Most of us would prefer never to fight with our friends and loved ones and many of us will go to great lengths to avoid any kind of conflict. But conflict is inevitable, and anger, if used correctly, is a gift.
I don't care how spiritual you are, you are going to have some anger. It's a human thing. Disagreements are bound to occur between people (no matter how well meaning or well matched) who interact for X amount of time. Whether we live with them, work with them, raise our kids with them, or share time with them in Circle, we are eventually going to be in conflict with the other people in our lives over something. The problem isn't that we fight. The problem is that we do it so badly. The problem is that we don't fight fair. And for most of us, fighting fair is not something we learned at home.
The Little Things
People who share the same religious, political and ethical values will still fight, they'll just fight over how each squeezes the toothpaste tube or who's turn it is to clean the cat box. These fights may seem trivial to outsiders, but they can be the thing that turns loving people into The Bickersons; folks who constantly snipe at one another over the same things over and over again because they never resolve the core issues.
Identifying Core Issues
Anger, can be helpful. It is usually our best clue that some part of our self is in danger or that our boundaries are being pushed in ways we aren't comfortable with. It can also alert us to unrealistic expectations in the relationship (ours and other people's), as well as control issues or codependency. Refusing to acknowledge our anger does not make the problem go away. In fact, it can make things worse.
Anger is Energy
It might help us to think of anger in the same way as we think of the four elements. Anger is like earth, fire, water or air in that it is real and very powerful. Anger has it's own laws and properties and it has to be understood in order for us to use it's inherent energy most effectively. If being a Pagan means that we try to live our lives as fully as we can then dealing with anger and learning to fight fair can be seen as an important part of our spiritual path.
The Ground Rules:
Some important Ground Rules for fighting fair are listed at the end of this post, along with some useful links. Most of us were not taught how to do this, so do your homework, and don't expect do this perfectly the first time, or even the fifth.
If you are worried that you might become too upset when you decide to tell someone that you are angry with them, try practicing with a friend first. This is called roleplaying, and it can be very effective.
The Dangers of Unspoken Anger
We all have anger. If we can't express that anger in healthy ways tend to build up resentments over time. When people build up too many unspoken resentments, they may eventually come to a point where talking about the problem can no longer heal it.
Avoiding conflict may seem easier in the long run, but people often find that they come away from broken relationships with regrets that can haunt them for years afterward. Some people learn nothing from past relationships and they tend to make the same emotional mistakes over and over again. Not learning from our mistakes and repeating them constantly can be it's own kind of hell. In fact, it's the only kind of hell that I, as a Pagan, believe in.
Unspoken anger can also lead us to drink too much, eat unhealthy food, work to excess, worry ourselves sick or spend too much money. All these unhealthy behaviors are a way of masking and avoiding our problems and they only make the situation worse. The anger we feel towards ourselves or the resentments we feel towards others but don't express can often turn inward and develop into depression. Depression can keep us locked in place and keep us from making the changes we need to make in our lives. Therefore, learning how to express our anger and using it to fight fair can be very liberating, as well as deeply healing.
That Perfect Couple, Isn't
Ironically, partners who never fight are at most risk for eventual separation.
The author's of Good and Mad put it this way:
It's important to remember that conflict in a relationship actually demonstrates that partners care and that they trust each other enough to face those conflicts. Successful conflict builds trust that leads to true intimacy and love.
When I teach workshops on Women and anger, I make a point of saying that "if I care about our relationship, I am willing to be in conflict with you. If I don't, I'll walk away." Never saying "I'm angry" isn't love, it's denial.
What If It's Not Safe to Express Our Anger?
We can't always tell someone, like a boss, say, that we are angry with them. In that case, we might want to tell someone else just what is bothering us. Or we might want to journal about this or do a ritual that helps us to speak and then release this anger.
Dealing with bosses is tricky. You might want to pick up some books about setting appropriate boundaries in the workplace, and dealing with difficult people. (One such is listed below).
