As quoted by Dr. Russell Kolts during his TED talk on “Anger, Compassion, and What It Means to be Strong” in 2015, “Anger tries to convince us that we have to act right now, but we don’t have to believe it. We can take a moment, work to balance our emotions first and then work with the situation.”
While anger can feel like a powerful, dynamic, all-encompassing, uncontrollable force in our bodies, many of us use the behavior of anger (such as yelling, screaming, hitting, punching) as a mechanism to deal with things that make us uncomfortable. Compassion is the antidote to anger. Through self-compassion, we can learn to be strong and courageously face the things that scare us the most about ourselves, about other people, and about the world.
Below are three, easy-to-apply steps to practice self-compassion in a moment of anger that, with practice, can help prevent us from saying and doing things that we will likely later on regret, and instead, act in ways more in line with our values and the person that we want to be.
Use the Distress Tolerance skill of STOP, adapted from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (Marsha Linehan, 1993).
S – Stop! When the intense feeling of anger arises and you notice that this emotion is becoming ever more difficult to tolerate, just STOP! Do not react. Stop in your tracks. Do not do anything with your body or say anything with your mouth.
T – Take a step back. Remove yourself from the situation you are in. Walk away from the person, the event or the situation that you have found yourself in. Not forever, but just enough for you to take five deep and long belly breaths.
O – Observe. Observe, notice, pay attention and grow curious as to what is going on around you both on the outside (notice with your five senses all the things that you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste) as well as on the inside (notice what thoughts are showing up in this moment of anger and what is showing up in your physical body? Perhaps you might notice shallow breathing, a tight chest, knots in your stomach, hands and jaw clenched).
P – Proceed Mindfully. After you have stopped, taken a step back and observed both inside and outside of your body, then you can proceed mindfully. Act with awareness. Consider asking yourself “even in this moment of anger, which action can I take that will help me move in the direction of my values”?
Try this basic grounding exercise of 5-4-3-2-1 to get you right back into the here-and-now experience through focusing in on your five senses, as anger can have this very strong way of hijacking our mind and body, often pulling us out of the present moment. This grounding technique allows us to take our focus off of the intense emotion of anger and allows us to hone in and focus in our surrounding environment instead. In essence, it allows us to “get out of our minds and into our life” (Steve Hayes, 2005).
5 – Name five things you can see in the room with you. Maybe it is your desk chair, your clock, your TV or a spot on the ceiling. No matter how big or small, simply name five things that you can see. There is no right or wrong ways to notice what you see.
4 – Name four things you can feel against your body or touch around you. Maybe it is the feeling of your hands against your desk chair. Maybe it’s the feeling of your sweater against your shoulder blades.
3 – Name three things you can hear right now. Make sure you focus on something external that you can hear such as the sound of raindrops, an airplane flying above or the sound of birds chirping.
2 – Name two things you can smell right now. Perhaps you can smell the faint smell of your perfume or cologne; perhaps you can smell the soap you use in the shower, a candle burning or perhaps even the smell of nature.
1 – Name one thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like? Perhaps it tastes like the coffee or tea that you just took a sip of, gum or the sandwich from lunch. Focus on your mouth as the last step and take in what you can taste.
Step 3: Practicing Self-Compassion
Within your own heart is a limitless source of the healing energy of love – if we can allow ourselves to open up to it. The Loving-Kindness Meditation teaches a traditional practice for cultivating love and compassion within and for ourselves.
Practice using the Loving-Kindness Meditation (Sharon Salzberg, 2014) by first choosing a spot to sit in that is both comfortable yet dignified, either in a chair or on the ground. Allow yourself to gently close your eyes or focus your gaze gently on an object in front of you. Place your palms either face up or face down on your lap and gently roll your shoulders back so that your back is straight up, resting gently against the ground or cushion beneath you. Hold your head upright, as if there is an invisible string gently pulling at the top of your head. Then, when you’re ready, allow yourself to start breathing deeply, from your belly, in through your nose and out through your mouth. After five rounds of deep belly breaths, you can begin to introduce brief mantras into your practice, as you place both of your hands over your heart. You can say these mantras silently to yourself or out loud, whichever you prefer. You may use the mantras listed below or customize them in such a way that makes the most sense to you.
- “May I be safe.”
- “May I be happy.”
- “May I be healthy.”
- “May I live with ease.”