Arguing with people whom we love hurts. It’s confusing and often resolves nothing. Thankfully, there is there a way to make conflict feel less out of control. By developing the awareness about what your thoughts are doing to make the situation worse, you can learn to feel connected after a disagreement, rather than farther apart.
Once Upon a Time Long Ago…
I was hiking on a relatively low-traffic trail with someone I cared about very much. Suddenly I noticed he was walking farther ahead of me and replying cursorily to what I was saying. I told him I wanted to turn around and go back to the car. He said, “Okay, the keys are on the rear, driver’s side tire.” It was like he wanted me to go.
I watched him disappear ahead of me on the trail. Instead of turning around, I climbed up on a big, flat rock and sat cross legged in the sun, reflecting. I watched what I call my Inner Nasty (IN) or inner critical voice tell stories. First IN was enraged: How dare he leave me to be eaten by a mountain lion? Then she went into the frightened little girl mode: If he cared about me, he wouldn’t have left me alone so easily. Then it said I was getting old and unattractive. I was fascinated by her range of emotion and creative tactics; she tried everything. I sat listening to that cruel part of me that would rather have me end a relationship than love more fully, and I observed with compassion, not believing her.
I took deep breaths and listened instead for truth.
Truth is usually accompanied by love and its message follows whatever the inner nasty voice has to say. We can wait patiently for truth by not getting swept away by the stories and not taking the other person’s actions personally.
This is What Truth Said
This wasn’t like my friend. He wouldn’t leave me unless something really hurt him. And, if I had said something that hurt him, I wanted to know to make a repair. I knew that turning around and going back to the car would be particularly painful for him because he had experienced a lot of emotional abandonment over the years. We both were feeling abandoned for different reasons, but in that particular moment I was the one able to stay in the creative, rational brain and not get hijacked by my primal brain and IN’s cruel stories.
A Happy Ending
I decided to continue on the trail. 20-minutes later I saw my friend walking towards me. He smiled, evidently pleased to see me, and his smile warmed my heart. Of course I was lovable. He said the lake at the end of the trail was only five more minutes ahead and he wanted to show me. We sat by the lake in silence and talked on the way back down the trail. It turned out something I had said had triggered him, and although he didn’t want to, he admitted that he had shut down. We were able to work through it with kindness and make a repair that brought us closer.
Don’t Believe IN
Sometimes you might be the one capable of not taking the other person’s behavior personally and, thus, staying out of primal brain. Or, maybe there will be times that your friend or partner might be the one who can do it. Ideally both parties develop the awareness and are making the effort not to detach. If one person can stay out of the victim state of mind that IN promotes, then there is hope for resolution.
Explosion or Resolution?
It’s highly likely that you did not have people modeling how to remain vulnerable while staying out of primal brain. It’s not your parents/teachers/caregivers’ faults. Their role models probably weren’t all that good at it either, but we humans are evolving. One thing that has become clear is that when emotions get repressed, they build up and, eventually, explode. And when that happens you feel ashamed and guilty or maybe you justify it, but ultimately little gets resolved, and usually the explosion doesn’t match what made you mad or sad in the first place. And if you don’t explode, you might shut down and shut others out, or you may develop any number of unexplained pain ailments (back pain, fibromyalgia, tennis elbow, etc) that physicians will often attribute to physical degeneration.
Next time you are triggered, just watch what the part of you that I call the Inner Nasty is telling you. Question it. Be curious and compassionate. Ask yourself: what would love say (to yourself and others)? Breathe. And just see where the slower, kinder path takes you.