We know that we can respond to conflict situations more constructively when we are not in the heat of the emotion or becoming emotionally dysregulated. Who among us is at our best when we are are lost in reactive anger, fear, or shame referred to as "the red zone?" These moments can be challenging even if we have gained a solid set of relationship skills. In the May 2018 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine, the American Buddhist nun and teacher, Pema Chodron, offers practical methods for staying regulated or "holding your seat" when these interpersonal challenges arise. In our DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills group, we used her suggestions as the basis for a mindfulness exercise on responding to conflict. One of the goals for the Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills is to handle conflict situations more effectively. You might think of the exercise that follows as an application of the skill, Cope Ahead (see Emotion Regulation Handout 19).
We began with bringing our attention to our sensations of sitting in the chair, noticing the light from the late-afternoon sun and breathing. Then, we brought to mind a recent interpersonal situation or person that we found to be difficult. We affirmed our intention to use skills to be more effective in the face of provocation, as Pema Chodron writes “holding your seat...without giving in to reactivity or unskillful anger.” Or as we say in DBT, we are going to practice ways to “surf the urge.”
The first method is to not set up the target for the arrow..."that is to say that each time you retaliate with words and actions that hurt, you are strengthening the habit of anger. Then, without doubt, plenty of arrows will always be coming your way.” Pema Chodron offers us a choice. “Each time you sit still with the restlessness and heat of anger--neither acting it out nor repressing it--you are tamed and strengthened.” We can mindfully observe the emotion, we can name it, and we can use skills to change, accept, or solve the situation. The other choice is to act on the urge of anger or suppress it, however then we (unintentionally) become a walking target and reinforce the problem behavior. She further suggests that we can ever so gradually shape our behavior to be more effective and fitting our values. “Understand that if you hold your seat even for 1.5 seconds longer than ever before, you are starting to dissolve a pattern of reactivity that, if you let it, will continue to hurt you and others forever.”
The second method is to connect with your heart. Pema Chodron describes, “In times of anger, you can contact the kindness and compassion that you already have. When someone harms you, you can understand that they are sowing the seeds of their own misery...The life of one who is always angry is painful, and generally very lonely.” So, again we sit with our restless discomfort and anger without acting on it. Neither are we pushing it away. We connect with our heart and hold the anger. The compassion of our "wise mind" is bigger than the anger. We gently, firmly hold the anger and open to becoming stronger, kinder.
The third method is to see obstacles as teachers. I picture Pema Chodron wryly smiling with this instruction. “If there is no teacher around to give you direct personal guidance on how to stop causing harm, never fear! Life itself will provide the opportunities for learning how to hold your seat. The troublemaker, for instance, who so disturbs you—without this person how could you ever get the chance to practice patience? How could you ever get the chance to know the energy of anger so intimately that it loses its power?” When you are about to go off and unceremoniously crash into the red zone, consider that, in this very moment, you are being taught how to sit with this intensely uncomfortable, restless energy. What if, as Pema says, you are “being challenged by the teacher to hold your seat and open to the situation with as much courage and as much kindness as you possibly can?”
Group members voluntarily shared the method they would practice during the week. They agreed to make this an experiment we would review in the next class. Several people were particularly drawn to the possibility that they try might view their difficult person as an opportunity to practice their DBT skills. One commented on how this was a great way to practice radical acceptance. Another saw how viewing this (difficult) person as a teacher involved the skillful use of "opposite action." Others saw value in being reminded to refrain from acting on old urges that inevitably lead to more conflict, or more arrows drawn to the magnetizing target of their anger. Connecting with our heart was seen as a high bar for one to actually meet anger with kindness, yet several members felt encouraged to become more skillful in accessing their compassion. These three methods underscore the importance of “effective compassion” which DBT's originator, Marsha Linehan, emphasized is essential for us to transform suffering and create lives worth living.
Which method do you choose to practice this week?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
John Mader, 2018, firstname.lastname@example.org