Angry memories of past conflicts can have important consequences as new conflicts arise. When dealing with a new conflict, recalling a similar conflict that occurred in the past can help us to consider utilizing a strategy that we had tried that ended up producing a satisfactory resolution, or to consider avoiding a strategy that we had tried that ended up failing miserably.
Sometimes we find that an angry memory keeps recurring even when we are not immediately facing a situation that is similar to what led to the original anger-arousing event. This can potentially lead to something positive. Each time we think over the memory in light of what we have learned since the event first occurred, we might think of some better ways to deal with the conflict. Then, if a similar event does occur, we may find that we are better prepared than if we hadn’t repeatedly mulled it over.
Despite their helpfulness, there are times when again and again an angry memory keeps creeping ever so annoyingly into our consciousness so that finally we conclude it doesn’t seem to be doing us any good. For the hundredth time Ralph suddenly finds himself thinking, “Oh, if I only hadn’t struck that blow!”
For the nine-hundredth time Betty chastises herself, “Oh, if I only hadn’t cried out with the insulting word that I’ve been regretting ever since!”
Ralph and Betty have gone through the disturbing event way too often, sifting through all the minutest details, and now they wish they were just through with it!
In two earlier posts (see ANGER, RUMINATIONS AND MEDITATION and DEALING WITH EMOTIONAL PAIN), I discussed how learning to meditate, expressive journal writing and sensation-focus techniques can be very helpful for dealing with these types of situations. Today we will look at an additional strategy.
Changing Rigid Thought Patterns
We now turn our attention to replacing habitual, destructive ways of thinking with a more peaceful, constructive approach.
Different ways of framing a stressful experience can have remarkably different consequences.
In the above For Better or for Worse comic, Elly is nervous about her big exam. When John frames the test in one way, Elly begins to smile. When he frames “flunking out” as “no big deal,” Elly’s smile is gone and her eyes begin to bug out.
In the comic, it is John who is framing the stressful experience for Elly. But if we could go back before John begins to do this, and then be able to read Elly’s mind, we probably would see that she has already framed her experience using some habitual phrase that she tells herself in this type of situation. For example, she might have said, “If I fail this test, it will prove I’m the stupid jerk I always knew I was!” According to cognitive psychologists, such a statement is far from ideal.
Dr. Aaron Beck, in his fine book, Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence (1999), points out that mates in a distressed marriage are more prone to ascribe unpleasant behavior to the bad nature of the spouse, whereas non-distressed couples will ascribe the same incident to the nature of the situation. Thus, mates in the distressed marriages are more likely to think that the unpleasant behavior demonstrates that their mate is malicious, manipulative, and deceptive. Those in non-distressed marriages will be more likely to think that their spouse acted unpleasantly because she had a hard day at work, or something else happened that led to this behavior.
In Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?, a team of scientists has a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. At one point the Dalai Lama argues that the antidote for angry thoughts is to view the person with whom you are angry as your loving mother. “This is done to arouse a sense of affection and gratitude by focusing on the person who has shown you the greatest love and compassion.” If you do not see your mother as deeply loving you, when you carry out this technique you can replace the image of your mother with someone whom you do see as deeply loving you.
Another book that teaches the art of changing angry thoughts to more constructive ones is The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict (2006). There, the authors make the case that during anger-arousing situations people often begin to think of the person on the other side of the conflict as objects that are obstacles to what we desire. The authors call this pattern of thinking, “Heart at war.”
The authors invite people to try out instead a pattern of thinking they call “Heart of Peace.” This entails viewing the other as a person with hopes, needs, cares, and fears as real to you as your own. The authors conclude that “when our hearts are at war, we can’t see situations clearly, we can’t consider others’ positions seriously enough to solve difficult problems, and we end up provoking hurtful behavior in others.”
As an alternative, consider what happens in American courts of law after someone is found guilty of a crime. Before deciding on what should occur to the convicted person, the judge has the jury hear once again from the defendant’s lawyer. The lawyer now is to present the argument that there were extenuating circumstances that mitigate guilt. A talented lawyer might touch upon the fact that the defendant was an orphan and later became a father trying to support his family when he suddenly lost his job. With no means to feed his children, he succumbed to the temptations of crime. The lawyer might be very likely to point out that the convicted has many of the attributes of the mothers or fathers or other loved ones of jury members. “Before you is not an object, but a real live human being not unlike those close to you,” the lawyer might say. This part of the court proceedings is designed to support the principle of fairness. It is this principle of fairness that you are invited to try out as you deal with your recurring anger episodes.
And so, whenever you are angry at someone and you find you have been imprisoned by your hate, free yourself by taking the time to write out a defense for the person with whom you are angry. If you will, look to see if the situation that gave rise to the incompatible act might have been more of the cause of what occurred than you originally allowed. See what comes from considering the culprit as if she was your mother. How does thinking about the source of your anger in terms of someone who is a person with hopes, needs, cares, and fears help to reduce the intensity of the conflict? When carried out together with meditation, expressive journal writing and sensation-focus techniques, you are likely to find that this will lead to your recurring anger memories becoming distinctly less stressful.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.