Crippling Instability in Relationship

Crippling Instability in Relationship

Ideally, we’d all be able to have disagreements with people while regulating our emotions. Most of us, at some point, though, blow our tops. We get our buttons pushed and lose it or shut down or walk away. The answer isn’t always to break up. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s not.

 

It’s useful to understand that, like most things, interactions happen on a continuum. We can yell and throw something one time during one argument in our lives, or it can be a pattern. We can make intentionally hurtful comments when we’re feeling backed against a corner, or it can be our go-to in trying to maintain control in any fight. One of these behaviors might start out as a rare occurrence and, over time, become a mainstay in the way we handle conflict.

 

We all feel triggered and angry. We all take out our issues out on other people. Often, the closer the bond, the more likely it is that a loved one will push our buttons and the higher the likelihood that we will argue. This fighting often separates us from the ones with whom we share our deepest bonds.

 

So, how can we manage our fighting and use our arguments as insight?        

 

Make a Plan:

Having a solid, clear agreement between you and your partner about how to manage escalating anger is crucial for protecting both of you from hurting each other and for protecting any children in the household from witnessing these arguments.

 

A necessary part of this plan is to open the space for a timeout. Identify when you’re feeling emotionally reactive/triggered and take space from the issue. Agree on another time to come back together to discuss it when you can better manage your emotions. Sometimes couples can’t get results this way or can’t stick to the plan. If this sounds like you, please consult a therapist.

 

Be Aware:

It’s easy to identify the subject matter of many of our fights. A skillful tool is to notice the process of fighting, themes, times, triggers, the way we resolve our fights.

 

Do the fights happen on the weekends? Long car rides? Are they often precipitated by a disagreement about finances or parenting? Are they resolved when someone shuts down or explicitly threatens to leave?

 

Paying close attention to our own experience of our fights, specifically when we’re in a neutral or calm state, provides us with substantive clarity. Learning about our partner’s triggers and fighting processes is also useful. We can apply the insights we’ve gathered to new, more beneficial behaviors.

 

It Is Not Weird to Ask for Help:

A lot of people go to therapy- your boss, your no-nonsense sister-in-law who often makes jokes about therapy, your fitness trainer, your coach, the Caltrans worker on Market and 5th. Managing relationships specific to our cultures and upbringing is not inborn. We were taught whatever our families learned and believed, not necessarily what works. (You can’t be what you can’t see.) Luckily, we can learn new information and gain the freedom to choose.

 

It is important to acknowledge that people are complex. Someone can be supportive, loving, calm, smart, independent and also, angry, jealous, controlling, suspicious, and demanding. We might remind ourselves that the qualities we love and the qualities we find challenging exist within the same person. We’ve heard ourselves say things like, “Overall, he’s really great. This is the best relationship I’ve ever had. Once he stops being so depressed, he’ll be able to get his life together. I’ll stop feeling so resentful, and we won’t fight as much.”

 

Or “We really do love each other. She’s basically perfect for me. She just has to learn to stop setting off my anger. Then things will be so much better.” There is both truth and false hope in statements like these. The solution isn’t always to walk away, but it isn’t just to stay and fight either. It’s more intricate than that.

 

How can we navigate this complex middle space? 

 

1) Assess what is working in the relationship and what is not.

2) Be honest with ourselves about our responsibility in the relationship.

3) Be honest with ourselves about what is not our responsibility in the relationship.

4) Understand what our commitment to our relationship means and what we want it to look like.

5) Commit to actions that are in alignment with how we want to manage our responsibilities.

 

Remember that for a couples’ relationship to be healthy, thriving, and fully functional; there need to be two emotionally healthy adults. One partner can do all the work in the world, learn great communication tools, heal their old wounds, and change their part of the dynamic, but if the other partner stays stuck, the dynamic will stay stunted.

 

Commitment is always an unknown, but the more we know and trust ourselves, the more we can accept these unknowns.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

 

 

I am a licensed mental-health professional located downtown at 870 Market St. San Francisco, CA 94102.

As It Turns Out, Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds.

As It Turns Out, Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds.

Have you ever noticed that one guy at work, the one who you’ve never liked, but couldn’t put your finger on why? Or the neighbor who, for some reason, when she smiles at you, you feel irritated? Or why you can’t stand the smell of a certain laundry detergent? Or why, even though you’re accomplished in your field, you feel like an idiot before you give a presentation?

We all have an information processing system hardwired into our brains. This processing system has evolved to help us integrate emotional turmoil into our mental health and is essential for healing. This system helps us to let go of what is not useful information and make connections to what is useful about an experience so that we can adapt, grow, learn, and face similar situations more intelligently.

