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Hate, Anger and Conflict: Reducing Your Own Stress Through Empathy

(2 minute read)

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” — Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States

The idea of trying to get to know someone we don’t like is, you have to admit, pretty odd. Most of us take the opposite approach. When we encounter someone we don’t like, we do our very best to avoid them. And perhaps, for our own mental health, that might not be such a bad approach. Better than spending our days chasing people who make us feel bad.

But we can’t avoid everybody. We are forced to deal with people at work, in social organizations, among our extended family and in-laws, and the partners of our friends, and not all of them are to our taste. We deal with this in different ways. Sometimes we have to keep our dislike to ourselves, and we secretly fume at the individual. Often we’ll seek allies, enlisting the support of our spouse, friends, family or colleagues. There’s great satisfaction and bonding to be had in having a common enemy, and even more when we can undermine and exclude that enemy. From time to time the dislike will flare into open antagonism, voices will be raised and angry texts or emails exchanged.

All of these solutions work, after a fashion. But each of them has a cost to ourselves. Overt confrontation raises the levels of cortisol (our stress hormone) and can impact our health, and that’s even if you come out on the winning side. If you lose the struggle, you may lose relationships, income, reputation and so forth. Extremely stressful indeed.

Swallowing our bile and secretly disliking another person is also stressful. We have to put up a facade to that individual and others, pretending to get along. Putting up that facade takes psychic energy, and the sense that we are alone in our dislike feels lonely and alienating.

Gathering allies against our object of dislike seems, on the face of it, to be a cost-free solution. But turning against a person can leave us with an uneasy sense that perhaps one day, we’ll be on the outside. It runs the risk of that individual finding allies of their own and turning against us. It makes us nervous about our allies, wondering if they’ll go over to the Dark Side and become friendly with That Person. It also carries the possibility of guilt: you find out somewhere down the road that the target of your ire was suffering in some way you were unaware of, and you contributed to their suffering.

And there, as Hamlet would say, is the rub. People who are objectionable are generally suffering in some way — it’s the suffering that makes them so objectionable. Perhaps they’re feeling overlooked and insignificant, which makes them loud, forceful and dominant. Or they are unconsciously frightened of intimacy, which makes them leave every romantic partner they find, often in very hurtful ways. Some are painfully shy, which comes across as coldness and distance. Others are anxious or sad, which makes them cancel appointments at the last minute, unable to muster the ability to power through their negative feelings. Perhaps they fear abandonment which makes them jealous beyond reason, or become angry in order to hide deep hurt. The list could go on and on.

I’ve had many clients who have behaved in all these ways and more. I can see how they drive people away, and even drive others into alliances to exclude and even persecute them. And I see the pain that they are in, both from the feelings that drive them to their behavior, and from the reaction that others have to them.

So am I suggesting that we should all be like Abe Lincoln, and redouble our efforts to get to know people we don’t like? The human race isn’t composed of Mother Teresa’s or Abe Lincoln’s. We all have our own issues to deal with, and it’s awfully hard to put aside our own negative reaction and respond with understanding and openness to someone who has just offended us. Even if we could turn the other cheek, there’s a reasonable chance that we’ll just get slapped on the other side of the face. But if you’re lucky enough not to be triggered by the objectionable behavior of other people, and you’re able to just get to know them better, then kudos to you — you’re making the world a better place. The rest of us have our plates full dealing with the emotions stirred up by those difficult people.

But the simple understanding that the person who has just angered, offended or hurt us is almost certainly behaving out of their own pain might be helpful. If we can see that their behavior toward us is nothing personal, and that they are just trying to get by in the world the best they can, this knowledge can take away some of the sting we’ve experienced. Having empathy for the other will enable us to react with less anger, less confrontation, and less desire to strike back. That will make us calmer, more at peace in the world, and happier too.


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