Stepping into an “enemy’s” shoes

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

We all experience problems of coming into conflict with others, even if sometimes the conflicts take place purely inside our heads in the form of resentment and irritation.

Finding ways to lessen those conflicts has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of our lives, especially since these conflicts are with people who are close to us.

(I’ve used the traditional term “enemy” above to cover all people we come into conflict with, even though in ordinary parlance we wouldn’t normally use that word for someone we have a generally positive relationship with, even if we do sometimes get into disputes with them.)

One way of letting go of our resentments and of practicing forgiveness is to recognize that the other person’s thoughts, speech, and actions are the result of causes and conditions. This might sound rather abstract, but please bear with me.

We’re all born with genetic and epigenetic predispositions toward certain kinds of behavioral traits. Most of us know that our genes predispose us to be more confident, aggressive or fearful; gregarious, clingy or aloof, and so on. Fewer people are aware that experiences our parents and grandparents have had (and even the food they’ve eaten) can affect the way our genes express themselves right now.

And then we are all subject to conditioning early in childhood. The presence or absence of nurturing, and the kinds of behavioral modeling we’re exposed to, profoundly shape the very structure of our brains, and thus the way we feel, think, and act.

And we’re all subject to cultural conditioning that shapes the way we see the world.

These forms of conditioning affect the kinds of choices we make, and thus what happens to us in life. Some of what happens to us in life may change us in positive ways, but sometimes the effects are to reinforce our early conditioning. So someone who’s afraid of intimacy because of childhood betrayals may inadvertently choose to be with people who don’t care about their feelings or wellbeing. An aggressive person will tend to seek out conflict.

It’s being aware of all this that I mean when I talk about stepping into the shoes of an “enemy.”

Check out my FREE guided meditation iPhone app!
Take anyone you get into conflict with for any reason. It might be a colleague at work who routinely dismisses your suggestions, or a spouse who is often so absorbed in something else that they forget to greet you when you come home, or a child who picks fights with their siblings and drives you crazy.

Now consider that this person has been conditioned since before birth to behave in certain ways, that their brains have been profoundly shaped by early childhood experiences as well as events later in life. That their beliefs and values have similarly been shaped by genetics and life experiences. That it may be very difficult, even impossible, for them to do things you might want them to do, like be more trusting, be less aggressive, cooperate more, be more logical or more emotionally expressive, and so on.

The contemporary teacher Eckhart Tolle wrote, “If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness your level of consciousness, you would think and act exactly as she does.”

So imagine you had been born with the brain and genes of the person you’re having difficult with. Imagine you’d had the same (inevitably faulty) parenting, early childhood experiences, cultural conditioning, education, and life experiences. In all likelihood you’d act exactly as they do.

Tolle points out that this realization that a person is a bundle of conditions, and that if you were subject to the same conditions you’d think and act as they do, leads to forgiveness, compassion, and peace. And he’s right. It’s also true that recognizing our own conditioning leads to self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and peace.

Also see...

2 Comments. Leave new

Hi I have very recently started my journey towards freedom of suffering at the hands of myself or others . It would seem as though it has turned into an anger issue with me . So I am looking forward to any suggestions as to that may help me get to my centered,grounded ,healing happy place .

Reply

Hi, Pamela.

My own experience is that anger is a response to painful feelings that we haven’t yet learned to tolerate. The good news is that those feelings are manageable. We have built up an expectation that they’re threatening and terrifying — like the monsters I used to imaging lurking at the foot of my bed when I was a child. But just as there wasn’t in reality anything there for me to be terrified of then, there’s nothing really there to be scared of now. It’s not that the feelings don’t exist, it’s that when we do manage to bring ourselves to accept them, we realize there’s no big deal, and never was. They’re just feelings. Once you accept them, they often just evaporate, just like the darkness at the foot of the bed vanishes when you put the light on.

Of course there is a part of us that’s terrified of these feelings, and we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s going to be there all the time we’re persuading ourselves to turn and look at whatever feelings it is that we’ve been trying to avoid.

Maybe those feelings are hurt, or fear, or confusion. When you find you’re angry, drop down into the body and look to see what’s happening around the heart and the gut. Notice what’s there. As best you can, accept it. Tell yourself, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.” Realize that there’s nothing wrong with having these feelings. It’s not a failure. It’s just a part of your that’s evolved a certain habit in order to try to protect you.

Treat the part of you that’s creating these feelings with kindness. It’s hurt, confused, afraid. It’s not evil. It needs your compassion.

Practice giving it compassion. Tell it you love it. Tell it you care. Tell it you’re there for it and will support it.

By relating to your feelings as parts of you that end help and support, rather than as boogey-men that you’re afraid of, you’ll start to lose your fear.

And you’ll notice along the way that your anger is starting to vanish. It was trying to protect you from your hurt or pain of confusion by trying to push away whatever was triggering those feelings. But when you accept your painful feelings you don’t need to be protected against them.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *