. And, just like that, I stopped being an impostor and started to feel confident in my own knowledge and abilities.

In the end, I didn’t need to fake it, because being late gave me the perfect opportunity to be authentic and relatable. But it was the act of stepping up that really helped me to shed my feelings of inadequacy. In other words, once I stopped worrying about being an impostor, I was free to be myself – and to engage all of the skills that came with that.

 

If you think you might be at the mercy of imposter syndrome, you can take a short quiz here.

 

Photo credit: Her Campus

Self-care is not cowardly

To quote an article I read recently:

“the point of self-care isn’t to ‘make yourself feel good’. It’s making intentional choices to improve your overall mental, emotional, and physical health.”

As the author points out, self-care might mean vanilla scented candles and a long bath, but self-care can also be raw and painful, like having difficult conversations or asking for help.

And sometimes, we don’t even know what we need or where to start.

This interactive flow-chart can help. It guides readers through a series of questions around physical health and surroundings, medication and moods to help identify the cause of distress and then suggest appropriate self-care strategies.

Additionally, I have compiled a list of some self-care activities below:

  • Eat mindfully
  • Breathing techniques such as alternating nostrils, to help balance and clear the mind
  • Walking mindfully so that you really take in your surroundings
  • Sing or listen to music
  • Write a pros/cons list
  • Get out of bed
  • Be vulnerable with people who won’t judge you
  • Find a local social group
  • Drink more water
  • Express anger or grief – you don’t always have to be happy
  • Hug someone – including pets
  • Exercise
  • Watch a humorous video
  • Begin a new hobby
  • Write a letter
  • Stretch
  • Learn to say ‘yes’
  • Have an night in by yourself
  • Think about therapy – or give it another go
  • Clean up or organise your surroundings
  • Take a lunch break during your work day
  • Make an appointment with your doctor
  • Engage in positive self-talk
  • Call a friend
  • Get some sunshine
  • Reduce the amount of hobbies you have
  • Take a shower
  • Apologise and make amends where necessary
  • Sleep
  • Give yourself permission to try – and to fail
  • Go out with friends
  • Mindful self-compassion meditations
  • Take prescribed medications or investigate this as an option
  • Ask someone for help – even for small things
  • Pampering activities such as massages and baths
  • Let go of relationships that no longer contribute to your well-being
  • Write down some goals
  • Dress up or dress down
  • Practise gratitude and empathy
  • Listen to your body
  • Learn to say ‘no’
  • Call a help line
  • Engage in difficult conversations – practise speaking to a pet or object first
  • Random acts of kindness
  • Remind yourself that worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites and you can be who you are in the world without shame

While this list is a good start, almost anything can be an activity in self-care, provided it is working to increase well-being. Some may be easier than others, but ultimately all are acts of bravery – because there’s nothing about self-care that is cowardly.

 

 

 

Photo credit: James Stencilowsky

Deconstructing deception – the time I was conned by love

As humans, we have an innate desire to find significance in our surroundings. Tales of creation, myths of gods and heroes, religious parables, books, theatre and music make life meaningful through storytelling. In doing so, they offer us something to believe in. And ultimately, belief begets hope.

There’s a reason why hope was the only thing left in Pandora’s Box. A life without even a little hope is not a life anyone would choose for themselves. Confidence tricksters understand this; and though they beguile with promises of wealth, beauty, popularity, health, love and power, hope is actually what they are peddling.

Hope, therefore, is the real currency of deception. Thinking back to a deception that was played on me recently, I believe this rings true.

In The Confidence Game, author Maria Konnikova deconstructs each element of the con – and there are several – in extraordinary detail. Whatever else may be said about them, confidence games take time, energy and elegance to pull off. Of course, this is what sets the con-artist apart from the everyday thug. To paraphrase Konnikova: con-artists don’t demand, threaten or intimidate their mark – that, after all, would be unartistic.

The put-up

The first element of the confidence game is the most crucial – selecting the mark. Konnikova notes that while personality, values and motivations are contributing factors, circumstance plays a starring role. Major upheavals tend to make people more vulnerable. And vulnerable people tend to want to be understood. The con-artist is only too willing to oblige, collecting information and building trust in one fell swoop.

It was mid-2014 and I was newly separated from my now ex-husband. I was planning a trip to the US and Canada from October to the following January and I couldn’t wait. I was excited to see new places, but more than that, I was excited to have an adventure that was all my own – something I hadn’t done since I was eighteen. I had a crazy idea that I might have a winter fling while I was there. And why not? I was going to be in a small town near Niagara Falls for three months and three months is a long time to be in one place and not know anyone. So I put some feelers out online to see what I might get. I soon struck up a conversation with Mike. He lived near Niagara, was single and made me laugh. He had this rugged, gregarious way about him. I reminded myself that I wasn’t ready for anything serious – this was just a holiday thing.  

The play

The second element follows on nicely from the first. The play is all about activating emotional responses, especially through familiarity and shared experiences. This is most easily done with a good story, something to engage the mark’s excitement or sympathy. Mutual acquaintances can also lend a real air of legitimacy. The idea here is to create a bond strong enough to dissuade the mark from questioning what comes next. As Konnikova says:

“When a fact is plausible we still need to test it. When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.”

What started as emailing soon became Skype chats. Mike told me all about his difficult past, including some health problems, and the strained relationships he had with his family. He started to use terms of endearment, which made me uncomfortable at first, but which grew on me over time. He gave me a nickname and talked about all the things we might do once I arrived; dinner at Skylon Tower, country drives to do photography, snowball fights…it wasn’t long before I was swept away by his enthusiasm, though I still considered it to be a short-term thing.  

The rope

Already engaged, the mark is now ready for the rope – the moment when they are pitched an idea or an ideal – something to hope for. The con-artist has several strategies to choose from here; they could simply offer more (wealth for example) or maybe the product they’re selling is valuable precisely because it’s so rare, a collector’s item. Either way, the con-artist has eloquently appealed to the mark’s vanity and has thus primed them for stage four.

Mike began talking longer-term. He sent me flowers at work for my birthday. He had so many plans for us which were the perfect antidote to packing up – literally – the life I had built with my ex-husband. I looked forward to my nightly conversations with him and any reluctance I had about being in a new relationship melted away.

The tale

The tale is an extension of the rope; where the con-artist explains the personal benefits of the idea to the mark. The trick here is to package what the mark wants most with some plausible detail. The con-artist may offer a barrage of names and events as part of the tale – “multiple moving pieces” as Konnikova puts it – designed to confuse and misdirect, however if the mark is sufficiently invested emotionally, red flags come and go with very little questioning.

In a confidence game, this is the point of no return. The con-artist counts on subjective attachment overshadowing objective knowledge and the tale delivers this. In fact, Konnikova argues that con-artists can easily be swept away by their own tales if they’re not careful.

Soon, Mike was making references to visiting me here once I’d returned from Canada, even moving in together. He would find work and then we could go on holidays together; Japan, South America. He was particularly fond of the Great Blue Hole in Belize. He wanted to skydive into it. I found his zest for life enchanting, if a little overwhelming. Mike wasn’t backward about declaring himself (especially on my Facebook page) which I felt a little self-conscious about, but I also felt encouraged by it too. It meant that it wasn’t in my head, that it was real. I went to Melbourne to visit friends and was handed a flier about working in Canada. I kept it, just in case.

Mike had previously described where he lived, but when asked for an actual address he hesitated. I didn’t press the issue, and eventually he told me. One evening, Mike told me that he had been having headaches, but he was getting some tests done. He reassured me there was nothing to worry about and told me he would keep me updated. He was also having troubles with friends and family again – they didn’t understand him, they treated him badly, his best friend had gone AWOL.

It was only few weeks to go before I left for North America and there were no test results to speak of. Mike followed up with the doctor, but got no definitive response. He decided that no news was good news. I wasn’t so sure, but couldn’t do anything from the other side of the world, so I let it go.

The convincer

Simply put, this is the part where everything that was promised begins to fall into place. If there was any doubt in the mark’s mind, it has now been assuaged by the good turn of events. Indeed, the mark begins to wonder if they could have doubted the plan at all.

