Compassion is Seeing Past Someone’s Anger or Frustration to Their Fears
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By: Ethan Schutz

I was surprised when she raised her voice and spat, “I know that!” I thought I was being helpful by telling her how the system worked. My first impulse was to explain and make my point that I didn’t know if she knew or not. After all, how would I know?

But before I opened my mouth, it dawned on me that she probably wouldn’t respond to that very well. Most likely, she would just respond even more defensively than the first time.

Getting heated can come about relatively easily, even more easily these days during the pandemic as we all cope with a situation full of ambiguity. It’s equally easy to respond in kind to somebody who gets heated.

If we don’t stop and think, and instead let our emotions take over, this becomes a recipe for upset. Looking deeper, these situations aren’t exactly what they seem to be on the surface. When people get heated and lash out, it sounds as though they are angry or frustrated. While that may be true, there is more going on. The common wisdom says that we get angry with one another. However, at a deeper level other people don’t anger us. Rather, what they do touches our own fears about ourselves.

When my colleague snapped, “I know that,” my reaction was to be angry that she misunderstood my intention. I was only trying to help, and she was short with me. That felt undeserved and so I was angry. But as I thought about it more, I realized that my deeper reaction was one of fear. Beneath my anger was a feeling I really didn’t like. Maybe she doesn’t like me. It’s a visceral feeling even as I write it. Maybe she doesn’t like me. Maybe I’m not likable. Maybe that’s why she treated me that way.

When we have these feelings, that’s when we get hot and lash out.

And then it occurred to me: she may have similar fears. Maybe that’s what’s getting her upset and why she’s lashing out at me. It sounds counterintuitive but may very well be true.

As I realized that, my feeling shifted from anger to compassion. If she’s feeling fear the way I feel it, I feel bad for her. It certainly wasn’t my intention to provoke that feeling when I was trying to help her. And as I considered this, I realized the true meaning of compassion.

Compassion is seeing past someone’s anger or frustration to their fears. When I slow myself down, and stop myself from reacting in the moment, I can remember that people lash out when they are afraid. Even when they seem simply angry and justified, they may express their anger because they feel afraid. And, they probably don’t even know it themselves. Noticing that can make all the difference. When I notice that, I don’t have to take what they say personally. I don’t have to react in kind. I can feel for them and look for ways that I can calm the situation by addressing their fears, rather than defending myself.

That can all sound counterintuitive. It can sound like I’m leaving myself open for attack. But really, it all serves to de-escalate difficult situations, address the real issues, and take myself out of the fray.

All it takes is a little compassion.

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