Think of times you've been truly wronged, in small ways or big ones. Maybe someone stole something, turned others against you, broke an agreement, cheated on you or spoke unfairly or abusively.
When things like these happen, I feel mad, hurt, startled, wounded, sad. Naturally it arises to want to strike back and punish, get others to agree with me, and make a case against the other person in my own mind.
These feelings and impulses are normal. But what happens if you get caught up in reactions and go overboard? (Which is different from keeping your cool, seeing the big picture and acting wisely -- which we'll explore below.) There's usually a release and satisfaction, and thinking you're justified. It feels good.
For a little while.
But bad things usually follow. The other person overreacts, too, in a vicious cycle. Other people -- relatives, friends, co-workers -- get involved and muddy the water. You don't look very good when you act out of upset, and others remember. It gets harder to work through the situation in a reasonable way. After the dust settles, you feel bad inside.
As the Buddha said long ago, "Getting angry with another person is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned." You can see much the same thing internationally. Gandhi put it so well: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
Sure, you need to clarify your position, stand up for yourself, set boundaries, speak truth to power. The art -- and I'm still working on it, myself! -- is to do these things without the fiery excesses that have bad consequences for you, others, and our fragile planet.
Start by getting centered, which often takes just a dozen seconds or so:
- Pause -- You rarely get in trouble for what you don't say or do. Give yourself the gift of time, even just a few seconds.
- Have compassion for yourself -- This a moment of feeling "Ouch, that hurts, I wish this hadn't happened." A neurologically savvy trick for activating self-compassion is to first recall the feeling of being with someone who cares about you.
- Get on your own side -- This means being for yourself, not against others. It can help to remember a time when you felt strong, like doing something that was physically challenging, or sticking up for someone you loved.
- Make a plan -- Start figuring out what you're going to do, or at least where you'll start.
And now that you're on firmer ground, here are some practical suggestions; use the ones you like:
- Clarify the facts -- What actually happened?
- Rate the bad event accurately -- On a 0-10 awfulness scale (a dirty look is a 1 and nuclear war is a 10), how bad was it, really? If the event is a 3 on the awfulness scale, why have emotional reactions that are a 5 (or 9!) on the 0-10 upset scale?
- See the big picture -- Recognize the OK aspects of the situation mixed up with the bad ones. Put the situation in the larger context of unrelated good things happening for you, and your lifetime altogether. See the biggest picture of all: how your experiences are continually changing and it's not worth getting all caught up in them.
- Reflect about the other person -- Consider the "10,000 causes" upstream that led him or her to do whatever happened. Be careful about assuming it was intentional; much of the time you're just a bit player in other people's drama. Try to have compassion for them, which will make you feel better. If applicable, take responsibility for your own part in the matter (but don't blame yourself unfairly). You can have compassion and forgiveness for others while still considering their actions to be morally wrong.
- Do what you can, concretely -- As possible, protect yourself from people who wrong you; shrink the relationship to the size that is safe. Get support; it's important for others to "bear witness" when you've been mistreated. Build up your resources. Get good advice -- from a friend, therapist, lawyer or even the police. As appropriate, pursue justice.
- Act with unilateral virtue -- Live by your code even if others do not. This will make you feel good, lead others to respect you, and create the best chance that the person who wronged you will treat you better in the future.
- Say what needs to be said -- There is a good formula from the field of "nonviolent communication": "When X happens (stated objectively; not "When you are a jerk."), I feel Y (emotions; not "I feel you are an idiot."), because I need Z (Deep needs like, "to be safe, respected, emotionally close to others, autonomous and not bossed around.").
Then, if it would be useful, you can make a request for the future. Some examples: "If I bother you, could you talk with me directly?" "Could you not swear at me?" "Could you treat your agreements with me and your children as seriously as you do those at work?"
- Move on -- For your own sake, start releasing your angry or hurt thoughts and feelings. Stop your mind from obsessing about the past, and focus on the present and future. Turn toward what is going well, what you're grateful for. Do things that feel pleasurable.
In the garden of your life, you have to pull some weeds, sure, but mainly focus on planting flowers.
- Be at peace -- All you can really do is what you can do. Others are going to do whatever they do, and realistically, sometimes it won't be that great. Many people disappoint: They've got a million things swirling around in their head, life's been tough, there were issues in their childhood, their ethics are fuzzy, their thinking is clouded, etc. It's the real world, and cannot be perfected.
You have to find peace in your heart, not out there in the world. A peace that comes from seeing clearly, from building up and focusing on good things in your own garden, and from letting go.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of the bestselling "Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom" (in 21 languages) and "Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time." Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he's taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, and "U.S. News and World Report" and he has several audio programs. His blog, "Just One Thing," has nearly 30,000 subscribers and suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to "Just One Thing" here.