We have a saying in Spiral Steps about anger, " If you don't pass it back, you pass it on. "
So do whatever you need to do to release your anger so it doesn't make you sick, and also, so that you don't pass it on to people who don't deserve it.
A Different Mirror
Anger can also help us understand some of our own issues and character defects more fully. Have you ever noticed how people who have our very same character flaws enrage us? It's like looking into a mirror and it can make us very uncomfortable. Seen in this way, anger can be viewed as a difficult gift, as well as a source of great personal insight.
Anger Junkies (AKA Rageaholics)
Some people will seek out conflict with others as a way to release pent up energy around issues they can't or won't acknowledge, issues that have nothing to do with the "reason" for the fight in question but which serve as a outlet for their aggression, and may even bring them closer to unconscious or hidden goals.
Partners and groups do this a lot. So do countries.
Are you or is someone you know a rageaholic? If so, here is some information on the mind of the rageaholic.
There are always going to be bullies in the world. This excellent site titled Pagan Bullies offers a great deal of useful advice on how to spot a bully in your circle or group and how to deal with bullies, bullying and denial on the part of others about such dysfunctional behavior. (1)
Do You Want To Know a Secret?
It's this: The universe will set things up so that you can practice fighting fair on people who don't matter all that much to you in the greater scheme of things. If we learn how to express our anger towards these people in ways that are respectful, effective and healthy, then we have a much easier time of it when we have to set a boundary with a loved one, a friend, or the boss. I give you fair warning: If we skip these initial lessons because we are too afraid even to try, then we will find that the lessons we are sent as we travel further down the road much, much harder to deal with. Therefore, I have found it helps to take a moment and let that rude salesperson know how I feel (calmly, firmly and politely). Then I silently bless them for giving me the opportunity to practice fighting fair. (Of course, I also take the time to compliment people when they do a good job. That kind of thing has to go both ways to be truly fair.)
They're Driving Me Crazy
We sometimes wonder how our partner, lover, boss or best friend, ever got to be so %$@! difficult. (And for the record, they are wondering the same thing about us.) For those who have these questions I would recommend a book titled “John Bradshaw on The Family. Bradshaw focuses on the dynamics of the family and he explains how the dysfunctional rules and attitudes we learned while growing up can continue to haunt us into adulthood if they are not addressed. He offers practical solutions to help people move from unconscious, dysfunctional behavior to happier, more conscious ways of being. This book has been out for some time, but it has just been updated and re-released. It is a “must read” for anyone attempting to move beyond the lessons they learned growing up in a dysfunctional family or for that matter, in a dysfunctional culture. It comes in both cassette and book form.
It's A Learned Skill, And It Takes Practice To Do It Well
Like any other skill, learning how to fight fair and learning how to express your anger in healthy ways gets better with practice. So hang in there. You'll be glad you did, and so will your loved ones.
Some Important Ground Rules:
This site lists some excellent ground rules for fighting fair. To my mind, the most important of these is "Use I Messages". Here is an excerpt from that webpage (and I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.)
Remain calm. Try not to overreact to difficult situations. By remaining calm it will be more likely that others will consider your viewpoint.
Express feelings in words, not actions. Telling someone directly and honestly how you feel can be a very powerful form of communication. If you start to feel so angry or upset that you feel you may lose control, take a "time out" and do something to help yourself feel steadier - take a walk, do some deep breathing, pet the cat, play with the dog, do the dishes - whatever works for you.
Be specific about what is bothering you. Vague complaints are hard to work on.
Deal with only one issue at a time. Don't introduce other topics until each is fully discussed. This avoids the "kitchen sink" effect where people throw in all their complaints while not allowing anything to be resolved.
No "hitting below the belt." Attacking areas of personal sensitivity creates an atmosphere of distrust, anger, and vulnerability.
Avoid accusations. Accusations will cause others to defend themselves. Instead, talk about how someone's actions made you feel.
Don't generalize. Avoid words like "never" or "always." Such generalizations are usually inaccurate and will heighten tensions.
Avoid "make believe." Exaggerating or inventing a complaint - or your feelings about it - will prevent the real issues from surfacing. Stick with the facts and your honest feelings.
