This exercise can be hugely revealing when you find yourself responding emotionally to a trigger, but are left not sure where to go next. Or if your emotional response is powerful and leads you to act in ways you don’t like, be it angry, sad, or anxious.
I have used this myself to explore some of my anger in response to triggers, and have been amazed at the other, oft-neglected emotions behind the anger. By giving voice to these other emotions, I found more balanced, helpful ways to respond to the feelings of anger.
Here’s the exercise:
1. Take a sheet of paper and in the middle write your trigger.
2. Divide the space around your trigger into four equally-sized sections. Label these Angry Self, Anxious Self, Sad Self, and Compassionate Self.
3. Now in the Angry Self section, write the answers to these questions:
– why are you angry? What is the threat to you in this situation?
– how does the anger feel in your body?
– how does the anger want to act in response?
– ultimately, what does your angry self want to have happen?
4. Now take a few breaths, possibly a short meditation if you’re into that and time allows. Move your pen to the Anxious Self section and answer these questions:
– why are you anxious? What are you afraid may happen when this trigger event occurs, or if it continues unchecked?
– how does the anxiety feel in your body?
– how does the anxiety want to act in response?
– ultimately, what does your anxious self want?
5. Again, take a few breaths and move to the Sad Self section to answer the questions from a place of sadness:
– why are you sad?
– how does the sadness feel in your body?
– how does the sadness want to act in response?
– ultimately, what does your sad self want to have happen?
6. Finally, take a few moments to feel centred. For the last section, we need to put ourselves in a compassionate frame of mind. If you can, smile gently and warmly. Focus on feelings of kindness, acceptance, and compassion towards yourself. If it helps, you can close your eyes and visualise some representation of compassion personified (my image is of pathologist Carl Rogers sitting opposite me listening to me in a comfortable, cosy room of my house).
When you have this mindset and/or image in place, you can reflect compassionately on what all of your selves are feeling. Ask your compassionate self:
– how do these feelings make sense?
– what is coming up for you as you hear/see these feelings?
– how does your compassion feel in your body?
– what would your compassionate self like to say?
– what would your compassionate self like to do?
When I did this exercise recently in response to a couple of different triggers, I was surprised at the themes arising from the sad and anxious selves that had been overshadowed by the powerful and immediate angry self. In fact, as I wrote them and reflected on them, I felt that stone drop that here was something real, something genuine, and perhaps these themes were why I was so angry over triggers that I knew didn’t seem to warrant the anger I felt. For me, behind the anger lay loneliness, or feelings of blame and self-doubt, or in one case a theme of feeling depleted myself. My anger was often a response to those feelings – feelings which I had passed over though without acknowledging, let alone understanding. Simply being heard – just by myself – helped to alleviate the discomfort these feelings created in me.
Once you understand the feelings, it can be easier to decide on a course of action that is appropriate, balanced, and truer to yourself and what you really want or need from a situation.