A client recently described how his boss’s behavior annoyed him. As we planned about how to respond he made clear he wanted to include in his message a subtly vindictive part.
I told him that vindictive part would be effective in venting his feelings but suggested it would not likely be effective in influencing his boss. Rather, it would influence the boss, but not likely how he wanted.
He thought about his goals, realized he was more interested in influencing his boss effectively than venting to the boss (he could still vent to me, his wife, and so on).
We all feel similarly when we feel anger or related emotions: we want to punish the person we feel created the anger—to teach them a lesson for hurting us. My client wanted his boss to suffer—not seriously and not as the final goal, but still.
As with a parent punishing a child, anger makes us want to punish someone and punishing means causing suffering. Punishing also means the opposite of reward—it means make someone want not to do something again.
Maybe you feel differently, but I’ve found this feeling—wanting someone you’re angry at to suffer to learn not to do what you feel angered you—universal in people I’ve talked about it.
What does anger and punishment have to do with developing compassion?
If something in the above resonates with you, if you’ve ever wanted to make someone who you felt hurt you feel bad so they’d learn a lesson, is it possible others didn’t understand your motivation and thought you were mean or cruel? You knew that even though you acted to hurt someone, that was only a middle step to help them since teaching them a lesson is helping them. If someone accused you of meanness or cruelty, you’d explain something like that to them and expect them to understand you.
Think about people you dislike. I bet you dislike at least a few of them because you feel they’ve caused others to suffer. Is it possible that they also had the same motivation, no matter how unlikely it seems to you? Is it possible they were angry, or felt a similar emotion, and wanted to teach someone else a lesson? If so, then they, like you, wanted to help the other person, however unlikely you feel anyone could consider them helpful.
If they see themselves one way and you see them another, that means you don’t feel compassion for them. If you feel you’re right and they’re wrong, you still aren’t feeling compassion. If you want to influence them, lack of compassion will hold you back.
How do you use your anger to develop compassion?
By looking at your feelings to punish someone when angry, however well-intentioned you considered yourself, you can understand another person’s behavior by trying to see it in the same light. Trying to understand someone you don’t like can feel uncomfortable, but compassion feels that way sometimes. Compassion helps you motivate someone, which is what you were trying to do by punishing them. Compassion also makes you feel better, or at least it does me.
If you want people to try to understand you and your motivations, which means your emotions, wouldn’t it make sense for you to try to understand someone else, their motivations, and their emotions? If you don’t think you’re a bad person, and if they think you are, they’re mistaken, might you be mistaken about people you think are bad?
Answering those questions leads to compassion.
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