Don't stockpile. Storing up lots of grievances and hurt feelings over time is counterproductive. It's almost impossible to deal with numerous old problems for which interpretations may differ. Try to deal with problems as they arise.
Avoid clamming up. When one person becomes silent and stops responding to the other, frustration and anger can result. Positive results can only be attained with two-way communication.
Establish common ground rules. You may even want to ask your partner-in-conflict to read and discuss this brochure with you. When parties accept positive common ground rules for managing a conflict, resolution becomes much more likely.
Spiral Steps Support Groups: An On-line meeting where all are welcome
There is a safe place where you can go to work on these issues. It is the on-line Spiral Steps Support Group. This is an anonymous, non-cross talk meeting based on earthwise ethics. This is a non-denominational group, all are welcome; and while it is not Pagan-only, it is very Pagan-friendly and a good many of it's members identify as some flavor of Pagan.
The on-line group has been active since May of 2005. It has an international membership of over 300 people. For more information about the Spiral Steps and Traditions I recommend reading Making A Sea Change: The Spiral Steps Support Groups and visiting the website at www.spiralsteps.org.
Go well, stay well,
Tips for Fighting Fair in Relationships
and here are some tips for fighting fair on-line
The Art of Fighting Fair
10 Common Myths About Anger
Off the Shelf:
Fighting Fair by John Bradshaw
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, et al
Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing with Difficult People by Mark I Rosen
The Price of Nice by John Bradshaw (audiocassette)
Bradshaw On: The Family by John Bradshaw
This next title will be of great help to anyone leading a Circle, Coven or Group.
Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict
by Kenneth C. Haugk.
This book is a "must read' for any Pagan Organizer or Circle Leader. While the focus is Christian, the information this book contains is useful to anyone who provides spiritual guidance, training or leadership in our community. I first heard about this book from Isaac Bonwitz and I have found it very useful in my own work.
Good and Mad: Transform Anger Using Mind, Body, Soul and Humor by Jane Middleton-Moz
People Patterns: A Modern Guide to the Four Temperaments by Stephen Montgomery
Do you have conflict with a partner? Ignore the title. I would recommend this book to anyone in a committed relationship.
To keep things in perspective:
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff in Love (Don't Sweat the Small Stuff Series) by Richard Carlson and Kristin Carlson.
(1) The author writes:
Most people, when asked why Paganism appeals to them as a spiritual path would cite as part of the reason the tolerance, compassion and acceptance that they found from others in the community. Generally speaking, this would be a fair statement - most Pagans are like this. Unfortunately, as in all religions, there are some who are not as interested in the spiritual aspects as they are in gaining and keeping power over others.
Unfortunately some Pagan communities are infested with bullies who are intent on creating rifts between people so that they gain control of the communities they deal with. The most common way these people achieve this is through the spreading of rumours and lies in an effort to drive targeted people out of the community and make those remaining afraid of sharing the same fate if they take a stand against the bully.
Persons who act this way are a great danger to our communities, and not just to individual people. They help to confirm the negative image that mainstream society already has about Paganism, and this is not beneficial in our struggle for religious equality. We need to put our differences aside, stop trying to make ourselves feel superior by bad-mouthing others, and grow up already!
While an incredibly diverse crowd, individual Pagans often have a few things in common: 1) we are usually well educated (or at least well-read) and more aware of history, environmental issues, current events and politics than the average population; 2) most of us are tolerant of differences between people, and able to live and let live; 3) many of us have been emotionally wounded at some point in our lives; and 4) we have almost always left mainstream religions, whether of our own volition or because we felt rejected by them. This wounding and/or religious rejection leaves some of us vulnerable, or at least sensitive to the opinions of others.Unfortunately it can also make for a predator's paradise because they can choose from plenty of people and be fairly confident that no one in the Community will come to their target's aid. It thus becomes easy for bullies to gain control of the situation and the community, able to drive out those who take a stand against them and manipulate whoever is left over. Gradually those left drift away and join other communities or become solitary. This is how Pagan communities fall apart...