I arrived in New York. Mike joked about coming to the airport. I was torn between meeting him and knowing I needed some time to myself, but in the end I decided to stick with my original plan – a photography workshop in Maine, ten days on Prince Edward Island and then the long drive to Niagara, via two days in Montreal. Mike and I still spoke every day and while my new start hadn’t quite materialised, it was just within my grasp. Somehow being in the same time-zone made everything seem real to me.

The breakdown

Newton’s third law of motion – to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – sums this stage up perfectly. The convincer has whetted the mark’s appetite and delivered success, but the breakdown reveals unmistakeable cracks in the plan. After all, a scheme where the mark constantly wins is not what the con-artist is all about. And yet, the plan can’t fall apart completely – not just yet. According to Konnikova, the point of the breakdown is to get the mark to commit themselves even further.

Objectively, this sounds ludicrous. But the whole point is that the mark is anything but objective. In their minds, they have invested so much and they’ve already seen a return. Any losses are put down to anomaly. Evidence which doesn’t confirm their expectations is discarded (known as confirmation bias). And of course, the con-artist continues playing the role of master puppeteer, steering the mark’s attention away from loss and discrepancy and toward potential gain.

I had just arrived in Montreal and Mike was ready to jump on a plane to meet me. But just before he was due to leave, he got a phone call from his doctor to say he had a brain tumour and it was bad. He said the delayed diagnosis was due to a mix-up. I skipped my time in Montreal and drove the eight hours to Niagara to be with him. I wanted to surprise him, to be there for him. I went to the address he gave. It didn’t exist.

I called him. He came to meet me and we argued. Trying to prove himself, he showed me his driver’s licence. It had his real address but it also had a different surname to what I’d been told. I was devastated, but resolute. I couldn’t trust him if I didn’t know who he was. I checked into a hotel for the night and moved into my cottage the next day.

A few days later, Mike asked if he could deliver the flowers he had previously arranged for me. They were my favourite freesias which he had pre-ordered especially for me. I relented.

The send

This stage refers to the mark’s renewed commitment to the plan. This usually means investing more resources, fuelled by hope that has been re-ignited. Konnikova notes that, like a commuter who is reluctant to call a cab despite waiting a lengthy period for a bus that still might come, the mark underestimates the risk and overestimates the return. Here, the mark is banking on an eventual reward after all their investment; they don’t want to stop believing that something good is on the horizon.

Over the next few weeks Mike and I spent some time together. He was unreliable, but he gave me just enough of his attention to renew my investment in him. Halloween came around and we did a ghost tour at the local fort. He was supposed to stay overnight, but his headaches came on and, despite feeling dizzy, he insisted on driving home. I still had no clear idea what situation his health was in as he kept me at arms’ length for most of the time.

Eventually I ended it. None of this went according to my original plan of a winter fling nor to the subsequent plan of being together as a couple. During this conversation, there were tears (not mine) and Mike’s headaches and dizzy spells returned. I offered to help, but he would have none of it. Instead, he literally stumbled out of my cottage towards his car. Christmas came and I flew to the US to spend it with family. When I returned, Mike was dying.

I was completely at a loss at how to handle this news. I was due to be going home at the end of January. He wouldn’t let me see him, but wouldn’t quite leave me be either. He wanted to talk, which I found awkward and exhausting. He told me he had instructed his lawyer to contact me after he had gone. A few weeks later, just as I was about to board the plane, he sent me a message saying he was going to end his illness on his own terms. I left for home feeling angry and sad and utterly helpless, though I resolved to concentrate on what lay ahead of me.

The touch

Finally, here is what the con-artist has been working so hard for. The plan implodes, the curtain is pulled back, the mark is played for a fool and the con-artist reaps their reward.

After I settled back home, I contacted Mike’s mother. I needed closure but had received no word from any lawyer. Also, there was a missed Skype call from Mike’s account that I couldn’t explain; I thought maybe his family had tried to contact me with the news instead. When I spoke with her, she assured me he was doing well and asked if I knew he was married. Feeling very small and very foolish, I answered no and then hung up.

