Zen Habits : Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
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Here’s what I’ve been learning about anger in the last few years: it’s purely because of selfishness.
Almost every time we get angry, it’s because something isn’t going our way.
I’ve been practicing a method for beating this selfish anger, and I call it Expanding the Envelope of Compassion. That’s a pretty amazing title, I’m sure you would agree.
Before we talk about the method, let’s look at why anger is so selfish. Here’s what happens:
- We want something a certain way.
- Other people (or occasionally, the Universe!) don’t give us that something in that certain way.
- We get mad.
This is like a little kid who doesn’t get his way. Exactly like that little kid, except we’re grown-ups and are supposed to know better. I’m no different — I get angry just like everyone else. We act like little kids because the part of our brain that’s getting mad is really no different than a scared, selfish child.
Let’s say we’re working and someone interrupts us: bam, so pissed off! Life is suddenly a boiling rage. OK, maybe we’re just annoyed. Why are we so annoyed/Hulk-enraged? Simply because we wanted to continue to work uninterrupted, but some buttwad has ruined that perfect fantasy.
Or let’s say you want something from your spouse (love, attention, sex, support) and they don’t give it to you. Grrrr! How could they! We want something and we expect them to give it to us, and we think, “Why don’t they? It would be so easy!” No different from a kid who wants that Rocky Road ice cream and throws himself on the floor kicking and screaming when he doesn’t get it.
Here’s the thing, though: the other person doesn’t have the same fantasy as us. The person who interrupts us isn’t as concerned about us working without interruption. While that fantasy is our universe, it’s not theirs. Their universe is about getting something else done, and they need to interrupt us to get that done (or maybe they want to tell us a joke, which is probably very clever I’m sure).
Our spouse’s universe isn’t to give us sex or support. Maybe that’s part of the universe, but the spouse has other things going on, other needs.
Our universe isn’t everyone else’s universe.
Expanding the Envelope
OK, we get it. Anger is selfishness, wanting something and then throwing a tantrum when we don’t get it, and our universe isn’t everyone else’s universe. Now what?
A method that works for me is what I think of as Expanding the Envelope. Widen the envelope of your perspective, from what you think is important to what the other person sees as important.
If you want something, that’s one small bit of awareness … but widen that awareness to include what the other person (or people) want, what they’re going through, what their problems are.
Even if the other person is being a complete jerk, if you can see it from their perspective, you might realize they’re having a hard day, or maybe even a hard life. That doesn’t excuse whatever they’re doing, but you can have some more empathy and compassion for them. If you can have an envelope of compassion for yourself and others, it helps with anger, frustration, and disappointment.
What helps to do this is to become the watcher of your anger, rather than the participant. When we get an angry impulse, we tend to act on it — lash out, show irritation, give a frustrated response like “Seriously?!”
Note: If you use a phrase like, “Seriously?!” or “WTF?!” or “Really?!” then that’s a sign you need to change your outlook. It’s a sign that you think people should behave the way you want them to behave, and when they don’t, you’re frustrated/irritated/angry.
Instead of acting on that impulse, just watch it. Become the observer. When you do that, you put some space between yourself and your angry impulses, and in that little space, you have room to decide. How will you respond? What’s going on here? Why are you so angry about something so unimportant? What fantasy/ideal are you holding onto that you didn’t get, and that’s making you angry?
And as you consider your response, you can then Expand the Envelope. Take some deep breaths, calm down, consider your actions. Consider the other person’s point of view, why they might be behaving this way. Don’t think, “They shouldn’t act that way” but instead think “Why would someone act that way?”
Now, Expanding the Envelope a hard thing to do on a regular basis. As you widen your envelope of awareness, do it like reducing the sugar in your coffee. Gradually.