Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.
There are some great analogies and clear examples in this podcast entitled Brain Science 101 How Understanding Your Brain Can Improve You Relationships via Therapist Uncensored.
They give an easily understandable overview of how the brain works and what is possible if we are committed to trying things differently.
I found the conversation, not so much an entry level 101 class, but thankfully more remedial. The talk helps me understand my responses, and therefore, the responses of the people around me. If I can see myself more clearly I can see those around me more clearly too.
Taking a Two-Sided Walk
One of the two lessons that really stuck out was the discussion of the Two-Sided Walk.
Essentially, the podcast hosts suggest walking “as far as you want and feel angry and self-righteous.”
Easy peasey. I can do anger and self-righteous. Also, snark. I’m good at snark.
But how not be stuck there?
“When you get tired and turn around,” suggests Therapist Uncensored. “On the return trip, “you have to spend the walk back considering the opposing perspective.”
“WTF?!” Pride declares.
“They did this!” my Brain adds.
“They hurt me!” announces my Heart.
“And then I’m asked to spend the resources trying to see it from someone else’s point of view instead of plotting revenge?!”
“Fuck that,” is my knee-jerk reaction. “They did this to me and they need to take responsibility!”
And of course, they should, but in truth, I can either spend my energy trying to convince them of their wrongness, or of my rightness. However my criticism and contempt simply adds oxygen to the heat and fuel of the fire giving rise to a smokescreen of defensiveness and stonewalling.
The other options is I can try to meet the person, and issue, with generosity and look to see the world from another perspective. That doesn’t mean I agree, forgive, or condone.
However, how I respond is my choice. If the relationship matters (which it must or else why am I angry) I’m left to wonder which approach builds walls and which builds bridges?
Which choice offers the outcome I actually want? Which frankly, is love, closeness, and connection.
Which choice allows me to be closer to the person I want to be? Am I willing to be the change I demand?
This doesn’t mean I am a doormat or weak or should suffer abuse. That doesn’t mean throwing yourself on anyone’s sword. There is no truth, power, or freedom in statements such as, “You made me do this” or “You did this to me.”
Do not oversimplify the point.
I’m simply saying, in the case of my most important relationships, I need to be willing to see things from someone else’s perspective, learn their intentions in order to transform the conflict into a richer, deeper and more meaningful connection.
Does that mean they will understand and change?
Of course not. They may never hear me and as such, it is my responsibility to make other choices.
For example, last year I moved back to Yo-Yo Town because that is where I want to live. There was no reason for me not to live there.
Just as my exes are not responsible for my well-being, I am not responsible for theirs. If living in a place I love made others uncomfortable they should speak up instead of running and expecting me to continue taking care of them long after they choose to end the relationship. I’m only responsible to the relationships, I’m not responsible for the relationships.
We’ve established I don’t read minds. Frankly, if an ex never voices any concern to me about what I do, what is my obligation? And by all indication, she won’t.
I cannot live a life worth living if I am trapped in the role of Hero and taking responsibility for the emotional well-being of every ex. I tried that route and it is unskillful and unhealthy. Only I can break the pattern and that will make me appear indifferent to others even when I’m not.
Just because something hurts me doesn’t require others to stop doing what it is that hurts. My ex’s silence hurts but that doesn’t mean she should talk to me. She isn’t any more responsible for my well-being and feelings than I am for hers. I choose my triggers. I choose my solutions. I’ve chosen to see that whenever I hurt it is because I am judging it as bad…and I historically, out of unskillfullness and pride, I only want to feel good.
I realize I have become, like so many, convinced I am entitled to feel happy and positive.
Once I accept I am entitled to nothing I am free to see things as they actually are.
For example, months ago I came to the conclusion my ex’s silence isn’t bad for me. Her silence has freed me and allowed me to see her and our relationship more honestly. What I do with that lesson is up to me. Where I go is my choice. That isn’t self-deception but rather self-awareness. What has happened hurts but it wasn’t done to me.
There is a meaningful distinction layered in the language.
Pain is lovingly pushing me towards more vulnerability and every time I have fought against feeling the pain I have made it worse for myself and occasionally for others.
My lies and secrets were about avoiding pain. My Heroing was about chasing good feelings. And in the end, I felt neither good or bad feelings because I was too trapped by activity to sense much of anything other than panic.
However, in the plus column, after listening to the Two-Sided Walk I realized: this is consistent with precisely how I manage conflict the majority of the time.
On more than one occasion I would walk away from the fight, go for a drive or walk, until I calmed down and then on my way home, I would spend my energy on gaining perspective and trying to empathize with why they did the things they did or how my actions may have fueled their reaction.
That is not fleeing.
Fleeing would mean I never face it. Instead, over and over I would walk back into the situation and apologize, take responsibility for my part and ask what I could do moving forward to make it better.
That is actually skillful.
What is unskillful was that I did this without boundaries.
I often acted the Hero and thought it was my job to fix relationships, people, things. I rarely if ever said, “I hurt, this is why, and I’m not sure what to do next.” Instead, I’d bottle it up, shut down, and tried harder to make everyone more comfortable.
I would end up making excuses for the behaviors of other people, throwing myself onto the sword, and trying to address the problem alone…because that is what heroes do.
I think this approach becomes obvious when I read through my past writings and review things with the Good Doctor and friends. Even in my writing, when I write about C or K’s patterns and choices, and how they hurt or made me angry, I also write about how I can see it from their perspective.
