Serena Chen My daughter was in preschool, was building castles every morning with blocks and ribbons, and there was just this one child who would every morning come in and knock it down over and over again. And his parents were always there and they never stopped him. They would just comment after. And their comment was just a litany of platitudes and stereotypes. Boys will be boys. They’re so destructive, he can’t control himself. My daughter tried saying “no” and then she tried body-blocking him and asking him. Nothing worked. And so then she got really angry.
And I realized that if she acted out in that anger, she would become the problem.
Serena Chen What happens when we suppress anger? And what would happen if we tried to work with it instead?
Welcome to The Science of Happiness. I’m Serena Chen, professor and chair of the psychology department at UC Berkeley, filling in this week for Dacher Keltner.
Today, we’re going to explore how the practice of self-compassion can help us stand up for ourselves after we’ve been wronged. Our guest is Soraya Chemaly, an award-winning writer and activist and author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Soraya joins us after trying a practice to help identify and channel feelings of anger, rather than suppressing or feeling bad about them. Soraya, thanks so much for joining us.
Soraya Chemaly Thank you, Serena.
Serena Chen One of the big themes in your book, Rage Becomes Her, is how women and men are perceived so differently when they get angry. People don’t tend to look at the source of women’s anger.
Soraya Chemaly That’s right.
Serena Chen You tell this vivid story in your book about how you and your daughter suppressed your anger years ago when your daughter was in preschool and a little boy would knock down her block castle every morning. Can you tell us more about that?
Soraya Chemaly Yeah. I realized that if she acted out in that anger, she would become the problem. It would be her kind of expression that would then become somehow made like the false equivalence of what he was doing and what she was doing. And so then.
I got angry and then I did something that many women do, which is to preemptively limit the anger. And I didn’t express my anger. But I realized after that this was terrible for both my daughter and this boy, because all the adults had essentially created an environment in which she had to ignore her feelings, not be considered legitimate in her defense of her space and her rights and her work. And he was allowed to control the environment to which she then had to respond in a polite way.
And then I really realized that in my own lack of expression of anger, I was modeling very destructive behavior for daughters. Right? And so that was hard because, you know, kids have nothing better to do than watch you and figure out what’s going on. Like, they’re so attuned to their caretakers moods and body language and behavior. And, that’s how we grow up. We learn that way. And for me, it also became a matter of practicing what I preach. Yeah. Which is uncomfortable, right? I mean, anger makes people uncomfortable. Nobody said it was going to be easy or comfortable to say I’m angry or to say, hey, this bad thing happened. What are we going to do about it?
Serena Chen Right.
Soraya Chemaly I think of compassion and anger as being expressed in so many other very broad ways. Like, if you look at anger management, if you look it up online, You get a bunch of pictures, not kidding of men, mainly white guys, often from movies, yelling at computers, breaking things, you know, wielding sledgehammers. And so when we think of anger management, that’s what we have in our heads, this idea of this rage and destruction. Right. But in fact, we’re quietly, constantly managing our anger all the time, so much so that we don’t have compassion for ourselves.
Serena Chen So to that point, for our show you chose to do an exercise called “Fierce Self-Compassion Break.” And it’s a new practice created by psychologist Kristin Neff, who we’ll hear from later on the show. First you think of a time in your life where you needed to protect or stand up for yourself – a situation where you felt moderately threatened, but not in real danger, so that you can learn this skill without overwhelming yourself.
Then you sit or stand tall and do a series of practices aimed to help evoke feelings of self-compassion, while also acknowledging and honoring your anger.
The goal is to make you feel empowered to stand up for yourself without making you feel ashamed or embarrassed.
So how did it go for you Soraya?
Soraya Chemaly When I first saw the various practices, that was the one that was striking to me. And I thought, Wow, you know, I think that that was a sort of maybe an instinct that I had because I couldn’t acknowledge my anger at all. I was not a person who could say I am angry or I have needs or any of those things. And in her descriptions of fierce compassion, I think the important thing that was striking to me was the many different routes people can take to recognizing that in themselves. And I had not done that. And I had an abiding rage.
I would say that the thing that was really striking to me when I did start writing, people would say to me, you know, I really love what you wrote. I loved your honest anger. And I was like, “Who, me? I’m not angry. My writing is not angry.” And so, I think I did try some meditation in terms of that self-compassion break. And I went through the exercise, to just quietly think about situations of safety, right. what do I have to do to protect myself and establish boundaries and understand what I need and to call that up as something that you’re going to concentrate on. And so I did that and I went through the process. and I should say I have been trying to meditate for several years. So I do try, but I find that I get very easily distracted, which I guess is part of the process.
