Over the past few blog posts, we’ve explored in a lot of detail some of the ways we can deal with and prevent anger when it arises with our partners. We will continue to explore this in future posts. In this post, I want to share with you a concept so important that will help you understand conflict in a whole new light. The lesson is: First, Rescue.
When someone is drowning, what do we do? If you’re like me, lifeguard or not, I’ll jump in the water to help get them out before anything else.
If someone is drowning, you don’t yell at them for being in the water and drowning. Well you might, but the first thing that you’re going to do is go out and rescue them. You’re going to bring them in, put a towel around them, ask them how they’re doing, let them heat up, give them water, and make sure they’re going to be okay.
Then, once they’re stabilized and everything’s okay, we’ll ask them why they were in the water by themselves with no lifeguard.
First, get them out of the water and help them be okay, then go asking why they were in the water in the first place.
The same is something that I noticed at summer camp as a counsellor.
When a young child is crying, the first thing I’d do is hurry on over to them and ask what’s wrong. My primary goal is to help them feel good again. I ask what I can do to make it better, listen to them, validate their feelings, and ask if they’d like to be my special helper for the next activity. If there was a conflict with another child that caused the problem, I’d ask each to make an apology picture for the other and then come give out the stickers to the children at the end of the day’s activities.
Everything stops at the moment for the goal of helping the child get grounded in their emotions. To feel good again. And to be happy – it’s summer camp, that’s what it’s for!
I’m sure this is the same thing we do when our children are crying. First we help them calm down, then we go on to continue what we are doing. We know in the moment that when a child is crying, they will not be able to engage with anything until that crying is done.
In the middle of homework? Pause to deal with the crying first. Playing with a friend? Pause to deal with the crying first. Reading a book to them? Pause to deal with the crying first.
Do you see the trend? We have learned with children a fundamental truth that is sometimes lost in adulthood. We have this all within us, we just have to dig a bit to uncover it again.
The Consciousness Car
Do you remember that analogy with the consciousness car described earlier? I want you to think about it again here. If you missed that last article, here’s a quick recap:
Imagine that your consciousness is a car – your brain. There are a driver and a passenger. Who do you think is the driver? The options are the thinking brain and the feeling brain. The thinking brain is responsible for most logical thought, and the feeling brain for our emotions. They are controlled by different regions of our brain (the frontal lobe and limbic system, respectively).
So, who’s in charge? Ask yourself this question to find out: why don’t you do something? Usually, because you don’t feel like it. Our feeling brain is the driver, and our thinking brain the passenger.
Now let’s relate this to the concept of First, Rescue
What happens when someone is drowning? This would be the equivalent of what Daniel Goleman calls an Emotional Hijacking in his brilliant book Emotional Intelligence.
In an Emotional Hijacking, the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and located close to the brainstem, intercepts signals that would have otherwise continued further back to the frontal lobe. Therefore, it can react to situations before the frontal lobe can even register that the situation is occurring. Have you ever experienced this in your life before?
If so, it would look like you doing something out of intense emotion without thinking about it. Yelled at someone without intending to yell at them, and then regret doing it afterward? That’s an emotional hijacking. Say something you didn’t mean, and feel bad about it afterwards? That, too, is an emotional hijacking. Break a vase out of a fit of anger, and feel like it isn’t in your character to do something like that later? Emotional hijacking.
All of these examples of emotional hijackings have something in common. Can you guess it?
A lack of control.
We didn’t mean to say it. We didn’t mean to break it. We didn’t mean to hurt. But we did.
This relates perfectly to our consciousness car analogy started above.
When someone is angry, the driver of the car, the emotional brain is flooring the accelerator. The car is moving rapidly off-road at a dangerous pace. The passenger, our thinking part of the brain, is not in control. That’s why we feel like we’re not in control. We do things sometimes that we would never otherwise! That’s because the passenger has little to no control over the car at the moment. The feeling brain is racing the car in a fit of road-rage, and the passenger is terrified to watch.
The problem is that so often when we see something like this occur, we try to connect with the passenger. Say for example that our partner is upset or doing something emotional. What do we say to them:
- Honey, you’re not being rational right now
- Your feelings make no sense
- Why are you acting that way?
- Where is the logic here?
- Why can’t you see it my way?
- You do the weirdest things
- You’re acting crazy!
All of these are attempts to connect with the thinking brain. But remember, the thinking brain is the passenger. The driver is road-range, and yet we try to work on the passenger. But we need to get the driver on board first! Once we get the driver calm and back on the road in a safe way, we can begin to talk with the passenger.
Get the Driver First
As the driver represents the emotional brain, we need to work on creating connections on an emotional level to get to it. Remember, it only responds to and listens to emotion.
How can we go about this?
Remember the most basic ways we described that people calm down from the previous article: holding, rocking and saying “I’m with you. I’m here.” All of these are ways of establishing a connection. By physically being close to our partners, we can make them feel emotionally close to us. By physically reminding our partners that they are not alone through stroking their cheek, holding their hand, and saying “I’m here,” we can make them feel emotionally like they are not alone.
Emotions are called feelings because they create physical sensations in our bodies. We can reverse engineer this too, to create emotional sensations from introducing their associated physical ones.
