I heard a story from Tara Brach recently at a recovery meeting.
It goes like this: “Imagine you are walking through the woods and you see a small dog. You think the dog is cute and you approach the dog, wanting to pet it. It suddenly snarls and tries to bite you. The dog no longer seems cute and you may feel some fear and anger. As the wind blows, the leaves on the ground are carried away and you see the dog has one of its legs caught in a trap. Now, you feel compassion for the dog. You know it became aggressive because it is in pain and suffering. You go from being angry, to feeling compassion for it.”
This has stuck in my mind. To me, when we meet someone that is unpleasant (that word may be an understatement), if we think about it like they have a leg stuck in a trap, we can cultivate empathy for them. In a recovery context, we could say that the “trap” is the substance they are addicted to. In the emotional context, it could be unhealed trauma, or emotional pain they have suffered. They protect themselves by lashing out.
Everyone has their leg in a trap to some extent, we lash out at others because of our past pain. We haven’t done the work to heal from whatever it is, and it feels good to unleash the hurt.
The next time you come across a person with their leg in a trap, I hope you see them through the lens of this metaphor. Have empathy and compassion. They may have spent so much time in the trap, they don’t even realize it's still on their leg.