I’m reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s brilliant little book called Anger. With his signature simple and poetic style, Hahn elucidates the Buddhist views on managing and healing anger. If you’re like most of my clients and people who follow this blog and struggle more with anxiety than anger, simply replace the word “anger” with “anxiety” and you’ll have a prescription for handling your difficult emotions.
For example, in one section called “Caring for Your Baby, Anger” Hanh writes:
“Embrace your anger with a lot of tenderness. Your anger is not your enemy; your anger is your baby.
“You have to be like a mother listening for the cries of her baby. If a mother is working in the kitchen and hears her baby crying, she puts down whatever she is doing and goes to comfort her baby. She may be making a very good soup; the soup is important, but it’s much less important than the suffering of her baby. Her appearance in the room is like sunshine because the mother is full of warmth, concern, and tenderness. The first thing she does is pick up the baby and embrace him tenderly. When the mother embraces her baby, her energy penetrates him and soothes him. This is exactly what you have to do when anger begins to surface. You have to abandon everything that you are doing, because your most important task is to go back to yourself and take care of your baby, your anger. Nothing is more urgent than taking good care of your baby.”
The first step in managing difficult emotions is to find the willingness to take move toward your painful feelings .You recognize that no one can save you, rescue you, or fix you; as an adult, you and you alone must find the willingness to care for and attend to your emotional life. You must recognize that it’s only through embracing and exploring the entire range of human emotions that you find the serenity and freedom that you seek.
In the above quote, Hanh is saying that we need to attend to our anger – or anxiety – the way we would attend to a baby crying in the next room. This is an interesting point because many of you were left to cry alone as babies and, later, as young children. Your emotional blueprint says, “I don’t need to attend to my difficult feelings because no one attended to me when I was a baby. It’s not safe to have needs. No one will come anyway. It’s not that important.” Our culture’s dominant parenting philosophy still supports the idea that babies and kids need to be left alone to “cry it out.” Whether we’re discussing sleep or discipline, we still maintain the (in my opinion) damaging belief that if we embrace a crying child we’re teaching that child that crying will “get them what they want.” This belief assumes that babies are trying to manipulate adults into caring for their needs.
Now I understand the difference between not giving in to a toddler who’s crying because he wants another scoop of ice cream, but I still don’t support the notion that a parent should ignore the child or send them to their room for a time out. From my perspective (and I know I’m in the cultural minority here), this communicates to the child that they’re bad or wrong for having a desire and that if they cry they will be punished in some way and banished to solitary confinement. It sends them the message that their form of communication is manipulative and not to be taken seriously. They absorb the belief that says, “My feelings don’t matter.”
So what happens as adults when we’re faced with an anxiety-provoking situation? Most people, following their own historic parenting, banish their scared inner self to solitary confinement with a good dose of shame and judgement to accompany them out the door. They’ve simply never learned to do otherwise. They don’t know how important it is to take responsibility for their anger or anxiety as they would take care of a child. They don’t prioritize their emotional experience and recognize that there’s essential information locked inside the feelings, if only they take the time to sit with themselves with compassionate curiosity.
I’ve come to understand that a large portion of anxiety is a sacred inner-self left out to dry with no wise adult-self present. It’s the young, scared, emotional, uncertain part of you that doesn’t know how to manage life and doesn’t have anyone to put a loving arm around your shoulder and say, “I’m here. I’ve got you. It’s normal to feel scared when you’re about to do something brand new. Oh, you think you can’t do it? You think you don’t deserve this new job (or marriage or baby)? Of course you deserve it! You’re a shining, loving, smart, delightful person and I won’t ever let you forget that!”
Anxiety is the inner self screaming out for attention, guidance, reassurance, and nurturing from your own stable and wise self. It’s a terrified child left alone with her scary thoughts or, even more harmful, she has a scary thought and the adult says, “Yes, you’re right to have that fear. That’s what’s going to happen.” Imagine if you had a child who was experiencing bedtime fears. She says to you, “I’m scared a T-Rex is going to eat me” and you said, “Yes, you’re right, a T-Rex is going to eat you. It’s coming through the door right now.” Not only would your little girl feel terrified, you would also be lying to her. This is what you do to yourself when you let your anxious thoughts run away with you.
If you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s because you’ve let your inner self drown in the currents of a river without a lifeline. You tell your inner self a lie and do nothing to replace it with the truth. You watch as she drowns in her anxiety without realizing that you are, in fact, causing it. A loving inner parent would say, “Of course a T-Rex isn’t going to eat you. Come here, sweetie. I’ll hold you until your fear goes away,” but instead you corroborate with the fear and the two of your drown together in the river. This is anxiety.
Since many of you here are struggling with relationship anxiety, I’ll give you a concrete example from this area:
You feel anxious. You make up in the morning with a knot in your stomach. You didn’t sleep well the night before and you haven’t been able to eat much lately. Anxiety is consuming your daily and nightly existence. You’re miserable, and because the anxiety has come on the heels of moving closer to committing to your partner, you form the thought, “I’m anxious because I’m with the wrong person.” The anxiety intensifies because you’re telling yourself a lie. (I’m assuming that you’re with a loving, kind, open partner who fulfills most of your non-negotiable relationship needs.) You’ve misinterpreted your anxiety and are now convinced that if you left the relationship, your anxiety would disappear.
But if you sat down with yourself and embraced your anxiety like the scared child that it is, you would ask, “What’s underneath this anxiety? Let me hold myself with compassion and curiosity and explore what’s underneath this fear. Am I scared of growing too close to someone? Why does that scare me? Am I scared of feeling engulfed by my partner, or feeling responsibility for his or her feelings? Am I scared of being abandoned, of losing my partner in some way? Am I grieving an old relationship or a fantasy of “perfect love”?” Once you can contact the underlying fear and sadness, the anxiety will start to dissipate. You can then explore the false beliefs that are informing many of the fears and sit with the grief that’s inherent to any life transition. Then the real work begins.
It’s not easy work. As anyone experiencing anxiety well knows, it’s terrifying, exhausting, and will shake you to your core. You will wish with every prayer that something or someone would reach down a hand and save you from you misery. And then one day, after falling to your knees in despair, you realize that the hand you’re wishing for is attached to your own body, that you, in fact, can lay your own loving hands around your own heart and take the necessary steps that will break open the encasement of anxiety to reveal the scared, sad, alone child that lives inside. You learn to hold the child the way no one ever held you. You make room for the difficult feelings. You embrace your sadness, your fear, your vulnerability, your helplessness, your loneliness. You explore the false beliefs that are creating your anxiety. You learn that you can handle what you thought was unmanageable. You learn to rely on a source of spiritual guidance. You learn that your negative feelings have nothing to do with your partner, your job, your city, or your family. Finally, you’re free.