As submitted for publication in The Bernardsville News, December 8, 2005

I have never seen quicksand, much less been stuck in it. But I do have a sense of what it must be like—the sinking, the fear, the panic, and the frantically useless attempts to climb out. I can almost feel how fighting against it would only work to pull me down further. But I can also imagine how, if I could find the presence of mind to accept the situation, I would be better off. I could be slower and more deliberate as I reach for something to pull myself out.

This is what it is like when we are stuck in a quagmire of negative emotions. No doubt you have experienced this problem—maybe a time when your mother, friend, or co-worker was insensitive or even willfully hurt you. You might have told yourself that you clearly had a right to feel angry. And so, feeling fully justified, you remained angry with the other person. Or, perhaps you were more inclined to take her side. In fact, you might have been so understanding that you criticized yourself for your own anger. You questioned your own goodness.

Though they are opposite reaction, in both cases, you were unable to extricate yourself from negative emotions. Choosing to understand yourself or the other person did not free you from your anger; it simply focused the anger in one direction or the other. This is a very common human predicament. Although you might think that you are doomed to remain distressed in such situations, you can find your way to a calmer place.

Empathy, sympathy and compassion are key in helping us pull out of negative emotions, such as anger. Because they are so important, let me clarify what I mean by each of these terms. Empathy is understanding and identifying with someone’s experience, feelings, and perspective. Sympathy is having a feeling of sorrow for someone’s distress. Compassion is being aware of someone’s suffering and wanting to relieve it. By using each of these appropriately (and with persistence), you can alleviate your emotional suffering.

Begin by being sympathetic to your own plight. If you tend to be critical of yourself, listen sympathetically to your own troubles, as you would listen to a good friend. Respond with validation. Say to yourself, “Of course you are hurt and angry. Sheila was busy analyzing you when you were telling her about all the problems at work. As your best friend, you really needed her to simply support you.”

Next, be empathic with the other person. Try to understand what is motivating the other person’s behavior. If being empathic leads you to be aware of someone else’s pain, then you will likely find that you will naturally also feel sympathetic.

Gaining this kind of insight takes effort. You can sometimes do it through empathic listening. This basically consists of listening carefully to someone and asking questions until you can see the situation through their eyes. Use your knowledge of the person’s life and history to understand him. If all else fails, try to imagine what might motivate someone, anyone, to act as he did.

Once you can truly imagine what it might be like for the other person, your anger is likely to lessen. Continuing our example, if you think about how Sheila tends to be a problem solver, you will then understand that she was trying to help. You might continue to feel unsupported and be angry about her response, but these feelings will probably be mitigated by knowing that this is not what she intended.

Finally, be compassionate with yourself. As I explained earlier, compassion means being aware of suffering and wanting to relieve it.

You might decide that the best response is to accept the difficult situation. Putting all of the steps together, you could tell yourself the following. “It’s okay for me to sometimes need a shoulder to cry on. However, when I do, I really need to talk with someone who is good at being a supportive listener. This is clearly not Sheila’s strength. She tends to be analytic and can be more helpful in situations where I need to decide what to do.” With this said, you might still be disappointed with Sheila, but it probably won’t sting so much. Be prepared, however, to need persistence in maintaining this perspective.

Another possible response is addressing the situation with Sheila so that you can improve your relationship. In this case you might tell her, “ When you were correcting my work performance, I felt criticized. This was especially hurtful because I was looking for you to be supportive of me during this hard time at work.” After giving her a chance to respond, you can add, “I respect your opinions, so I will definitely ask you when I want help solving a problem. However, in the future, when I tell you about troubles at work, I would feel better if you can just listen and support me.” In this scenario, it is important to remain objective in the conversation, taking care not to be defensive or aggressive.

Negative emotions cause suffering for all of us, but we do not have to remain entrapped by it. When you feel yourself being sucked down, just follow these simple rules. Do not deny or frantically fight against the emotional quicksand. Instead, accept it and reach out to empathy, sympathy and compassion. Hold on tight. Maintain your grip. And pull yourself out with a steady, persistent effort.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