I try to greet their choices with generosity and perspective. Sometimes I fail…but eventually I always come back to the same three principles:
- Hurt people hurt people
- Healing is an inside job
- The only right we have with other people is to leave
I’ve never believed any of my choices, or the consequences, are “Her fault.” I’ve never blamed her for my actions. Actions full of shitheadery and ugly and fucketties. I’ve always acknowledged her sovereign right to her life and the right to make those choices.
I want the same things for her now I wanted when I decided to love her: contentment, happiness, and success.
Language of Security
Much hay is made over the Love Languages and while important the folks at Therapist Uncensored suggest we should focus on the language of security.
Language of Security is essentially knowing your partner’s “history and what feels like an alarm bell to them.” Recognizing the emotionally, physically, sexually, and spiritually unsecured places for your partner are essential to navigating conflict in a meaningful way.
For example, I took their comments to mean that if you know your partner has been sexually assaulted it’s important not to back them into a corner during sexual playtime.
If I understand my partner’s alarm, it allows me not to take it personally when they decide to fight, flee or freeze. It opens a door to a conversation about what is the “thing” and not simply the “way of the thing.”
Instead, “what often happens is because their alarm bell is so different than ours,” declares Therapist Uncensored, “we actually get angry and try to convince them they’re being unreasonable.”
And so what is intended as reasonable and not as gaslighting to you becomes gaslighting and not reasonable to me. The intentions get lost in translation and when something catastrophic happens not speaking in a Language of Security mixed with our unskillfulness becomes fodder for ghost stories.
For example, years later one of my ex’s declared my desire to secure life insurance and have wills drawn up was a red flag that I was controlling.
Essentially, for reasons, I still do not understand fully this was an alarm bell for her. Over the years it grew into a seething resentment she stuffed into her gunnysack to be pulled out later and used as fuel for her anger.
At the time I saw it as the responsible thing to do in a relationship that included children and a mortgage. I felt it was an act showing my commitment and attempts to create security. When she kept ignoring me I let it drop because she wouldn’t talk about it.
She just kept kicking it down the road.
And not being a mind reader, I assumed I wasn’t doing something right and started an internal shame bank. “I made her mad so I must have done something wrong.” Then I would start guessing at solutions.
Now if my alarm bells were properly synchronized I could have seen that as a warning sign I am more committed to that aspect of the relationship than her. And while I was thinking twenty and thirty years out perhaps she was not.
Perhaps she was thinking, “When I need to get out of this relationship this will complicate things.” Although, in fairness maybe she doesn’t even really know herself.
I don’t know because in many respects I don’t know that much about my exes and their alarm bells. Not because I didn’t care but because I wasn’t skilled enough to ask, or they weren’t skilled enough to educate me.
And this is why the Language of Security matters.
If my ex had come to me at the time and explained to me she was uncomfortable with doing this we might have been able to negotiate and transform her feelings of conflict. I may have more clearly understood the nature of our relationship and I could have made better-informed choices. Instead, we set upon a path where, by the end, we were left with a five-alarm fire and no infrastructure to bring water to sooth the flames.
In fact, upon reflection I can see how my attempts to sooth became fuel for the fire.
I am going to do better moving forward.
I’ve included a link to the podcast and show notes below.
Worth listening. Good stuff.
- This episode offers a foundation for future episodes. This is key to understanding the relational brain so that you can use that information to help build secure relationships.
- Everyone has security in them or the capacity for it, no matter what background you show up with
- There are three specific structures that affect our sense of well-being
- The prefrontal cortex – the front of the brain.
- This is where we want to live in – it is our most mature, “adult” flexible self
- If our lights are on here, we can be our best selves. We will be compassionate, be able to perspective take from other people’s positions, and function more like the grown ups we mean to be
- This works slower and needs more time to respond. It is a challenge especially if you have a rough or neglected history
- The hippocampus
- This modulates memory, and the autobiographical narrative of ourselves
- For example, the more that we can remember our past and our future with each interaction, the more we can stay in the higher part of our mind (pre-frontal cortex – PFC).
- The amygdala
- This is primitive, more basic part of the mind and is physically lower in the brain
- It is about assessing danger and threat.
- This is your fight or flight, your guard dog, is at the level of mammalian interactions – fight flight flee (freeze)
- It exaggerates and works really fast.
- It’s not good at discerning things. It sees in black and white and is only out to protect the body.
- When we perceive significant enough threat, our prefrontal cortex will turn down and our amygdala will increase in activation.
- In this state, the amygdala will respond as if things are actually a threat (shark music plays).
- Once our prefrontal cortex has time to perceive this, though, we can see nuance, differences, and diffuse threat. Goal is to get PFC back online, this takes time.
- Suggestion: Two-sided walk if your amygdala is activated.
- Walk as far as you want and feel angry and self-righteous. When you get tired and turn around, though, you have to spend the walk back considering the opposing perspective. This engages the PFC.
- Brain plasticity.
- Our brain structure is formed by patterns in behavior, but those patterns can be changed.
- Knowing that your threat system is activated and seeing our own warning signs allows us to work against responding automatically. It gives us choice, responsiveness.
- Practicing this can physically alter the structure of our brain in a way that permanently helps us.
- The prefrontal cortex – the front of the brain.