One way to live a life of compassion is to see the person, not the problem. This is done through externalization. If we are able to take the viewpoint that the person is separate from the problem, then we are able to experience the person, and not the problem. Such a perception sees the person as separate from the problem. From such a perspective, I am not an “addict,” I am a person with a substance abuse problem. I am not an “angry person,” I am a person with an anger management problem.

If a friend or family member has cancer, do you say that they are a cancer? Or do you see the cancer as something separate, a problem that can be treated and possibly even cured? If I had such a person in my life, I might abhor the cancer and what it is doing to them, but I most certainly wouldn’t abhor the person.

When we are able to see things in this way, we are able to externalize the problem. Externalizing the problem is seeing it as separate from the individual. If I have an issue with emotional aggression, I’m not an emotionally aggressive person. I’m a person who may consciously choose to change my tendency to act in emotionally aggressive ways. By externalizing this tendency in myself, I can come to see it as just a process of the brain, and not a part of my identity. If it’s just something my brain does from time to time, I can choose to avoid the temptation to act on it. If I refuse to feed it, it may eventually go away. Even if it doesn’t, I am still in control. I still have the choice not to act on it.

Likewise, if a friend or loved one has a tendency to act in emotionally aggressive ways, by exercising my non-judgmental skill of compassion, I can see this tendency as separate from their identity as a person if I so choose. The less I react to their emotional aggression, the less effective their emotional aggression becomes. When they see that their attempts to manipulate me by acting in emotionally aggressive ways have failed, then there is no reward for the behavior, and therefore there is no need to continue with the behavior.

Even if they decide to be stubborn and persist in their attempts at manipulation after seeing that they no longer work, I can refuse to participate by refusing to react to their aggression.

When you are able to do this consistently, you will have learned to use the tool of externalization.