The blow-off

This stage is exactly what you might think; in order for the con-artist to move onto their next target, they must extricate themselves from the mark as quickly and painlessly as possible. In addition to losing out on what the con-artist promised, the mark is also nursing a bruised ego. Konnikova observes that this pride is what usually ends the game here, rendering the next stage unnecessary in most cases. Not wanting to be outed to others as a fool, the mark goes quietly.

For Mike, faking his own illness and death was the blow-off. But really, the way it unfolded was so fluid that it is hard to separate the send, the touch and the blow-off. All I know is that I was left to make sense of the whole sorry mess.

The fix                                                               

If the mark isn’t sufficiently weighed down by their own sense of shame, they might just threaten to talk. And this is where the con-artist must actively persuade them to keep quiet. Konnikova observes this happens only rarely, thereby allowing con-artists to repeat their tricks indefinitely.

On Christmas Eve 2015, I received an anonymous and untraceable email wishing me a merry Christmas. The same on New Year’s Eve. There is no doubt in my mind that Mike sent them, perhaps as a way to say goodbye. After the second one, I took great pleasure in threatening to out him to his entire family if he contacted me again, even anonymously. While I know Mike is free to play this game again with someone else, this small act helped me regain some sense of control over the situation. And I have chosen to build on this by writing this account. To my mind, this is the biggest act of empowerment I can take in the circumstances.

Konnikova makes a point of stating that the con-artist won’t always gain financially from their schemes. Sometimes, it is about gaining an edge over others instead. Eliciting sympathy or attention. Being cleverer than others, especially those deemed to be intelligent or in positions of authority. Sometimes the con-artist just wants to be the storyteller, the one who makes meaning and magic. The person behind the curtain. I won’t ever really know what motivated Mike to spin such an all-encompassing lie, but I suspect he wanted the challenge, the excitement and the opportunity to be seen in a particular way by someone completely unconnected to his regular life.

I can’t deny that this experience messed me around in significant ways. I feel irrevocably changed by it, especially as it happened on the back of other difficult experiences. But it has also afforded me the chance to look at myself and decide that I was worth more than what I was getting from others. I looked – really looked – at the people in my life and assessed if they were contributing something worthwhile or something less than that. Anyone who has deconstructed their life just to be able to put it together in a more meaningful way, knows how difficult a process it is.

But, just as promised, it does come with a smidgen of hope too.

Photo credit: Little Henry in France

Over-functioning and under-functioning

While most people understand that balance is key to a fulfilling relationship – romantic or otherwise – it seems that many of us can’t escape the trap of either over-functioning or under-functioning. Perhaps this is because this dynamic is often formed through good intentions and presents itself in small, harmless ways. For example, if the other party becomes anxious when having to make decisions, we might find ourselves taking the pressure off them by shouldering this responsibility. This imbalance, thoughtful as it was originally, can soon become a dysfunction – and it’s one that both parties have (probably unofficially) agreed to.

It wasn’t until I read The Dance of Anger by Dr Harriet Lerner (which I’ve discussed previously here), that I realised I was a chronic over-functioner. In past romantic relationships I have assumed the responsibility for conflict resolution, initiating and organising quality time and social interactions, planning future goals, managing the home and – worst of all – having emotional reactions on behalf of my partner in order to spare them the discomfort of having to feel things for themselves. These were responsibilities I willingly took on, and my partners willingly let me take on. In short, while we were both mature, capable individuals, we had fostered a dysfunctional dynamic in a pretty big way.

Sometimes this only becomes apparent when one party starts to feel trapped; the over-functioner might feel burdened and the under-functioner irrelevant or inferior. But while we might be able to acknowledge a certain dysfunction, actually making change can be hard. As unhealthy as the dynamic has become, it does serve a purpose by helping us to navigate the rhythm of the relationship and our role in it. Essentially, it facilitates an avenue of control for over-functioners and it lets under-functioners off the hook. As Lerner states:

“like a seesaw, it is the under-functioning of one individual that allows for the over-functioning of the other…. Under-functioners and over-functioners provoke and reinforce each other’s behaviour, so that the seesaw becomes increasingly hard to balance over time.”

So, it would seem that both parties have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, even though they may rail against it at times.