Serena Chen Yeah
Soraya Chemaly When I did this exercise, which is literally just to be mindful of the time that you’re thinking about or an occurrence. What I kept going back to was when did I feel almost an innocent unawareness of the dangers that came with having my body, right? Yeah, and I think I must have been seven.
Serena Chen Wow, okay.
Soraya Chemaly And that really felt like a loss. Yeah. Like, you can’t regain that time, but maybe how do you think with compassion about creating it in a new way? And I think that in fact aging often frees women to do that in ways that are much harder when they’re younger.
Serena Chen Yeah. And then paired with that is the physical component of the fierce self compassion practice. You sit or stand tall, shoulders back— kind of the stance one would have if they were standing up for themselves.
After that Kristin Neff, the psychologist who created this practice, instructs you to put your fist over your heart and say words that make you feel protected and safe. So maybe, “I can do this,” or “I’m strong enough to take this on.”
Soraya Chemaly Yes. And it’s a funny thing because I remember the first time I did that, I thought, “Oh, whatever I like, I’ll put my hand on my heart. But in fact, if you put your flat, warm palm against your heart. it’s just not something we do very often. I don’t, I just don’t do that very often. And it’s a very specific sensation.
Serena Chen Well it’s interesting because I actually think I mean, I think I don’t have the data for this, but I think there’s a difference. Like there’s a hand in your heart with your palm out.
Soraya Chemaly Yes, there is.
Serena Chen Versus a fist.
Soraya Chemaly I wanted the flat palm. It was so conflicting, actually. Like when I did it, I did it and then I flattened my palm.
Serena Chen Oh, ok. Yeah.
Soraya Chemaly That sensation of having my open like an open palm was far more meaningful to me. I didn’t have the same depth of sensation with the fist.
Serena Chen Yeah. That’s interesting. We do tend to move our hands intuitively, in ways that sort of just feel natural to us. But then the final step is to put an open palm on top of your fist, with the idea of grounding self-compassion with a nurturing and tender energy. And that’s maybe what you were doing, ultimately.
Soraya Chemaly I think so too.
It is. But honestly, I appreciated the embodied element of her practice. I literally like so many of us, like all of us, I can’t talk without my hands moving around constantly. Right. And that difference being the fist in the hand call that to mind. What it led me to thinking about was fear, because in fear, there’s, you know, there’s a very high chance of tonic immobility and just that loss of cognition that comes with our motion forward with our embodiment. So all of that got all tangled up in this very short practice.
Serena Chen Yeah, yeah.
Soraya Chemaly And so this process of self-compassion and embodiment, I appreciated. Appreciated thinking, OK, what “What is it like to feel safe in your own body and to focus on that as deserving of that safety?”
Serena Chen So, I’m curious, going back to anger and the links of compassion, where was it for you? You know, I’ve been studying self-compassion such a long time and this fierce self compassion notion was new to me. And initially it didn’t work for me. I didn’t understand because self-compassion is soothing. It’s the open palm, you know, it’s soothing yourself. And then anger is so different. It’s the fist. And, I’ve thought a lot about it the past few weeks, And I get it more now because there are different kinds of anger. But what’s the relationship to you?
Soraya Chemaly I think it’s hard for people to think of anger as self-compassion, right? Like, how does the recognition of your anger, how is that this fierce self-compassion.
Serena Chen Yeah.
Soraya Chemaly How can we reinvasion this emotion so that we understand kindness towards the self and respect for the self. Which is sometimes, I think, just really difficult for people.
Serena Chen Yeah, yeah. And also, I mean, the average person when they hear the word ‘self-compassion,’ they don’t think of anger in the same breath at all because.
Soraya Chemaly No. That’s right.
Serena Chen Because the energy feels different. We’re of course talking about fierce self-compassion, not necessarily soothing in an obvious way with the anger component.
Soraya Chemaly When I think of fierce compassion, I think of just the acknowledgement in your own self that you have the right to reciprocity in your intimate and social relationships, you have the right to say to the people who theoretically are supporting you and and love you or care for you, “My anger is telling me there’s a problem and this is a very social emotion. You are implicated somehow in my problem, either because I would like you to just listen or because you’ve done something or I want you to help me. And what do you think of that?”
It takes self-compassion to recognize the anger in yourself to begin with. If you don’t have self-compassion, if you are disassociated from yourself, your body, your needs, if you’ve been socialized constantly to put those aside. You don’t have the ability to even know what you’re feeling is anger.
