Christmastime is a difficult time for many, as holiday hopes and spirit sometimes collides with reality when connecting with relatives and friends. This post may be a bit long, particularly with everything else on your plate this season, but I think it may help you thread your way through the labryinth.

In my book, Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be, I present a detailed model of self-concept, the structure of how you think about yourself. This model provides many simple and practical ways to make your self-concept more solid and resourceful, and also gives you the tools to change what you don’t like about yourself into something more useful.

In Chapter 14 I ask readers to think of an experience of connection with someone, and an experience of disconnection from someone, and then to compare these experiences and notice the submodality differences between them. The experience of connection is always found to be richer and more resourceful than disconnection; it always more enjoyable, bright, colorful, 3-D, life size, movie, etc., in contrast to a dim small 2-D black and write framed photo.

Then I ask them to transform the content of disconnection into the richer submodalities of connection, just as I asked clients to “map across” from hate to tolerance or some other more resourceful state in my previous blog post on resolving hate.

After this experiment, I discussed it in the book as follows:

In this exercise I asked you to draw a distinction between what you do inside your mind and what you do outside in the real world, so that you could comfortably experiment with changing your internal experience. However, that distinction is artificial. When you gain greater internal integration, that will always change your external behavior in useful ways, and when you behave differently with someone else, that will often result in a change in their response. I want you all to notice how the mapping across that you have done has changed how you respond and behave, and at least consider whether your new responses would also be useful in interacting with that person in the outside world. You could even test, in small ways that are safe for you, to find out to what extent your new responses work well in coping with the actual external situations that used to be a difficult challenge for you.

This exercise runs very counter to most of our western European culture, in which we have a tendency to rationalize and justify anger and prejudice, and reject and attack the object of anger or frustration. However, in the teachings of many mystics and saints you often find that they strongly advocate staying connected with your enemies, and finding some way of making friends with them. “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him into a friend.” Most of you are probably familiar with Christ’s teachings in regard to forgiveness and “turning the other cheek,” and the same kind of teachings exist in other religions. They knew that the kind of union with all that they were advocating was impossible as long as someone is divided internally.

When people kill other people, it is usually in anger or rage, and that involves disconnection and rejection. If you stay connected with the other person’s humanity, then if you decide in a certain situation that you need to kill someone to protect yourself or someone else, it would be with a sense of enormous sadness that this was necessary. That would make it much less likely that someone would kill. It is too easy to kill out of anger, disconnection and rejection, and I would like to make it as difficult as possible. If you need to kill, it should be with great sorrow, and never in anger. Anger separates, while sorrow maintains a connection.

“Anger” is only one letter short of “danger.” While the harm that anger and violence often does to others is pretty obvious, the harm that anger does to the person who is angry is not so widely recognized — and I don’t mean just the high blood pressure and other physiological effects, but the mental ones.

In many Native American traditions, you find that it is imperative that when you take the life of an animal, you do it with great respect, and sadness, and explain to its spirit that you did this in order to feed or protect yourself and your family. They apparently knew somehow that if they took life in anger or in sport that the “spirit of the animal” would come back to haunt them and harm them, because of the lack of connection and respect.

Even in the Star Wars series, which is of our most popular current mythic icons, there is this underlying presupposition, although it is easy to lose track of it amongst all the slaughter and destruction. The message is that anger and hate will turn the life force against itself, and become the dark side of the force. In the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda, a sort of Zen master, is teaching Luke the Jedi ways:

Yoda: A Jedi’s strength flows from the force. But beware of the dark side — anger, fear, aggression — the dark side of the force are they, easily they flow, ready to join you in a fight. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi Wan’s apprentice. (Darth Vader) A Jedi uses the force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

Luke: There’s something not right here. I feel cold. Death.

Yoda: That place is strong with the dark side of the force. A domain of evil it is. And you must go.

Luke: What’s in there?

Yoda: Only what you take with you. (Luke starts to put on his weapons belt.) Your weapons; you will not need them.