Here is an example:

You have a stressful interaction with your mother-in-law while she is visiting for a holiday. You feel angry, disappointed, and resentful. Your chest is tight, and your stomach is in knots. You think negative thoughts about her (“She’s always such a cold, demanding jerk.”) and about yourself (“What is wrong with me that after so many years, I can’t seem to avoid these situations with her? Is it me?”)

You keep mulling over what happened, talk about it with friends, maybe even have a stress dream about it that night. The next day, you still feel a bothered by it but not nearly as much. You’re able to think more clearly about it and understand that you two interpret things differently and that there are ways that you can skillfully manage this. This is your brain’s information processing system at work. It’s transformed this disturbing situation into a learning experience. (You can also thank your REM sleep phase for this since this is the time during which wishes, learning/lessons, survival/stress experiences are processed through the action of “synaptic pruning.”

Because of this uninterrupted time to process, your brain was able to associate the memory of the interaction with your mother-in-law and useful information already stored in your brain (from other stressful interactions with her and others) to create resolution. You remember what happened, what worked, what didn’t, and that it isn’t personal, that this is just the way she is and that you have useful tools for interacting with her. The intense emotional reaction you felt the day before is gone.

Unfortunately, our brains do not adaptively store all of our experiences in this way. Sometimes we encounter traumatic experiences or otherwise stressful experiences that overwhelm our brain’s capacity to process and adaptively store information received during these experiences. This is often referred to as “going off-line.” It’s kind of like short-circuiting.

When we encounter extreme stress, the emotional and physical reactions we experience during the event keep the brain from identifying useful information about the situation; there is no resolve. What happens instead is that the event and its information is maladaptively stored. This means that the event and its components are stored in the brain and body as it happened. Everything you saw, heard, felt (physically and emotionally), tasted, smelled, thought remain in their original, unprocessed form.

You do your best to move through it, but whenever any of these senses are triggered, your emotional disturbance level sky-rockets and you have a reaction. Many times, multiple unprocessed events are linked to one another in such a way that if one is triggered, all are triggered. These events, while often linked to one another, are stored in isolation so that they are not linked to anything adaptive.

No amount of time will help them to integrate. It’s as though these events are frozen in time. An event could have happened 40 years ago, but when triggered it’s as though it is still happening or just happened.

Our personalities, coping skills, perspectives, and beliefs about ourselves and others can develop through the lens of these unprocessed events and impact our emotional and physical capabilities.

Research shows that it’s not just clearly identifiable traumatic events that are responsible for this outcome, but any event or pattern that our brain experienced as overwhelming.

It could be the way someone spoke to you as a child, your interpretation of someone’s behavior you witnessed at three years old or making a mistake during an academic oral exam in second grade. We don’t always know how our brains will store an event.

The good news is that we’re not stuck here. There are therapeutic tools that can help us to free ourselves from the suffering of an unconscious cycle or unprocessed event. One of the most efficacious and reliable tools is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy. This therapy helps us to safely contact the disturbing event or maladaptive cycle and process it, giving us a new understanding of the situation so that we can use its information intelligently.

If you would like to know more about EMDR Therapy, please call or email me. I would love to talk with you more about this process and see if it’s right for you. If you’re not quite ready to reach out yet, that’s ok, too. You can find more information on EMDR Therapy here and here.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Triumph in Disagreement

Triumph in Disagreement

At some point, most of us have a hard time letting someone have their feelings. When someone is mad at us or sad about something we’ve done or said, we feel uncomfortable. We get defensive (“That’s not what I meant!”), aggressive (“Ugh, you always do this! Whatever. You don’t need to get upset about it.”), or we try to clean it up by backtracking.

 

When we react to the I-don’t-like-the-way-I-feel-when-you-feel-the-way-you-feel feeling, it usually doesn’t help the situation, right? The other person experiences our efforts as invalidating and self-serving (and they’re right). Everyone gets more upset, and we cause more hurt.

 

So, what can we do? Instead of trying to control how someone feels, instead of trying to control the way they interpret our actions and words, we can show respect and dignity to the other person and their experience while taking care of our feelings about their feelings.

 

This requires:

 

  • Curiosity about the other person’s experience
  • Presence, both with ourselves and with the other
  • Self-compassion for our own experience

 

When we’re employing curiosity, it’s important that the curiosity be as genuine as possible (or at least the wish for it). We’re not looking for ways in which we think they misunderstood us or for an in somewhere. We want to understand their experience. We want to know what they heard and saw and felt.

 

Engaging our presence will help us keep our reactivity to a minimum and provide a solid foundation for the conversation. It’s a great way to soothe ourselves in a moment of upset and show up emotionally and cognitively for the other person (and for any difficult situation).

 

Using self-compassion is helpful for something like this because it helps stabilize us and our need to make sure we’re ok with the other person. It gives us what we are looking for, the knowledge that we are ok, right from the source- ourselves. Often, the reason why we go on the defensive/offensive or try to convince the other person out of their feelings is that we need validation that we’re ok. But when we try to feel ok using those tactics we invalidate the other person. Then, there are two people who feel invalidated and are putting their needs on each other.

