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Stop Aggression with Compassion Training
“Boy, your last post must have been about me,” someone said. “For me, as soon as we’re in an argument, it’s all about winning at any cost. I can be sarcastic, do the put-downs, yell, whatever it takes to win. And you know what? I don’t want to be that person any more. What can I do?”
I assured this individual that I’ve met so many, many people with this same complaint that I could not possibly have had just one of them in mind.
The problem is that when the argument begins, people with this issue slide back in time to the fights with their father or their mother, the arguments that escalated into intense power struggles. The only way out of being humiliated, injured (physically, emotionally, sexually or verbally) and lost was to strike back, and if the strike was really powerful and the parent was devastated, then all the pain would be over for the moment, until it would start again.
Those original fights were struggles for survival. At least, that’s how they felt. Losing would mean not losing the argument over the topic at hand; it would mean losing their sense of self, their identity, their ability to hold their head up and live one more day.
That’s the reason they take over so quickly when people are starting to argue with their partner: Since it’s all about survival, their fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in and the thinking brain disconnects.
How can this sudden takeover of the brain be stopped?
The answer is compassion. Here’s how it works:
Obviously you love your partner; that’s why you want to work on this problem and get this survival mentality to change. You know you’re not being attacked and you don’t have to win. All you have to do is come to a reasonable settlement of whatever the issue is. The key then is to practice compassion when you’re not in a fight.
Compassion is much more than a feeling and it is something you can actually practice like ice-skating or drawing or playing violin. It’s a skill. This skill is taught to small children from healthy homes. Little Johnny who is 3 grabs Suzie’s toy, and a smart parent says, “You wouldn’t like it if Suzie grabbed your toy; give it back.” What just happened?
Johnny now has a mental image in his mind of how it would feel if Suzie grabbed his toy. He had never thought about that before but he can see that his parent is making total sense. He wouldn’t like it if Suzie took away his toy. Reluctantly, he gives it back.
He has just been taught the skill of compassion! A few more repetitions of this under somewhat different circumstances and the method of inducing compassion will become clear to Johnny: Imagine myself in someone else’s place.
Blessed are the people who came from homes like this.
But all is not lost for those that didn’t. What has to happen is to follow the same principle as Johnny’s parent used: Remind yourself—when you are not arguing, when things are good—to picture yourself in the place of your loved one. Do it often and you will develop compassion.
So, for example, when your partner is working late at the office, imagine how tired he or she must be driving home. Imagine how mentally exhausted dealing with whatever the challenge. Take a minute to do that exercise. Come up with five other instances in your day-to-day life where you can exercise compassion.
A second, completely different exercise is to do deep breathing and relaxation to slow down your autonomic nervous system responses.
Now, when a fight is breaking out, do the deep breathing, then imagine what your partner is experiencing. Imagine the pain she or he will feel if you lash out in any way. Really feel that pain and I guarantee you will stop yourself.
Now, here’s the wonderful part of all this: This pain is good.
The pain of compassion is a good pain. It brings you toward, not away from, those you love. It’s a bridge. And when you cross it, the pain is replaced with love. What’s more, what your partner perceives is that you understand, so now your partner also feels closer to you; your efforts are reflected not only in your own feelings, but those of your partner.
It’s absolutely worth the short term pain of feeling another’s pain to get this close and receive this much love.