Luke continues to put on his weapons and lowers himself into a sort of cave in the jungle swamp. He encounters Darth Vader, draws his light saber, fights him, and cuts his head off. Then when he cuts open Vader’s helmet, he finds his own dead face inside. In his anger, he has killed himself.

In the third film, Return of the Jedi, The emperor and Darth Vader capture Luke, and the Emperor taunts him with his defeat, and says to him, “Gooood. I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey toward the dark side will be complete.”

But Luke eventually refuses to give in to hatred, and when the Emperor attempts to kill him, it is not hate, but his father’s (Darth Vader’s) love for him that saves him.

So there is an additional message here — that no matter how far into the dark side someone goes, there is still a kernel of love that can be redeeming.

Of course that’s just a movie; how about something more practical. In the Asian martial arts, such as T’ai Chi, Aikido and Karate, the fundamental principle is to stay connected with the destructive force that is attacking you, and then rather than opposing it directly, use this connection to change the direction of the force. In hand-to-hand combat, this approach is very practical, using minimal force for maximum result.

But even more interesting to me is the use of this principle at the mental level, so that the conflict never even reaches the physical level. For many years I have been collecting reports of how people avoided being raped, mugged or assaulted by staying connected with their assailant, and using a sort of “mental Aikido” to find a way to utilize the situation.

One woman was sitting on a fire escape at a summer party, cooling off and having a smoke, when she felt something on her shoulder. She looked over and saw a man’s penis there. She said casually, as if musing to herself, “Hmmm, that looks like a penis, only smaller,” and the guy vanished.

A woman was in bed one night, when suddenly there was a man on top of her. She reached over to the night stand, picked up a quarter and offered it to him, saying, “Excuse me, would you please call the police; there’s a strange man in my bed,” and he left.

A college student was in his dorm room, studying hard before finals, when the door opened and another student came into his room, and said in a dull voice, “I’m going to shoot you.” The student who was studying was totally exasperated at this interruption of his studying, and said in a loud voice, “Look, I’m studying for finals; I have no time for this kind of nonsense; go shoot someone else,” and turned back to his books. The guy with the gun said, “Oh, OK.” and left. About a minute later there was a shot from the next room.

An attendant in a mental hospital was grabbed from behind in a choke hold by a patient who was not only much stronger, but who had a lot of martial arts training. The attendant knew that struggling to release himself would be useless, so just as he began to lose consciousness, he reached up and lovingly stroked the patient’s arm around his neck. The patient stopped choking him because, as he said later, “That was just too weird, so I had to stop and figure out what was going on.”

A woman who was being held hostage by a man with a shotgun at her throat kept telling him jokes, “Have you heard the one about the—” After about an hour of this, he released her unharmed.

Another woman was walking down the street in a rough neighborhood late at night, when she noticed a man who seemed to be following her. She crossed the street, and he followed her. She speeded up her walking and he did, too. She was starting to get a little worried, so she turned around and walked up to him and said. “Excuse me, I’m feeling scared. Would you escort me home?” The man held out his arm and escorted her home. She found out later that he had gone on to rape someone else later that evening.

For a whole book full of stories of creative conflict resolution like this, read Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree.

When many people hear these stories, they think that this kind of response would be very hard to come up with on the spot. Certainly these people were unusually creative. While it may be difficult to come up with a creative response on the spot, it is possible to plan ahead for likely possibilities and future-pace your responses to them, so that they are automatic.

One woman who had a job that required her to walk home late at night through a rough neighborhood always made special preparations before leaving work. First she put half of her hair in a pony tail sticking straight up from one side of her head, and the rest of it in another pony tail sticking out horizontally on the other side. Then she painted her mouth in a very exaggerated “cupid’s bow” smile with bright lipstick. Finally, she put a couple of alka-seltzer tablets in the palm of her hand. When a man approached her suspiciously, she would turn to face him, and smile broadly, with wide open eyes, which was usually enough to discourage him. On the one occasion when that didn’t work, she put the tablets in her mouth and started foaming, and he ran away.

