With ISIS claiming responsibility for deadliest attack on human life in Paris since World War II, how do we manage feelings of anger? What kind of reaction (or action) is most appropriate? I’ve been pondering the topic of anger and terrorism seriously since the execution of American journalist James Foley, and the horrific events in Paris have only strengthened my resolve to fight feeling “frozen” with terror.
On Tuesday, August 20th, 2014, I was horrified to learn about the beheading of journalist James Foley by ISIS. I have to admit that my horror was so profound that it initially caused me to avoid basic and important facts about this act of terrorism. It felt almost too painful to think about. However, I don’t want to bury my head in the sand — John and Diane Foley don’t have that option, and really neither do I. When I do think about what happened, I experience a profound and intense anger. As a psychologist who works with many clients suffering from anger management, I know that anger often compel people to act. While action can sometimes be dangerous and offensive to some people, I would like to suggest that inaction can sometimes be dangerous offensive too.
Political inaction is a huge issue today among people in their 20s and 30s. I, for one, tend to keep my political views private. I believe this is something we are taught as young people: to hide our political opinions out of a sense of “politeness.” But when it comes to things like this, I’m horrified at how silent we are about politics. We need to risk disagreement and speak up. The motivation to do this can be found by being mindful about our reactions to terrorism.
Even though I can never understand the pain that John and Diane Foley, and the rest of James’ family and friends are experiencing, I still experience horror and outrage. Instead of hiding from these feelings, I am working to be mindful of these feelings. As a psychologist, I know that feelings exist because they are trying to tell us something; they are essentially information about our experience. Feelings like anger and outrage are often clues that we are sensing injustice. And oftentimes, taking action is an appropriate step for dealing with injustice.
Anger management clients sometimes need to learn techniques that guide them to experience feelings of anger without acting on them, because sometimes anger is understandable but action is actually inappropriate. For example, is understandable to be angry when someone cuts you off on the highway, it is not appropriate to act on it- such action is not worth the potential consequences. However, in other situations, anger can mobilize us to take appropriate action– for example, we may become angry if we are witnessing an act of child abuse, and this anger can mobilize us to spring to action and aid victim. In these types of situations, taking action is actually the most appropriate and healthy response to anger. So, although it is difficult, I want to encourage us all to not hide from our reactions to terrorism, but rather let our reactions compel us to take appropriate action.
What is appropriate action in the case of terrorism? I certainly have ideas about the answer to that question, but rather than use this blog to talk about my personal views on how we as people and citizens should respond to terrorism, I want to encourage you to think about how you feel about that question and then take what you feel is appropriate action for you. We each need to think about this important question in an open and mindful way.
How can we explore our feelings to determine appropriate action?
- 1. Use mindfulness and self-observation to notice your thoughts without judgement. Don’t filter or censor, just note down what comes to mind when you consider the topic of terrorism and what reactions (including action) feels appropriate for you. Actions could be anything from making donations, organizing a peace protest, joining the army, writing to political leaders, or having a book club focusing on authors writing about terrorism- the idea is just to notice your ideas without judgement. Write your ideas down without self-judgement, as if you were a secretary simply writing a log of what was said at a meeting.
- 2. Set your list aside and review next day. Write down next to each idea whether it feels plausible, appropriate, or any other reactions you have to it. Next to each idea, write down your feelings about whether it is plausible, appropriate, or any other factors that are important to you.
- 3. You may want to review your list with family and friends. Feedback helps people sort ideas though, and it gives them a sense of community to cope with stress from challenging thoughts.
- 4. After as much consideration as you need, choose whichever action feels best to you. Use mindfulness and self-observation again to see how you feel after choosing the action (before even taking action, just choosing it) to confirm if it feels like the right idea for you.
- 5. Continue using mindfulness and self-observation to see how the action feels in practice, and choose a different action if need be.
Don’t worry about choosing “the best” course of action. Know that by going through a mindful process of exploring your feelings to evaluate what you feel is an appropriate course of action, you are practicing self-awareness and taking conscious action.
How to practice mindfulness and self-observation so we can notice our own thoughts in a non-judgmental way without reacting to them? We begin by observing the body and breath, and then work up to observing more complex things like thoughts about terrorism. I recently hosted a workshop on Yoga and Emotion, which included breathing and yoga to facilitate awareness. If you’d like to see some footage from practice sessions I did with some of the therapists in my office, click below.