(Three minute reading time)
I had a day in the office recently which left me wanting to write about an important truth: most of us express our pain and stress as either intense anger or intense sadness and we’d all be better communicators if we started seeing both of those outer behaviors as manifestations of the same thing. Fear. Fear of abandonment; fear of change; fear of loss; fear of being rejected; fear of failure; because like it or not we’ve all got boatloads of fears and they drive much of our behavior. Imagine how different our lives’ difficult conversations could be if we were all taught in high school to instantly feel compassion and love for someone being angry or mean; if only we were all taught that tears and sadness can disappear when someone is supported to do something about the things causing their fears. If only we were all taught that the yelling person is not “a jerk,” but is someone steeped in fear and that somewhere down the line, earlier in their life, they’d learned that they feel the most relief if they get angry and yell; and yes, the crying person is not “a darling,” but is someone steeped in fear and that somewhere down the line, earlier in their life, they’d learned that they feel the most relief if they get sad and cry.
Like the movie Groundhog Day, this theme kept repeating for me over an entire workday. I walked through the door of my office to see a sobbing wife in the lobby and a sitting husband in the conference room. My receptionist looked at me with wide eyes and shrugged. “Your turn,” she whispered to me. I sat and spoke briefly with wife to see if she wanted to meet with me and husband or needed to make other choices. She decided the meeting could go ahead and during the meeting she cried. Looking at her, all I saw was a person who was carrying a lot of fear, and was expressing it through tears. As the meeting wrapped up, husband turned to me and started to speak very sharply and make demands and otherwise get angry at me, angry at wife for crying, and angry about everything. And all I saw was a person who was also carrying a lot of fear. I saw him exactly as I saw wife and did for him what I did for her; what I would do for anyone in pain. In working with both of them, I tried to hear them, to give them the answers they needed, even to comfort them. In the final moments of our meeting, with so many emotions and fears having been laid bare, I was left fervently hoping they both felt that I had understood their fears and had done what I could to support them in addressing them.
As I walked those clients out, my receptionist pointed to our second conference room and said, “Your next people are here already.” After goodbyes I strode into the second conference room, sat down, and wife started to cry. As with the last set of people I tried to support wife in identifying her fears, reviewing her situation and options, and inspire her to eliminate them with action. After I had attended to wife and we had all continued talking for a while, husband stood up and starting yelling. So I stood up and spoke in soothing tones and worked to support him in the same way I had with wife. Why? Because all I saw before me was a person channeling a lot of fear (does the mediator like wife better? will anyone here care about me and my needs? does anyone in the room realize I’m in pain, too?). Like the first husband, the person in front of me was just as worthy of my compassion and support as the other person in the room because, differently from wife, he was a person who had learned to express his fear through anger.
Divorce mediators see it all—we are cried on; we give hugs; we hold a hurting person’s hand, sometimes; we are yelled at; and, we are blamed and threatened. But through the mediator’s looking glass, every single emotional behavior of every single client is the same, it’s a reaction to feeling fear, and hence triggers only our respect and our compassion.
Thank you for letting me tell you about one of my workdays and what it meant to me. My wish for you, and for all of us, is that we are given the gift of people in our lives who will support us in looking at our fears, irrespective of whether we express them through tears or anger; and that those loved ones will help us on our hero’s journey to discover our best selves so that we can embody only compassion and love as we meander through this beautiful life. We are all in this together. May all beings know peace.