Lerner suggests that carefully observing interactions is the key to identifying and breaking established patterns. This is best done when calm and relatively objective, so that facts are not distorted by emotion. Below are some typical traits of both under-functioners and over-functions which may help identify who’s who:

Under-functioners:

  • tend to have several areas where they just can’t get organised;
  • become less competent under stress thus inviting others to take over;
  • tend to develop physical or emotional symptoms when stress is high;
  • may become the focus of family gossip, worry or concern;
  • earn such labels as ‘fragile’ or ‘irresponsible’; and
  • have difficulty showing their strong, competent side to others.

In contrast, over-functioners:

  • know what’s best not only for themselves, but for others;
  • move in quickly to advise, rescue and take over when stress hits;
  • have difficulty staying out and allowing others to struggle with their own problems;
  • avoid worrying about their own personal goals and problems by focussing on others;
  • have difficulty sharing their own vulnerable side, especially with those people who they view as having problems; and
  • may be labelled as ‘reliable’.

Once this has been established, individuals can work on re-gaining some balance by:

  • clarifying their respective positions;
  • using this position to inform specific requests;
  • participating in reasonable discussion;
  • using ‘I’ statements (‘I feel…’ as opposed to ‘You are…’);
  • avoiding using third-parties to affect change;
  • taking responsibility for feelings and for finding alternative behaviours;
  • making small changes and being patient; and
  • re-stating respective positions when necessary.

Note that all of these suggested actions can be applied to familial, platonic and working relationships as well as romantic ones. For my part, I have started asking myself if the issue at hand is really mine to deal with, or does it fall within someone else’s responsibility. If the latter, I am now generally able to leave it to them to deal with. I still give a good deal, but I am much more aware of my limits and I think my relationships are far more balanced as a result.

A note of caution though; when we try and shift relational dynamics without the other party’s cooperation, we should be prepared for resistance. As noted above, even dysfunctional patterns serve a purpose and, generally, people need to see the benefit of change in order to embrace it. Still, this doesn’t prevent us from attempting change ourselves, when we recognise the need. After all, as a wise man* once said:

if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

*amazingly enough, this quote has been attributed to Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Mark Twain.

Photo credit: cliparts

A handy guide to navigating emotions

For many people the world of emotions is a terrifying place. The combination of unpredictability and intensity can make even the most emotionally-literate person feel helpless. If feeling your own and witnessing others’ emotions leaves you confused, then help is at hand.

In a similar way to primary colours, primary (or basic) emotions form the foundation for all other emotional states. The number of primary emotions varies from five to ten; however theorists do agree that anger, fear, happiness, sadness and disgust all make the list. Having these as primary emotions makes a certain kind of sense – along with surprise, the facial expressions associated with anger, fear, happiness, sadness and disgust can be recognised cross-culturally in ways that more complex emotions can’t.

In 2015, Disney thrust emotions into the spotlight with Inside Out, an animated film which personifies the five primary emotions and profiles their effect on behaviour, decision-making and mood. In amongst the story, the film identifies the each emotion’s unique purpose:

  • Anger helps to reinforce our values by identifying problems like injustice or interference with self-determination;
  • Fear tells us how safe/unsafe we feel, as well as identifying potential dangers;
  • Joy (which makes for a better character name than Happiness) provides an opportunity to experience the world with wonder;
  • Sadness helps us to process loss; and
  • Disgust helps us to develop our individuality.

Now, we don’t have five separate characters fighting for control over our consciousness, however Disney’s interpretation wasn’t too far off the mark; humans do experience emotions on many levels – including cognitions and mood – and it is possible to experience more than one emotion at a time.

However, while personifying each emotion makes for an entertaining film, it doesn’t really help us to define what an emotion is in real terms. Perhaps deconstructing the three main components of emotion is a good place to start:

  1. Physiological – changes in the autonomic nervous system activities such as respiration and heart-rate;
  2. Expressive – facial features, exclamations, crying and laughing; and
  3. Experiential – how we subjectively experience being activated by each emotion.

From this, we can see that an emotion is best characterised as a state of being which manifests itself through subjective experiences, physiological changes and expressive behaviours.