If you examine these examples for what they have in common, there are some interesting lessons. One is that rather than run away or separate from the situation, they stayed connected with the difficulty, and maintained a relationship. Nothing works all the time; I’m sure that there are people who tried this kind of approach without the same success. But staying connected retains access to all your resources, and gives you an opportunity to have an impact on someone else in a threatening situation.

Another common element in all these examples is that they all refused to accept the frame or context that they were presented with, and instead created a new frame that was more to their liking. They each created a context that was much better than the one that they found themselves in, and acted within that frame in a way that drew the other person into the new frame, eliciting a different response.

This was a constant theme in the work of Virginia Satir’s very successful work with families. “Anybody on the outside of me is someone whom I can respond to, but they are never the definers of me, unless I have handed over my charge of myself to them.” In order to offer a new and better frame, these people needed to have all their internal resources available to them, and not be embroiled in the internal turmoil that is always a part of fear or anger, and which would have made them weak and vulnerable.

It can be useful to consider the opposite situation. Can you think of a time in your life when your external reality was rather pleasant, perhaps even particularly wonderful, but you couldn’t enjoy it because you were so embroiled in some kind of internal turmoil? Certainly paranoia is an example of someone who is having a very bad time, often despite the attempts of people around them to help them enjoy life. If you don’t make peace with your internal divisions, you’re going to have an unpleasant time, whether or not you solve external problems, and this is a fundamental message in many spiritual traditions. “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” is not just abstract metaphor, it’s a very direct statement about where the solution lies.

Sue: You have been talking about the problems caused by internal representations that are involved in conflicts. Could you say a little about positive representations?

Sure. When you make peace with a problem representation, it turns into a positive one, which becomes an additional resource that is a part of you. When you love someone, your internal representation of that person enriches you, and becomes part of the internal world that you carry with you everywhere. But you gain much more than just taking in something wonderful from outside. You also discover yourself in all the wonderful responses that you are capable of. You discover yourself as you relate to that other person. If they had never come into your life, you might never have known about your own ability to care, and appreciate, or whatever else you discovered about yourself in that relationship. Every time you take in something wonderful from outside yourself that is beautiful and true, you also discover more about yourself, and you become greater than you were. The more you have inside, the more you can appreciate what is outside.

A small child hasn’t had time to accumulate many experiences, and while they have a wonderful simplicity and innocence, they simply don’t have the experience to really appreciate finer discriminations. For a small child, any candy will do, as long as its full of sugar. Only later can they really appreciate the flavor of real maple sugar or the delicate tastes and textures of other treats, as their internal world of experience gradually becomes enriched. And the same is true of appreciation of art, music, or any other experience.

What kind of internal world do you carry around with you? What experiences have you furnished your mind with? Some people collect resentments, disasters, and other unpleasant memories and then live with them. Imagine what it would be like to put photos and paintings of unpleasant events all over the walls of your home and office, where you would see and respond to them every day. That would be pretty awful, yet that is what many people do in their minds — and unlike their homes or offices, they can’t escape from that. I recently saw a quote from Nelson Mandela — who spent 27 years in prison being beaten — that says it well: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Rather than that, why not furnish your mind with powerful experiences? Striking beauty, deep gratitude, gentle love, lasting pleasure, shared humor, unswerving loyalty, incredible courage, profound wisdom, the kind of connection that brings tears. . . .

I am not talking about denying the manifold horrors of man’s inhumanity and stupidity, but those can be kept at a distance, out of the home that you live in, your mind.

How about building in yourself a personal quality of being determined to live in a mind filled with beauty, truth, and pleasure, and begin, now, to collect experiences that nourish you and assemble them, just as you do for any other quality in yourself? I think that would be one of the most profoundly useful ways that you could use what you have learned in this book to make your life better.

Excerpted from Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be, now available on Amazon Kindle.