If you are not living alone, you may be spending much more time around your loved ones at home these days and, at times, this may lead to experiences of tension. This quarantine has given me space to re-asses my patterns of emotional reactivity. As explained by Brené Brown, many of us have patterned ways of dealing with anxiety that we learn from our family. Some people under-function, retreating and showing up less under stress, while other over-function, being over-controlling, micromanaging and even being bossy when faced with anxiety. I identify with the latter.
As an over-functioner, I feel responsible to “rescue” others and try to “fix” or deal with a difficult situation very proactively. Even during these days of confinement, when I feel slightly stressed (luckily, I have learned to catch myself early on in my stress curve), I stay busy filling every moment of my day, instead of creating more space, staying quieter and doing less, which is what I believe this time is calling for me. This is the default pattern I have learned from a young age, and it just creates a feedback loop of stress for me. The weight of armoring up with excess responsibility and trying to live up to others’ expectations has caused me to try to contort into places I believe I “should” fit in, sometimes stretching myself to the point of turning my back against myself.
I wanted to share some new habits that I have been practicing lately to manage hard conversations, most of which I have learned from Brené Brown, author of “Rising Strong”.
The main idea is to be slow to emotionally respond to a situation.
When we feel hurt by what someone has said to us, we make up a story in our minds about what happened. Hooked by another person’s words, the story we create contracts the emotions we are feeling and often cause us to lose perspective as we enter a tunnel vision of fearful beliefs and/or angry thoughts.
Instead of jumping straight to reacting, I am putting into practice stopping and being curious by asking key questions. The first question is “what story am I making up?” Realize that the question is not “what is the story?” but “what is the story I am making up?” In my mind I am creating a story about what happened which is causing me to feel a certain way.
Writing your first story (which Brené Brown calls SFT, which stands for the “shitty first draft”) on a piece of paper or on your phone can allow you to examine the validity of the story your are making up. Using language to wrap around a tough experience empowers you to walk through it consciously, instead of being taken down by it unconsciously.
When you have written down your story (or, as I now prefer, your “shitty first draft”) and acknowledged you have been hurt, ask another very important question: “do I have all the information to respond emotionally?”
I would say most of the times we don’t. Simply asking myself this question gives me enough space to realize that, at the moment, I don’t have all the information to respond emotionally. Speaking for myself, I will say that if my cup is not full, I am feeling anxious, or for any reason I feel triggered by what my boyfriend has said, I can get fired up by his response. If I haven’t given myself space to pause and asked myself “do I need to know more about this?” I can be fast to reach conclusions and may be offended and reactive about his response, which can sometimes escalate to a full-blown discussion. If, on the contrary, I realize I might be missing information and ask “what do you mean?” or “can you say more about that?” in a calmed way, I will often realize that my first interpretation was wrong or he didn’t get a chance to explain himself.
Sometimes, it’s not about what the other person is saying, but the buttons that have been pushed for you in response to it. Even if at a surface level many people may be unaware of it, it is very common to be triggered because deep down what has been said makes you feel “not understood”, “not enough” or “not truly loved”. These unconscious patterns, which we all have, rise to the surface when under stress or due to someone’s words, and they can trigger deep emotions. So, are you reacting to another person because of what he or she has said, or is the other person just holding mirrors up to your triggers?
Communicating your feelings of hurt to another person is important, but it is more important how you are doing this. As weird as it sounds at the beginning, I practice starting with, “ what I am making up right now is…”
Speaking in first person about the story I am making up and how it makes me feel causes a lot less rejection than blaming the other person by saying something like “you don’t care about me” or “you were wrong to do this”. Expressing your feelings this way under difficult situations will change the course of your discussion and empower you to work through it more easily than if blame is involved.
Emotional non-responsiveness also involves mindfully using calmness as a response to anxiety or rage. Anxiety is the most contagious emotion, so when one person bring anxiety to a situation it catches fire. Fortunately, calmness is also contagious and due to our mirror neurons, we try to match the other’s emotional response during an interaction. For instance, shouting “calm down!” to another person is a clear trigger and feels like a punch in the face. Instead, reflecting back what you want to see in them with your voice, cadence, tone and breath can lead to a complete different response from the other person.
Practicing emotional-responsiveness by taking a deep breaths and asking these simple questions can help you deal with triggering conversations. Probably, if you have been asking these questions, at this point you have rewritten your “shitty first draft” to a more realistic and accurate version that is making you feel less emotionally overwhelmed and more calmed.
These practices aren’t easy, simply because we have patterns of emotional reactivity that have become our default way of responding. However, as any other habit, it is about putting them into practice. In moments of uncertainty and anxiety, I hope they help you manage emotional reactivity and gain perspective as they have done for me.