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  • Stephanie Kohler

The Ultimate New Year's Resolution

People often ask me for advice. Over the years, I have heard myself say certain things repeatedly. Given the timing of the new year, I want to offer what I believe is a constructive way to face 2017. More importantly, it’s a way to change our reality, moment by moment.

The Ultimate New Year's Resolution is: Don’t respond with anger.

In moments of verbal conflict, don't let anger, fear, resentment, and other emotions control words and actions. In other words, when you're really upset, don't let that be an excuse to say or do whatever comes to mind in the heat of the moment.

Caving to anger is often just allowing fear to overpower you. Fear of negative opinions, fear of unfavorable outcomes, fear of injustice, fear or new ideas, fear of the unknown.

We all know the consequences of allowing fear to overpower us, when we say or do things we regret later. Nowadays, we can witness the macro scale of this dynamic—on social media, comment threads, Twitter wars, and so on. Political discourse—generally, unfortunately—is held hostage to the consequences of I-can-out-insult-you-via-snarkier-fancier-name-calling “dialogue.”

Maybe this doesn't apply to you. If you can listen quietly while someone flings insults your way, then respond civilly and not lose your temper—congratulations and keep it up. But, if the thought of someone flinging insults your way makes you want to hide in a corner or bare your fangs, then this advice is definitely for you.

If you're gobsmacked as to how this is even possible, don’t worry. I was too, years ago, when a meditation teacher told me that fear and anger and associated emotions are all created within, and that I have control over their existence. It was much more preferable to believe that my aggression was legitimate, that responding with anger was warranted.

But I’ve lived long enough to know how unproductive this attitude is. We can never unsay or undo our words or behaviors. And usually the worst ones happen when we cave to our strong emotions. Nothing destroys a conversation faster than insults. Nothing kills potential understanding or connection like fear-based aggression.

We will never transcend this dynamic and its consequent divisions unless we do the deep work of overcoming fear. This is the essence of The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution—what that meditation teacher told me years ago. That fear and anger and associated emotions are all created within. That you have control over whether they manifest in your words and deeds. You have control over whether you perpetuate the I-can-out-insult-you-via-snarkier-fancier-name-calling “dialogue.”

This is the vital distinction in The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution—the difference between having fear or anger and acting on it. The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution is not about invalidating your emotions. The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution is not a prevention plan for fear, anger, or resentment. You will have all of those emotions again in your life, many times. This is the human condition, so far as I can tell. Often you will have valid reasons for those emotions. Often, you should address those emotions, through words and actions.

But what I care about, why I’ve gone to the trouble of capitalizing The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution so often, is what addressing those emotions looks like. We already know how to react out of anger and fear—this is another part of the human condition, so far as I can tell. But if you don’t know how not to react out of anger and fear—this is the work of The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution.

Please note, I’m claiming that The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution is a guarantee of a positive outcome. The only guarantee is that you maintain some of your dignity—that you don’t get pulled into the angry, reactive vortex. If you don't hurl insults in the heat of the moment, there's a lot less to regret.

I have had plenty of conflicts in which everyone agreed to disagree. The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution is not a conflict resolution. I have definitely lost friendships over conflicts in which no one could even compromise. But I endured the process without losing my temper.

If you think that I'm saying this from the delusion of privilege, as a cisgendered, heterosexual, educated, economically comfortable white woman—know that while all those labels are true, they are not my only ones. I have not always lived in comfortable spaces which favor that privilege. I have lived in many places where I was an outsider, a foreigner. I was always well-intentioned. But to people around me, I was an often ignorant, perhaps ugly, frequently awkward—cisgendered, heterosexual, economically comfortable American. I have been insulted and called racial epithets. I have been swindled more times than I can count. I have been kicked out of restaurants, simply for walking in with other foreigners.

The point is, I get it. I understand how hard it is not to cave to aggression, especially when your own anger is warranted. In some of my experiences, caving to aggression could have escalated the situations to dangerous proportions of verbal, physical, or emotional violence. Losing my temper could have cost me my job. Or led to further dishonesty. Or had me arrested.

The better option is to arm ourselves not with insults or vile rhetoric, but with the willingness to engage in uncomfortable dynamics. We are creatures of connection. In this time of deep divisions and violence, it is vital to our survival that we interact kindly, that we disagree respectfully. Nothing kills potential understanding or connection like fear-based aggression. Nothing stops change like lost connection.

One way to handle conflict is to disengage. Not talking is always an option, and sometimes the best one—if you don’t talk, you can’t lose your temper. When I am overwhelmed by emotions, when I know I can’t respectfully disagree, my absolute priority is to remove myself from the situation as soon as possible. Often I tell the other person(s) that I am incapable of behaving constructively.

This approach, however, also prevents deeper understanding. We have much more potential when we can stay grounded in the midst of challenging feelings.

If you’re still gobsmacked, that’s fine. I don’t want to give advice without sharing how to enact it, so for the gobsmacked—I urge you to find a contemplative practice to study. Meditation, breathwork, asana. Find a teacher, a podcast, a book, a friend. Contemplative practices help you train yourself to have different reactions and different behaviors.

I haven’t forgotten the people who are already living The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution. Your extra credit work: Be so composed that you can remind others when they are speaking or acting out of anger—and thus being destructive. Remind people to be kind, that they can hold both peace and disagreement, goodwill and frustration, compassion and accountability.

Here's to 2017—and to grace.


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