 

Managing conflict isn’t easy, and relational discord feels bad. Often, we are challenged by our need to be right and our need to maintain peace in the relationship. Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re wrong. Ultimately, what matters is our ability to validate our own experience and our desire to see and hear the other person. Because many of our experiences will not be shared, it is important for us to be able to validate ourselves and respect other people’s perspectives.

 

The more curious we are about others’ experiences, the more likely it is that we will come to an understanding. If I’m busy trying to talk someone out of their anger, I probably won’t hear their need to feel respected. I probably won’t hear that they experienced me as belittling, that they felt insignificant and small. Chances are, we’ll keep rolling around in the same cycle because we’ll both keep triggering each other and waiting for the other to back down.

 

We will not always do this. I don’t always do this. There are plenty of times when I find myself acting defensively because I don’t like the way I feel when someone else feels the way they feel. But it’s less often. The more I practice taking care of myself and giving someone space for their own experience, the more I feel like it’s my natural primary response.

 

If you’d like to know more about managing conflict, please email or call me.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

7 Critical Checkpoints for Your Anger

7 Critical Checkpoints for Your Anger

Humans are wired for anger. It’s an important part of our evolution. Anger tells us when something needs our attention, when we have an unmet need, or when something is missing. The problem with anger is in our mismanagement of it. And it can be incredibly destructive.

 

The best way to curb the destruction caused by anger and to use it more intelligently is to understand the feeling, to be curious about it. The more we understand our triggers and patterns, the more present we can be with our anger.

 

Start by identifying what activates it. Get a pen and paper and answer these questions.

 

What triggers your anger? (Here are some common ones)

-yelling

-loud sounds

-having to wait (for someone, for something to happen)

-receiving critical feedback or being corrected

-deceit

-when someone talks over or interrupts you

-being/feeling avoided

-being/feeling smothered

-being in conflict with someone

-rudeness

-inconsiderate actions/remarks

 

Then, start thinking about your pattern of anger. Once your wire is tripped, how do you react?

 

What’s your typical expression of anger?

-lashing out directly at someone, yelling, attacking

-passive aggression, withholding affection/love, trying to control someone using emotional manipulation/guilting, off-handed comments, gossip, isolating

-blame, resentment

-avoidance, defensiveness, stonewalling

-punishing, intimidating, judgment, criticizing, contempt, threatening, using ultimatums

-revenge

-throwing things, breaking things

-physical violence

-broken promises

 

What’s it like for you when you engage any of these strategies? Does it get the job done/ get your needs met? At what cost? Do you like yourself when you use these strategies?  

 

What unmet need underlies your anger-trigger?

Here are some common needs that when unmet, cause us to feel anger:

-Feeling disrespected/ need to feel respected

-Feeling invalidated/ need to feel validated

-Feeling scared or unsafe/ need to feel safe

-Feeling abandoned (physically or emotionally)/ need to feel continuity of relationship or proximity

-Feeling or being out of control/ need to feel in control

-Feeling worthless/ need to feel worthy

-Feeling unlovable/ need to feel lovable

-Feeling inadequate/ need to feel adequate or good enough

-Feeling mistrusted/ need to feel trusted

-Feeling wronged/ need to be treated justly

 

When we stay caught in anger, we behave regrettably. We have no idea what our unmet need is. And we don’t even care; all we know is that something has pissed us off and whoever or whatever it is needs to pay. We can go so far off the rails that we forget we love the person with whom we’re angry. When we don’t know how our anger works and it just happens to us, we can’t catch it, pause, and redirect ourselves. Left uninvestigated, anger can kill or deeply wound any relationship.

 

It’s not easy to respond wisely to our anger. I know that. We run on the fumes of righteous indignation. We feel powerful when we yell or stonewall or manipulate or judge. We’re right, and they’re wrong. If the person really loved us, they wouldn’t do this. Given a choice between fully experiencing our vulnerability or a quick jolt of power, most of us would choose the quick jolt. But learning how to take care of ourselves, translate our anger, and address unmet needs is a much more satisfying, viable, and supportive power. This gives us the opportunity to connect on a deeper level and know true intimacy.

 

“When the gentleness between you hardens
And you fall out of your belonging with each other,
May the depths you have reached hold you still.
When no true word can be said, or heard,
And you mirror each other in the script of hurt,
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
May you hear again an echo of your first music.
When the weave of affection starts to unravel
And anger begins to sear the ground between you,
Before this weather of grief invites
The black seed of bitterness to find root,
May your souls come to kiss.
Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
To allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt,
Reach out with sure hands
To take the chalice of your love,
And carry it carefully through this echoless waste
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you
Towards the gateway to spring.”
-John O’Donohue

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie