Is there anyone who hasn’t been triggered by someone about something this year? Is there anyone who hasn’t felt a near—or flat-out—rift with someone in your orbit from an alien value system?
You don’t have to be a therapist to be acutely aware of the relationship tensions that have ignited, and sometimes exploded, at home or work with a sibling or adult child, a friend or co-worker, your parents or in-laws, or maybe even your spouse.
In the last issue of MD-Update, #130 October 2020, I described three ways not to have an argument. Like many communication strategies, it assumes you’re the rational one who is deftly moving the irrational, emotional family member, friend, or co-worker to rationality and calm.
The techniques are really solid, but what if you’re the one who’s losing it? Most of us don’t like being high on cortisol. So how do you not go there?
Dealing with this kind of stuff is the best—and hardest—part of being a therapist. Getting to be a part of reducing the fear of walking into a conversational ambush, or perpetrating one, has got to be the best job ever.
It’s the hardest because it forces me to deal with my up-close-and-personal version of the very same issues, but it’s the only way I have any chance of being effective, and it’s sure kept me busy this year. Like Winston Churchill said, “I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like to be taught.”
High on Cortisol
Like most of my clients, I hate talking about sensitive issues because inevitably, emotions come up. And if emotions get high, civility tends to get low. No wonder so many of us are conflict avoidant.
This year, I did a deep dive into two particularly powerful practices. They also resonated with many of my clients and correlated with those who seem to make the most progress.
Both of these practices are somewhat counterintuitive, which I immediately find intriguing. It’s like the part of a movie where the Yoda-type character utters some crazy wisdom that at first doesn’t make any sense but ends up saving the day.
What to Do (and Why)
Here are the basics and the reasoning behind them:
Don’t waste your energy trying to keep feelings from showing up. You can’t control this part of the process, so don’t fight it.
Instead, recognize the reality of what’s happening—you’re feeling something—versus trying to ignore it or pretend it’s not happening, because denial renders you virtually clueless…and that’s not smart.
Here’s what’s smarter: accept and allow the feeling to be there, versus automatically trying to crush it. Important: Acceptance doesn’t mean that you like it or that it’s not uncomfortable. Acceptance doesn’t mean you let the emotion run away with you or run over you. Acceptance puts you in a position to do something smart with the emotion, rather than be overwhelmed and undone by it.
Focusing more on the emotion can calm you and get you back on track mentally. Caveat: It’s a particular type of focus that helps you hack into the primitive, reactive part of your brain and walk yourself back to rationality and self-control. So stay with me.
How to Do It
Knowing what to do doesn’t mean you’ll immediately be able to do it. Your current mental programming has to be accessed and updated.
Here’s where the therapy part comes in: we don’t always realize we’re getting emotional and judging ourselves for it. Our internal thoughts and judgments happen so quickly, automatically, and unconsciously, and the resulting behaviors are so reflexive that we may not even realize we’re starting to freak out until it’s too late.
That’s just our brains doing what they’re supposed to do: recognize there’s a problem, figure out something to do, and learn it well, so you can forget it’s operating. This allows you to focus on the next thing and successfully get through the rest of your day.
What’s so tricky isn’t the feeling itself; it’s the self-judgment about what we feel that’s so lethal. The following tools remove the judgment, so we can more easily deal with the precipitating, underlying emotion. That one shift alone may immediately reduce your stress to a manageable level.
1. Embodied awareness is empowering.
My favorite tool for developing embodied awareness comes in Dr. Judson Brewer’s family of apps, based on his groundbreaking research at Yale, MIT, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. They’re based on a simple premise: the only way to know we’re experiencing an emotion is by the physical sensations that accompany it, so start there. Noticing how emotions manifest physically in your body is an alert that something’s up.
Why is this important? Many of us arrive at adulthood operating with a stunning lack of awareness of our feelings, both physical and emotional. Maybe it started as a handy way to avoid uncomfortable feelings and situations over which we had little control. That lack of awareness may now seriously compromise your ability to handle yourself and, therefore, handle others. It’s like your early warning system somehow (and usually for good reasons) got disabled earlier in life. But now, you’re ready to reactivate it. Enter Dr. Brewer’s apps. Here’s why my clients and I like them and use them:
They are ever-present, easy, and enjoyable to use.
Each check-in and practice only take a few moments—anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds. They work because, as Dr. Brewer’s research suggests, “small moments, many times” is an even more effective way to change bad habits than investing big chunks of time. You can set up reminders to help you stay on track.
Dr. Brewer continues to evolve the apps, based on his continuing research. So they just keep getting better.
I get to enjoy feeling subversive, like I’m beating the system. Instead of feeling like technology is running my life, I feel like I’m running my life—and using technology to help me do it.
2. Self-compassion is the new self-esteem.
If you follow me on social media, maybe you’ve seen one of my most popular memes: “You can’t shame yourself into self-esteem.” It’s inspired by UT-Austin professor Kristin Neff’s impressive body of research on how self-compassion gives us a reprieve from the need to constantly defend our egos. The result is that we feel better about ourselves, play well with others, and get more good work done.
Here’s a sampling of how it works:
Acknowledge your own pain: “This is a moment of suffering” is the standard mindfulness phrase, but if you want to be less Buddhist about it, simply acknowledge “This is hard” or “This is really tough.”
Acknowledge the pain of others: “Everyone has times like this. We all feel this way sometimes. It’s part of life.”
Offer yourself some doctorly curious compassion. It’s like the medical school reminder that if someone is having a heart attack, the first thing to do is check your own pulse. Dr. Brewer has translated the idea into a brief app-based compassion intervention:
How are you feeling (relaxed, anxious, joyful, tired, content, sad, excited, irritable, or other)?
How stressed are you feeling right now (rate using a scale of 0-10)?
With your emotions regulated and the rational part of your brain back online, it will be easier to execute the techniques I describe in “The Argument Antidote.”
Next up? Get ready to explore with me another very cool framework for navigating those awkward conversations at home or work. Here’s why: the best things in life lie on the other side of difficult conversations. Stay tuned!