Ever walked away from a conversation thinking, “why on earth did I say that?” Are you plagued with “foot in mouth disease”? Making sure that we are fully present and conscious is the difference between reacting and responding. Rather than allowing default tendencies and unconscious mindsets to dictate our lives, we can put our ego in the back seat and respond with intention.
As humans we have the blessing and challenge of memory and reason. For many of us, that translates into grudges and interpretations. We stereotype and make assumptions based on past experiences and emotions, often without even thinking. Stereotyping makes it easier for the brain; we make generalizations so that we don’t have to process everything that happens to us. Sometimes, though, we take it to the extreme. A friend of mine didn’t name her son Nicholas, even though it was her husband’s favorite name, because she was reminded of a former co-worker who had made her feel insane.
When you add emotions to the mix, it gets really complicated. Even if our rational brain understands what is “really” going on, underneath the surface lies an array of automated emotional responses that leap forward at inopportune moments.
These emotional responses can be described as “disowned selves.” It’s that five year old, lurking inside you, who is always worried about getting enough dessert because the older kids always got there first. It’s the rejected teen whose best friend “abandoned her” to hang out with the popular girls, and is certain, secretly, that every close relationship will eventually leave.
Think about life as a car ride. Our primary personalities (e.g. responsible, attentive, orderly) are driving in the front seat, while our disowned selves are chauffeured around in the back seat. We are in the trunk, just along for the ride. Every once in awhile, unannounced, one of the back-seat personalities dramatically takes the wheel – either slamming on the breaks or hitting the accelerator – and there we are, in full-blown, unconscious reaction mode.
The first step is awareness, noticing what is happening when we are reacting.
The second step is owning our responses. Accept that responses are a normal part of the human condition, and everyone experiences them. Some of us tend to beat ourselves up, to want to get rid of our reactions, labeling them “bad” – as if somehow, magically, we could emerge successfully from our past without any baggage. Wouldn’t that be nice!
The third step is taking action. Shift to responsibility. Even though reactive responses are normal, they can get in the way. For parents, it’s important that we try to be aware enough to 1) prevent a full-blown reaction-based response with our kids (rarely a good thing) and 2) model conscious behavior. In the long run this will help us, and our kids.
One trick that I’ve been playing with lately is breathing. (I’m working on it, but am certainly a long way from mastery.) Before reacting in any situation, I take a breath. This can give me time and space from my default, automatic responses . It allows me to respond as my conscious adult, rather than my frantic five-year-old.
A key part of responsibility, of owning our responses, is 1) noticing when our reactions have gotten the best of us, 2) promptly admitting our wrong-doing, and 3) making amends. Even with our kids, especially with our kids. How powerful (and often difficult) to admit our humanness and help the next generation learn to manage even more effectively.
Finding compassion for others in our lives going through this reactive cycle is another piece of the puzzle. It’s much more likely that your husband’s inner five-year old is arguing with you, than is his conscious adult. Think about understanding and accepting all parts of each other. Decide that you are willing to be the grown-up in a situation and call a time out until the real you (or him) can come back to the table.