Serena Chen I guess I had been thinking of feeling anger and rage and then practicing self-compassion, but it really goes both ways. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right: to even recognize and be able to label I am angry requires a level of self-respect and acceptance that that’s allowed. And that’s something that I can feel and it’s OK to even see it that way. It goes both ways.
Soraya Chemaly Yes. We evolved to have emotions because emotions enable us to navigate the world like they are filled with information. And so if we feel anger, something has happened that causes you to feel indignity or threat or risk or danger. And that’s what anger is telling you. Something’s off. Something’s wrong with your environment. And we should be paying attention to those signals because they have meaning. And to ignore them is pretty unhelpful and unhealthy.
Serena Chen Thank you so much, Soraya, for being on our show today and sharing with us your thoughts. It’s been so interesting and eye-opening.
Soraya Chemaly Well, thank you again, it was really delightful to talk to you, Serena. And now you’re going to have me thinking about this fist and this palm.
Serena Chen Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s powerful stuff.
Soraya Chemaly It is, it is. Maybe I’ll try it again and see what happens.
Serena Chen Up next, why the Fierce Self-Compassion Break exercise is described as, “A mama bear protecting her cubs, except with a U-turn.”
Kristin Neff We make that U-turn so that mama bear energy also protects ourselves. “You aren’t going to hurt someone I love, which is me.”
Serena Chen Dacher Keltner will be back in the host chair in conversation with Kirstin Kristin, the psychologist who created the practice. More, after this break.
Dacher Keltner Imagine a mama bear in the woods, with her cubs. And then you start walking toward them. What do you think mama bear is going to do?
Kristin Neff I think sometimes people think this fierceness comes from hate or comes from aggression. Sometimes it does, but it can also arise from love. This is fierce energy. “You are not going to harm someone I love.”
Dacher Keltner Kristin Neff is a psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and really the world’s pioneer in the study and practice of self-compassion.
Kristin Neff Whether you identify as male or female, there’s that fierce protective energy that arises toward people we love.
Dacher Keltner She describes the Fierce Self-Compassion Break practice as “A mama bear protecting her cubs” – except with a U-turn.
Kristin Neff We make that U-turn so that mama bear energy also protects ourselves. “You aren’t going to hurt someone I love, which is me.”
Dacher Keltner Kristin created this practice in part when noticing that it was often women and not men who would attend courses she’d lead in self-compassion.
Kristin Neff Eighty-five percent of the people who show up at my workshops are women because compassion is considered part of the female gender role and men think it’s kind of soft, it’s going to make them weak. It’s anything but weak.
Dacher Keltner Kristin’s own studies show that people who practice self-compassion aren’t just kinder to themselves, they are also more resilient, have better coping skills, and they’re motivated to achieve their goals.
Kristin Neff So the practice is all about really engendering brave, empowered clarity so that we can protect ourselves and stand up for ourselves when needed.
Dacher Keltner Here’s how you do the Fierce Self-Compassion Break practice:
First think of a time where you felt boundaries needed to be drawn, or you wish you’d stood up for yourself. Nothing that’s too triggering. Start small.
Next, be mindful of the harm that was done to you.
Kristin Neff And mindfulness gives us clarity, it allows us to call things out. “This is not OK.” We need mindfulness to kind of break the fog of, oh, that’s just the way men are, whatever it is, whatever the thing where this being violated and say, “Hey, this is this is clearly not okay.”
Dacher Keltner Then say phrases to yourself that remind you of our common humanity, that others have had experiences similar to yours.
Kristin Neff When I kind of expand my sense of self to include all the other people that are harmed, then all of a sudden I’m standing together with a lot of other people. I’m stronger.
Dacher Keltner Next put your fist over your heart, as a gesture of strength. Commit to protecting yourself.
Kristin Neff When you move your attention to physical sensations, it’s a way of relating to what’s happening. We’re still present with our anger without being lost in it.
It allows us to try to cultivate a healthier relationship with that anger when it’s a physical sensation as opposed to a thought.
Dacher Keltner Finally, put your other hand over your fist. Like your cradling one hand over the other. Combining your fierce energy with tenderness.
Kristin Neff All of us need access to both our fierce and tender sides of compassion.
We need to harness, to integrate both energies are both key to well-being.
Dacher Keltner If you’d like to try the Fierce Self-Compassion Break practice, visit our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
A big thank you to our guest host today, Serena Chen, the Chair of UC Berkeley’s psychology department.
Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our Associate Producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor-in-Chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.
What did playing look like for you as a child? And as an adult, how do you play now? Share with us by emailing email@example.com or using the hashtag #happinesspod.