"Love is not a feeling, love is an action...Love is as love does." -- M. Scott Peck

Post#2 in the series Rewire Your Brain for Unconditional Love.

Our last post -- Become a Recovering Perfectionist -- encouraged you to renounce perfection and shoot higher -- for love! If you change nothing else, that will change your life. But why stop there? Why not really give your love muscle a workout?

To start, commit to treating yourself and everyone around you with compassion. Every time you notice harshness creeping in, toward yourself, your child, or anyone else, stop and find something to appreciate about that person. No exceptions. If you could choose compassion in every interaction with everyone, including yourself, you'd be enlightened by the end of the month.

Sound good? Now let's go for the gold. It's easy to be loving when everything goes our way. What about when you're stressed out, when your desires are thwarted or your needs aren't met? When you're in fight or flight and even the people you love look like the enemy? When life crashes into you and knocks you over? In other words, at least once a day when you live with children, and for some of us, many times a day?

Can you take a deep breath and ease from anger to compassion?

I know you're not a saint. I'm not asking you to greet a murderer, or even that woman who was mean to your kid, with love. But what about that guy who just cut you off in traffic? Or the preschooler who shoved your child on the playground last week? Or the rude grocery store clerk?

Maybe all those folks just had very hard days. Maybe you don't want to be near them, but can you think of them with compassion, even while you remove yourself from their presence?

What about your partner, who might look to you at this moment clueless and selfish? Maybe your partner is as overwhelmed as you are, but showing it in a different way.

What about your child, who is being impossible today? Maybe he's feeling disconnected from you. (Kids don't act out when they feel deeply connected, but that connection gets frayed during daily life and has to be constantly renewed.) Maybe he's actually afraid -- of the mean kid at school, or the monsters in his closet, or losing your love to his sibling, or of never being good enough for you to stop yelling at him.

So when you notice your anger starting to rise:

1. Stop and take a deep breath.

Just the act of noticing your breathing and increasing the oxygen to your brain gives you a moment of choice. You don't have to act on whatever's triggering you. You could just choose love right now, and sort this out when you feel more compassion. Really.

2. Recognize your anger as a physiological hijacking.

Anger swamps you with "fight" hormones that shape your perceptions, and limit your empathy and problem-solving ability. Take another deep breath and remind yourself that you are safe and you can handle this. That will switch off the blood-wrath of self-defense.

3. See it from the other person's point of view.

Remind yourself that the other person is having a hard day too. Find something to appreciate about the other person. Everyone is larger than their mistakes, even their big mistakes.

4. Feel without reacting.

Notice the urge to react. That's your body ready to fight. Nothing good will come of that. Instead of lashing out, NOTICE the sensations in your body. Just notice, without taking action to relieve the feelings. That's mindfulness.

Now, remind yourself that you're safe. Offer compassion to yourself: It's so hard when you're angry, and this is something all humans have felt. Breathe deeply and breathe out the anger. Notice if it diminishes. 

5. If you still need to, move your body to shift the anger.

Go shake out your hands, splash water on your face, or put on music and dance. No time to calm down? Get that energy out by doing five sit-ups. (At the very least, you'll feel stronger and fitter!) One caveat -- it does NOT help to hit something. That signals to your body that you're in danger and does not diminish the "threat" response you're feeling.

6. Ask yourself what's under your anger.

I know, you want to smack that person, and at this moment, you're clear that they deserve it. But why? Did they make you feel disrespected, for instance? Then the button that just got pushed is probably from feeling disrespected in your own childhood or in other circumstances in your life. Guess what? This is an opportunity to heal that! :-) Even if that person actually DID disrespect you, you have all the respect you need inside yourself. Find that self-respect inside and give it to yourself.

I'm not suggesting that you let yourself get walked on. I'm suggesting that no one can take your self-respect away. You can always retain your dignity and take responsibility for your own emotional regulation.

7. Take care of yourself

Anger is a signal that you need something. Whatever deep need is triggering your anger, ask yourself what you need, and meet that need. Remember though, that your job is not to control the other person. It's to deal with your own experience and reactions, and to give yourself care in this tough moment. You may need to set a boundary, but you can do that without judgment, criticism or controlling the other person.

Do you need to physically move yourself to a place where you feel safe and can re-center yourself? Do you need a good cry? Do you need to give yourself permission not to get it all done? Do you need to cut back your expectations and try again tomorrow?

Maybe you want your anger to be heard and acknowledged. That's a universal need when we're angry. Sometimes it makes sense to share those feelings with the other person, but not until you calm down and can state your perspective without it being an attack. Remember that you can't control the other person's response, and often they can't give you the validation you want. But you don't need it from them. You can give that validation to yourself! Tell yourself exactly what you need to hear.

Now that you're a grown-up, it's your responsibility to give yourself what you need. So just do it. Otherwise, you can't be the emotionally generous parent you want to be, and everyone loses.

This is basic emotional self-regulation, and it's arguably the most critical emotional intelligence skill. Most of us don't come by it naturally. But every time you resist acting when you're triggered, you're re-wiring your brain. And the more you practice shifting from judgment to compassion as you move through your day and hit small roadblocks, the more you'll be able to shift into unconditional love in the toughest moments.

Because love isn't a feeling. Love is an action, the act of creating love where there wasn't any.  Love is the hard internal work you do to shift from your automatic reaction of anger into a place of connection, emotional generosity, compassion.

Compassion is the heavy lifting of life. You know it takes daily practice to build that kind of muscle. Why should your heart be an exception?

Repeat daily. Watch your life transform.



Today is Step Two of Ten Steps to Rewire Your Brain for Unconditional Love, Unconditional love is like a muscle. It needs a daily workout. Want More? We're exploring each of the ten steps in more detail over the next few weeks. Join us for some heart stretches!