It’s completely normal to feel heightened emotions like anger or anxiety when we’re frustrated or nervous. One of the biggest challenges to working with difficult emotions like anxiety and anger is to accept them in the first place. It’s hard to do. We don’t want to accept them, because they don’t feel good. There are also lots of messages out there that seem to tell us that we should just be happy all of the time, and there is something wrong with us if we aren’t. Maybe there’s a part of you that’s learned that feeling anger means you’re not ok, that you can’t handle things or that you’re betraying your Mum, Dad, partner, etc, if you feel anger.
The problem is that if we get caught up in being ashamed of our emotions or running from them, we never build up the compassionate courage to work with them. This work starts with accepting our emotions as they are, none judgmentally …. allowing ourselves to simply notice what is on the plate before deciding whether or not we’re going to eat it. This is where mindfulness approaches have been so useful. Mindfulness can help us to drop the judgments and shaming and to observe our mental experience just as it is, which creates some space that we can work with.
This space allows us to shift out of our troublesome habitual responses to emotions like anger and anxiety (for example, avoiding things that scare us or saying harsh things to those we care about). This space allows us to ask questions, like “What would be helpful here? What would help me feel safe as I work with this difficult situation?”
This opens the way to having compassion for this version of yourself that isn’t even allowed to feel angry without feeling bad about yourself, that you’re doing something wrong ….. such a hard place to be.
How does Compassion Focussed Therapy work? Is it possible to direct compassion and warmth to self especially when I am feeling threat, anxiety, anger? Think of panicked passengers on a ship in a stormy sea. The wise, compassionate captain doesn’t condemn them, because she understands their terror. Instead, she comforts them, and says “I’ll take care of you”, taking responsibility for steering the ship to safety. And this is how we can work with compassion on self.
Russell Kolts gives an example of how he might use an exercise called “the compassionate self exercise” to work with this person who is struggling with anger:
“From the perspective of your wise, kind, confident, compassionate self, I want you to imagine that this version of you who is struggling with this is here in this chair. Look at her. Just like everyone else, all she wants in the world is to be happy and to not suffer. But when she was young, she didn’t get what she needed…. Sometimes … she feels angry. But part of what she learned growing up was that it wasn’t okay for her to have these normal feelings. See how hard it is for her, hating herself for having her own feelings. From this wise, kind, confident place, what would you want her to understand? How might we encourage her? What might help her feel safe to experience her own emotions?”