The Key to Stress-Free Relationships
This week I’ve had the privilege of being a part of an intensive couples retreat as a guest therapist. Sequestered in the middle of the Texas panhandle, The Hideaway Experience, located on the cliff of Palo Duro Canyon, guides four couples pained by the negative patterns in their marriage to meet their fears head on, dive deep into the origins of their struggles and create a new way of relating that for most, has never been felt before.
These past few days have not been easy and that’s just from my perspective as a therapist;I can only imagine what it has been like for the participants. What I’ve witnessed here and in my own personal life, is that when it comes to relationships (especially those closest to us; spouses, children & partners), we can be quick to react and slow to respond.
Let me break this down a bit further. Just as we react without thinking when we’re in physical danger (jump back, defend, run, attack), we react in this same unconscious way to emotional distress (argue, attack, yell, flee). In the moment, when fear is activated (physical or emotional) all our brain knows to do is “fight or flight,” attack or escape.
This type of stress the body experiences cuts straight to the core of our being. Meaning, a feeling is activated deep inside based on our confirmation bias (the tendency to favor information that confirms our belief about ourselves or the situation), that sends us into an emotional panic where the limbic system (which is responsible for how we process emotions, as well as encoding and storing memories) engages and sends messages dictating how the body will respond [escape or attack]).
In effect, the frontal lobe of the brain that houses our impulse control, reasoning and logic shuts down and before we know it we’re reacting out of our previous pain, rather than what might actually be happening in the moment.
For example, for someone whose parent left the family when they were young, the belief might be that everyone will end up abandoning them at some point– so why trust? These beliefs are not usually a conscious thought;they are stored away in the brain and easily accessed when the limbic system senses fear, hurt, shame or distress.
Our logical mind becomes disabled during times of high emotional stress and can cause strong reactions in an attempt to protect from further disappointment or hurt. I’m sure we’ve all been there. We get angry, maybe even enraged or shut down and withdraw on the drop of a dime. We aren’t sure what caused such a strong visceral reaction…all we know is it happened and more times than not, we’re left with a mess to clean up. The situation could have escalated to one person walking out, something said that wasn’t meant or periods of silence that can go on for days.
If you’re anything like me,when this happens I tend to try and overanalyze the situation, punish myself for not reacting “better,” and get stuck in what I should have done. Although this may provide some new insight to why I reacted in the first place, focusing on what I ‘should‘ have done, generally just ends up in feelings of guilt (the belief that I did something bad) or even worse… Shame (the belief that “I” am bad).
When in fact, the best thing I can do in this moment is recognize what happened, track back to before my reaction and with curiosity, ask myself these important questions:
- What am I feeling?
- What is this reminding me of?
- What is this causing me to believe about myself?
These questions have the ability to shed a bright light on what triggers my emotional responses and subconsciously leads to the awareness of reactions that might create a larger disconnect with me and the other person involved (usually my husband).
Not only that, they increase my self-awareness for the next time I start to feel those strong emotional responses again. It allows me to challenge my confirmation bias and allow my partner (or whoever else is involved) the opportunity to be separate from my experience long ago and possibly even prove my own belief about relationships or people wrong.
Once I’ve understood what I am feeling, what it reminds me of and what my belief is, I can then be sensitive and curious about what might be going on with the other person as well.
- What might he/they be feeling in the moment?
- What could he/they be reminded of or fear?
- What might he/they believe about himself/themselves?
This type of questioning with sincerity calms my defenses to attack or escape and actually brings me closer to the person I am interacting with. When my posture is engaged and wanting to know more to understand them, I am less likely to respond out of anger or resentment and believe that they, just like me, have their own confirmation bias that has been triggered and their belief about me could me similar to what my fear is about them. Make sense?
Essentially, we then start to see how each person is affected, we can then respond and work to better understand one another without jumping to our own pre-determined conclusions about what we “think” or “feel” will happen based on what has hurt us in the past.
Taking these steps to slow down the process in communication and understanding can dramatically change your interactions with others and instead of creating a divide that gets greater and greater over time leading to disconnect and discomfort, you can begin to rewrite your interactions to be ones that bring you closer, keep you engaged and build compassion for the other.
Being known is the goal of relationships — we just need to first get past ourselves.
DEFINE’s Emotional Wellness Expert, Jessica Pass, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Instructor at DEFINE body&mind. She has a private practice in Houston, Texas, specializing with children, adolescents, individuals, couples and parents. Jessica’s approach incorporates mind-body integration, education and practical strategies to improve emotional wellness, emphasizing all aspects of who we are to live fully and thrive in our relationships.
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