To my mind however, this definition doesn’t quite do justice to the various layers associated with each emotion. Fortunately, American psychologist Dr Paul Ekman has developed an interactive atlas of emotions – after all, every navigator requires a map of some kind.

The atlas first imagines each of the five primary emotions as a continent. Each continent consists of several different states. For example, anger can present itself as mild annoyance, intense fury or something in-between. Next, the atlas looks at specific triggers and actions that bookend an emotional response. And finally, the atlas identifies a related mood – described as a “longer-lasting cousin of the emotion that causes the related emotion to be felt more frequently and intensely”.

Finally, when it comes to navigating emotions, we can’t go past the humble emoji. These little guys make it easier to identify how we are feeling at any given time, and consequently help us to develop our emotional literacy.

emojis

While the experience of feeling and expressing an emotion might seem irrational, it’s important to understand the very rational messages that sit behind our emotions. And the better we are at understanding this, the more compassionate we are when others are activated by their own emotional responses.

Sources:

  • Compton, W.C. and Hoffman, E. (2012). Positive Psychology: The science of happiness and flourishing. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishers,.
  • Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2012). Psychology: Australian and New Zealand edition (3rd ed.). Milton, Queensland: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. VitalBook file.
  • http://www.paulekman.com/
  • Facebook emojis

 

Photo credit: Inside Out, 2015

 

 

Anger: road-sign or road-block?

I’ve already written about emotions in general; however, I thought it would be useful to discuss anger in more detail. While positive emotions make us feel good (known as positive affect) and help us move towards pleasurable things, difficult emotions generally make us feel bad (negative affect) and usually lead to avoidance or withdrawal.

Anger is the only emotion, however, to satisfy both positive and negative affect – it can make us feel good (self-righteousness or self-pity) but also make us miserable and isolated. Understanding this may explain why some people seem unwilling to let go of their anger or are quick to react in the extreme. But while perpetual anger can become comfortable, it is also destructive.

Fortunately, anger can be used constructively, provided we understand its purpose.

A few years ago I read The Dance of Anger by Dr Harriet Lerner. I’ve never considered myself an angry person, but it still opened my eyes to the ways I was misusing this particular emotion.

While anger is indeed something we feel, Lerner describes it as more of a signal than an emotion. In doing so, she encourages us to explore exactly why we are angry; to go deeper than just the surface-level reaction. Perhaps there was disrespect or invalidation. Maybe something was said to expose our insecurities or to prod uncomfortably at old wounds. Or perhaps it was a combination of confusion and fear at our lack of control over a situation, or our lives more generally. Either way, anger can help us identify when our expectations, boundaries or values do not align with our reality.

Once we’ve used anger as a road-sign to identify what the root problem is, it’s less likely we’ll use it as a road-block. Road-blocks can take the form of projecting anger onto others and lashing out, revenge and punishment, withholding or silent-treatments or harbouring resentment – in fact, anything that stops us from taking responsibility for our feelings or improving the situation.

Unsurprisingly, these behaviours are so common because they’re often automatic. Difficult emotions trigger specific biological responses (fight or flight) which are integral to our safety and survival, whereas positive emotions are comparatively more diffused and don’t elicit specific biological reactions. Nevertheless, when it comes to using anger constructively or destructively, individuals still exercise personal choice.

We can choose if we will reflect and how we will react.

This concept is known as emotional intelligence. While this term has been defined by a number of theorists, it generally refers to an ability to recognise and understand emotions in oneself and others and to use this understanding to problem-solve and regulate future emotional responses. With respect to anger, emotional intelligence involves a balance of exploring and expressing anger responsibly (that is, without avoiding it or, at the other extreme, over-identifying with it) and using this knowledge to prevent history repeating itself.

This can be a lot to ask of ourselves when our pride is hurt, however it is worth keeping in mind that it’s easy to give into the base-instincts that demand we shut down or lash out. We have only to look at the comments section online, where punishment is put forth as a solution for just about everything, without thought to alternatives or consequence. It’s much harder to engage in emotionally intelligent behaviour; to be vulnerable without manipulating and honest without blaming. But, in the end, choosing to pay attention to those road-signs can make all the difference to our well-being and the success of our relationships.

 

 

Photo credit: goodenoughmother