Emotions Revealed : Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life – Paul Ekman

Chapter 6
Anger
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There is a particular way of responding to anger that causes trouble in intimate relationships. My colleague John Gottman found what he called stonewalling in his studies of happy and unhappy marriages. More often shown by men than women, it is a cold withdrawal from interaction, in which the stonewaller won’t respond to his partner’s emotions. Typically, stonewalling is a response to the anger or complaint of the other person, in which the stonewaller retreats because he feels unable to deal with his feelings and the feelings of his spouse. It would be less damaging to the relationship if, instead, he acknowledged hearing his spouse’s complaint, recognized her anger, and asked to discuss it at a later time when he could prepare and feel in better control.

Emotion theorist Richard Lazarus has described a very difficult technique for managing anger, difficult because the aim is not just to control but to defuse anger: “If our spouse or lover has managed to offend us by what they have said and done, instead of retaliating in order to repair our wounded self-esteem, we might be able to recognize that, being under great stress, they couldn’t realistically be held responsible; they were, in effect, not in control of themselves, and it would be best to assume that the basic intention was not malevolent. This reappraisal of another’s intentions makes it possible to empathize with the loved one’s plight and excuse the outburst.” Lazarus acknowledges that this is easier said than done.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has described the same approach, in which we distinguish between the offensive action and the person who made it. We attempt to understand why the person acted offensively, and we try to sympathize with him, focusing on what it might have been that made him feel angry. That doesn’t mean that we do not inform the person that we are unhappy with how he or she has acted. But our anger is directed at the action rather than the person. If we can adopt this framework, we do not want to injure the person; we want to help him or her to not act in this way. There are people who may not want to be helped. A bully, for example, may want to dominate; a cruel person may enjoy inflicting harm. Only anger directed at the person, not just the action, may stop such people.

What Lazarus and the Dalai Lama each suggest might be feasible when the other person is not deliberately, willfully malicious. Even then, when we are not dealing with malicious anger, our own emotional state influences how we can respond. It will be easier to be angry at the action rather than the actor when our anger is not intense, it is building slowly, and we are fully aware of being angry. It takes a moment’s pause; and hot, fast, intense anger does not always permit that. It will be especially hard to manage our actions during the refractory period, when information inconsistent with our anger is not available to us. This way of dealing with anger won’t always be possible, but if it is practiced, it may become possible at least some of the time.
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Afterword
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I’d like to also mention an approach that is complementary to these, mindfulness meditation. I did not say much about it in Emotions Revealed, for two reasons. There isn’t hard scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation actually improves emotional life, although there are many studies in which people claim that it has had such benefit. Also, I previously couldn’t understand why focusing our awareness on breathing would benefit emotional life.

Like the proverbial bolt out of the blue, just a few weeks before writing this afterword, the explanation struck me. The very practice of learning to focus attention on an automatic process that requires no conscious monitoring creates the capacity to be attentive to other automatic processes. We breathe without thinking, without conscious direction of each inhalation and exhalation. Nature does not require that we divert our attention to breathing. When we try paying attention to each breath, people find it very hard to do so for more than a minute, if that, without being distracted by thoughts. Learning to focus our attention on breathing takes daily practice, in which we develop new neural pathways that allow us to do it. And here is the punch line: these skills transfer to other automatic processes-benefiting emotional behavior awareness and eventually, in some people, impulse awareness. I checked my explanation with renowned experts in meditation, and with those in emotion and the brain, and they think it makes sense.
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