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Coping With Complex Emotions Towards Anti-Vaxxers

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I’ve felt my fair share of anger towards people who refuse to get vaccinated. It is very hard to watch anti-mask, anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests, especially when they are close to home. There are times when I feel the anger and frustration bubbling up to fill my entire body. And it’s not wrong to feel this way.

Anger is a useful emotion which alerts us that something is wrong, threatening or violating. Anger not only serves to alert us, but anger protects us as well. Anger stands in front of our more vulnerable and painful feelings, with the intention to guard us from experiencing more hurt and pain. Anger says, “This is wrong! I won’t stand for this!” And sometimes, when it is in our power, we can respond to this anger by setting a boundary that reads, “I refuse to do this/take this on myself/expose myself to this.” But sometimes we don’t have the power to make changes to the issues anger alerts us to. This can feel frustrating, and cause stronger angry feelings, even rage.

When I am unable to make the changes anger asks me to make, I must be compassionate towards my anger. My anger is just doing it’s job and it is helpful to thank my anger for alerting me to this danger. “Thank you, Anger, for letting me know I am at risk. You have done your job successfully.” Then I ask my anger to step down from the podium, to step away from the front line, and allow me to access my other feelings. “Thank you, Anger, for protecting these parts of me. I will be gentle and compassionate as I touch these hurting parts.”

Sometimes I don’t want anger to step aside. Sometimes I just want to be in my anger. Sometimes it feels like too much work to access compassionate care towards my emotions. But when I allow anger to run free, my frustrations spill out in the form of harsh words, aggressive motions and a bitter attitude, even towards the people I care about and who care about me. If I want to treat those around me with compassion and love, I must first be willing to treat my self, and my difficult emotions, with compassion and love.

When I look past my anger, I can see all kinds of hurt: disappointment, disrespect, betrayal, grief and confusion. For me, these feelings are incredibly strong because many members of my blood family, including my parents, siblings and extending family, are anti-vaccination and don’t believe in the severity or reality of the impact COVID has had and continues to have. I feel betrayed and disrespected by a family who claims to worry about my health, but insists the pandemic is overblown. I feel disappointment that our already strained relationships may never be repaired because of our conflicting views over the pandemic. I feel grief knowing that as the fourth wave approaches, my family all live in the current COVID hot spot where many people have chosen not be vaccinated. I know the reality is that some of them may suffer greatly and even die due to their choices. I feel confusion over their decision making processes, and how they try to use both logic and faith to justify them.

And at the end of it all, I just feel sad. Sad and depressed that there’s nothing more I can do for them. I can share factual information and the reality of the situation, but it is up to them to decide whether to believe it. I can be clear about my boundaries and why, such as not being able to see them indoors, or at all when cases are trending upwards, but it is up to them to decide their own boundaries and safety measures. I love my family, but I must protect myself from both the physical risks they pose as unvaccinated people as well as the hurt they cause me through their irresponsible and inconsiderate choices. It takes a lot of time being with myself and getting support from my chosen family and friends to hold all of these difficult emotions with the gentleness and compassion I need.

But how do we also show compassion towards anti-vaxxers when they have chosen to actively increase harm caused in our communities? The answer lies in the examination of our own anger and hurt. If we have seen and acknowledged our anger, and we have seen and acknowledged our hurts, we are aware of how we can unintentionally cause harm to those around us with our unacknowledged anger and hurt. There might even be times when someone has said to us, “You hurt me with your anger” and we denied the impact because we believed our anger was righteous.

I believe this is what happens to people who are anti-vaccination. When a person has been hurt by the medical community, by government entities and/or by their social community, it must be very hard to trust the concept of collective cooperation sanctioned by both the medical system and the government. It must cause a lot of fear and feelings of uncertainty, which are difficult feelings to cope with.

And when people are unable or unwilling to acknowledge and process these feelings, they are often unaware that their decisions are based in their past experiences of pain. Anger may come in to protect the hurt, and some of this this anger has been directed towards those of us who have “bought in” to the pandemic and the vaccine.

Understanding this has helped me begin to develop compassion towards these hurting and fearful people. I see people embracing lies because their experiences have left them confused about how to find truth. I see people disregarding the harm they cause because their experiences have left them unable to access their own pain, and therefore unable to honor others pain. I see people avoiding the whole situation because their experiences have told them that running is a surefire way to avoid danger. I see so many people with so many different reasons for refusing to participate in the protecting themselves and the community, and I see them as ordinary people, who hurt and love and truly want what’s best for themselves and their families. Even when it doesn’t look like it.

Extending compassion towards anti-vaxxers doesn’t mean I’m not still hurt or angry. Extending compassion towards them means that I have taken care of and made space for my anger and all of my pains, honoring my feelings and showing compassion towards myself above all. Through this, I am able to extend the compassion that already exists for me and inside of me, outwards and into the world.

Compassion for anti-vaxxers also doesn’t mean I am condoning their choices. Compassion for them means I am fully truthful about the consequences of their choices, while remaining loving and understanding in how I communicate these truths. Compassion means that I neither cut off my relationships to the anti-vaxxers in my life, nor do I compromise my boundaries which maintain my own safety and wellness.

Compassion towards anti-vaxxers helps me by reducing my feelings of resentment and confusion around their choices. Practicing holding my anger and hurt also gives me an opportunity to exercise my compassionate care muscles, so to speak.

But this compassion can also be beneficial to the health all of us. Through this approach of compassion and assertive communication, I have made progress in some conversations with people who believed anti-vaccination rhetoric, or just weren’t sure what to believe. Respecting their emotions, including their fears, gave them an opportunity to be truthful with me about their concerns, and I was
able to address those concerns with the factual information available.

At least one person has become vaccinated due to the compassion I was able to share with them, and that alone has made all this effort worth it to me.

Getty image by EireenZ

Originally published: November 1, 2021
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