The first time I got in trouble at school I was 13 years old. I was working on a science project alongside a rambunctious kid who often went too far clowning around. Making silly noises and asking idiotic questions, he was getting on my nerves. “Will you please be quiet?” I said with exasperation.
My response was like a magnet, shifting his provocations directly to me. I turned and faced him, a large chunk of clay held in my hand. “Stop it!” I said, “or I’m going to shove clay in your face!”
He smiled mischievously and then opened his mouth to issue a slew of garbled noises while shaking his head repeatedly. Without hesitating even a moment, I shoved the clay directly into his open maw.
I was sent to the principal’s office.
As the focus of my classmate’s mockery, anger rose in me and found an easy target in the wad of clay held in my hand. As an adult looking more closely at that anger, I clearly see what was hiding just beneath it: fear. I was an unpopular child. I suffered public ridiculed by classmates throughout elementary school. By eighth grade, I had finally found my groove among a close group of girls and a smaller class. Yet, it was an old wound, one easily opened. I feared once again becoming a social reject. By lashing out, I was protecting myself, showing my classmates I was strong enough to stick it to anyone who might see my weakness and think me vulnerable.
Anger is a secondary emotion, a protection mechanism that rises with our “fight” instinct. It shields us from experiencing the deeper more difficult feeling underneath — be that guilt, fear, shame, sadness, or grief.
You can see the relationship between fear and anger played out in many recent controversies. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is fueled by anger that overlaysfear of criminal injustice just as #AllLivesMatter is a response to the fear of receding race privilege. The moral outrage at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination came from millions of women in America who have survived sexual assault, who are fearful of an abuser controlling an institution of power that should protect against violence. Being angry feels safer than being fearful, but doing so has an unintended consequence.
Mirror neurons give humans the seemingly magical capacity for empathy, the ability to experience another person’s feelings simply by hearing a story or witnessing their emotions. Oftentimes, we associate empathy with sadness or struggle when in fact it can serve as an energy conduit for any emotion. Interacting with someone who is happy will often inspire joy while interacting with someone who is angry is liable to provoke your own anger.
During last Wednesday’s Purpose Power Hour, which focused on empathy, 10 people from seven states joined our weekly Zoom call to share their personal experiences. A few people said they identify as “empaths,” or people who channel the feelings of others so easily they often do so by accident. One woman shared that, knowing this about herself, she can choose not to experience another person’s feelings, shielding herself from their emotions by intentionally choosing compassion instead.
As I thought about empathy this week, I tried to think of its opposite. Happiness has sadness, conflict has peace. What stands on the other side of empathy? I wondered. As I inspected my life for moments when I could have felt empathy and felt something else instead, I suddenly had the discomforting feeling that I would not like the answer to my own question.
Righteousness and judgement, I realized, offer the best protection against someone else’s emotions. What’s more, when I confront someone else’s feelings with righteousness, that judgement can easily lead to anger from both me and the person being judged.
In the social change paradigm of the twenty-first century, it is tempting to try to blame someone else for what’s wrong. We humans are much better at understanding direct individual effects —“this person did a bad thing and therefore they are a bad person” — than we are at attributing systemic responsibility — “this person is operating in a system that is biased against them and therefore they are prone to make bad choices that harm themselves and others.”
When it comes to Trump voters, many urban, coastal progressives are angered by the individuals who cast votes to elect the 45th President. “Why are they so angry? What’s wrong with those people?” we say.
Yet, when we look under the hood of the anger of both parties, the fear is easy to spot: Fear that bigotry in America is alive and well. Fear that the US government is not acting in the best interests of average people. Fear of being overlooked, forgotten, sidelined, and poor. As a field organizer working on the Clinton campaign in Florida in 2016, I had plenty of interactions with people determined to elect Donald Trump. In them I saw my 13-year-old self, bent on shoving clay in someone’s face to demonstrate their strength and significance.
In my adulthood, I wrestle with a more mature version of the same fear and anger. Weekly, I read The Atlantic, the New York Times, Vice, TIME, and the Washington Post, among others, and marvel at the amount of news commentary authored by men. A few notable female commentators and journalists make outstanding contributions to the news, but most “general” commentary on politics and the economy is written by men. I pitch op-eds frequently and am consistently either ignored or denied. I find myself filled with rage at this rejection yet upon further reflection I can clearly see this rage serves mostly to protect me from the paralyzing fear that I am wholly unworthy and insufficient, that my words will never matter enough to receive public recognition.
Bringing consciousness to how empathy works gives us the individual power to better manage our collective emotions. If I know I can choose compassion and love instead of judgement, righteousness, and anger, I can disarm the systems of subtle violence that have been at least partly responsible for tearing the fabric of society for far too long.
But it’s not enough to just manage our emotions. If we want to truly transform the social context that shapes our lives, we have to create space to get comfortable experiencing negative emotions like anger, fear, and sadness, too. Anger is a powerful motivator, a fire under your butt that can give you the strength to DO SOMETHING. But fires burn out. Understanding the deeper feeling beneath that anger can help strengthen your conviction to address the fundamental issue in a more sustained and committed way.
Too much time spent “thinking” about the system and its problems protects us from how those challenges make us feel. Supportive spaces that encourage emotions can give us permission to bring them into consciousness and in so doing, diminish the unconscious bias they can create in our lives.
If we can face our feelings with love, perhaps we can finally stop burning down the house and start rebuilding together.
Bring your empathy and compassion and join us for the next Purpose Power Hour this Wednesday at 4PM EST to talk about your experience of fear and anger. If you’re afraid or angry, that’s okay. We are all in the same boat.