Remember from the last post, too, that anger usually corresponds to feeling fear. Therefore, through helping our partner feel close to us and that they are not alone, we can lead them to start to feel better.
What are some ways that we can go about this? Imagine that your partner feels an intense emotion associated with sadness or anger. Here are some things you can do:
- Ask if you can hug them. Then, put your arms around them and hold them for at least 6 seconds. Don’t let go for a few moments, and let them cry on your shoulder if they need to.
- Ask if you can stroke their arm or cheek lovingly with your hand. Alternatively, you can gently trace lines on their back in a loving way, or up and down their legs if they are comfortable. Have them lie on you, such that their head is on your chest or in your lap, and invite them to share with you how they feel.
- Be curious about how your partner feels. Use reflective listening to try to repeat back a summary of what they say to see if you’ve got it right. This will help them feel heard, and therefore not alone.
- Try to describe what you see in your partner with statements that start with “It seems to me that…” This way, we are not labelling our partners with any tags that will make it harder for them to communicate themselves. We will get into all of this more in later posts. We are, however, helping them feel seen (and therefore not alone)
- Invite your partner to do breathing exercises with you. Invite them to breathe in for five seconds, hold the breath for five seconds, then breathe out for ten seconds, hold again for five (if possible), then breathe in again slowly. Keep repeating. This will counter the body’s natural stress response that encourages rapid breathing to respond to threats. Slow breathing, especially on the exhale, will virtually force the body to cancel its stress response. More on this in later posts.
- Assure your partner that they are not alone by saying “I’m here. I’m with you. We’re in this together.”
Once we get our partner’s driver calm and back on the road, we can work to connect with the logical thinking brain passenger again.
Prevent it Altogether
There are a number of ways in which we can prevent this type of behaviour from occurring altogether. We will discover this more in future posts. The biggest ways are setting up effective limits to clearly communicate what is okay and not okay to do with your partner and engaging in self-care.
When we have the right discussions with our partners to help them clearly understand our needs, wants and expectations from each other, it can be easier for them to understand how they can please us. Through working to understand the way we want to share and receive love, we can better understand what to tell our partners regarding the ways they could take care of us. And through working to have friends and passions outside the relationship, we can be more confident in our own self-worth and esteem, making it harder to set us off.
Stress is a cycle that builds up throughout the days which we don’t take care of ourselves properly. It is the body’s message to us that something is wrong – that we feel we are not good enough, that we are not eating or sleeping well enough, and that we are not performing our work or roles well enough. Left untreated, it can explode into intense emotional fits that present themselves to us in the form of emotional hijackings.
We cannot just ignore the stresses that come to us. What we neglect to allocate understanding to in our minds shows up in our bodies. What we ignore in our minds appears in our bodies. There is no way around it. The best way, then, is to take care of our minds and bodies to help them feel understood. We can work to exercise more to help our body feel healthy and relaxed. Sleep more to reduce our stress response in general and improve our overall health. Eat better to make our bodies feel right.
We can focus on reducing little stressors through breathing as they occur, instead of letting them build up and bounce back to us later with more intensity. Stressed at work? Take a minute to focus on your breathing and body sensations. Feel like you want to pull out your hair? Get up, stretch, and drink some water. Go for a walk outside, if possible. Try to meditate.
Whatever small fires you can put out in the moment will help reduce the fire you end up with later. Leaving fires to be dealt with later lead the whole house to burn down.Whatever small fires you can put out in the moment will help reduce the fire you end up with later. Leaving fires to be dealt with later lead the whole house to burn down. Click To Tweet
As we will continue to discover in later segments, we need to take care of ourselves to take care of others. It starts with us. We are the most easily changeable out of any person we will ever encounter in our lives. Who can you change the most easily in the world? Virtually every time, yourself. How lucky are we to hold this special power.
All too often, when our partners are emotionally aroused or upset, we try to connect with their passenger first – the logical brain. But we cannot do this successfully if the driver of their brain, the feeling brain, is taking them off the road in a fit of road-rage at a rapid pace. It would be more effective to work on connecting with their emotional brain first through establishing an emotional connection. This way, we can help to get their car back on the road to help them feel better, be safer, and be themselves again.
We experience the sensation of having the car going off-road through fits of actions done in anger or under the state of intense emotional arousal which we later regret. We may not even be aware that we are performing actions as they are occurring. This presents itself in neuroscience as an emotional hijacking.
When the driver is taking the car off the road, the passenger is virtually offline. It’s as if much of our brain is essentially out of our control due to a need for sheer survival when fast reactions were worth more than logical ones. If a cheetah was coming after you, this burst to act before thinking could save your life. But in everyday interactions, working to prevent these hijackings to occur can serve much more good than harm. Our life is not so much in danger anymore as it used to be.
We know many of these concepts – to first help a child to calm down before moving on – already from our own instincts and parenting. What do we do when a baby cries? Immediately help it calm down and relax before proceeding to do anything else with it, such as feeding.
The same is true though with adults. When someone experiences intense arousal or stress, first, rescue. Connect to their emotional brain first. Then we can move on to the logical one.
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