Check Thyself

More off the cuff than usual today, friends. It’s been a year so far, with few signs of relief upcoming. Breathing deeply:

Do you speak and act out of fear and a strong desire for control, in situations where you cannot have it?

Signs that this may be happening to you:

1. Your muscles get tense

2. Your chest feels tight

3. You feel your heart thumping

4. Your ears ring

5. Your speech becomes louder, higher pitched, faster

6. You feel ANGRY, especially if it’s sudden and intense rage

7. You interrupt people and start gesturing more

8. You feel self-righteous

9. You feel certain that everybody around you is stupid, ignorant, and/or either out to get you personally or totally corrupt and willing to destroy anything in their path to forward their own interests

10. You feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained after a brief encounter

What else?

Words spoken and actions taken in the throes of active emotional hijack can wreak lasting damage on our relationships, social function, and collective culture. The emotions themselves, however, are temporary. They serve to call our attention to something we need to address, something important to our safety, security, and well-being.

How we address the somethings is key to our personal and relational success or failure.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are the core skills to train here.

Some tips (from dialectical behavior therapy [DBT] and elsewhere):

–Ride the waves of emotion like an expert surfer—balance atop them as they complete their natural journey to dissipate on shore, delivering you to the beach again and again

–Check the FACTS of the situation–distinguish between what can be observed and described objectively and what you assume/judge/project subjectively–recognize how you may have it wrong

–BREATHE. Deep breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, countering the activating effects of fight or flight. Slow, steady breathing grounds us and allows us to see, hear, and think more clearly

–Ask yourself, “How will what I’m about to say/do really make things better in the long run, and at what cost?”

–Slow down. Count to ten. Call a time out. Step away. If it’s worth saying or doing, it can wait this little bit.

More and more I see impulsive behaviors, in reaction to acute on chronic individual and collective stress, destroying relationships and shredding our social fabric. It’s so frustrating, mostly because I see it as so preventable.

Self-awareness and self-regulation:  The concepts are simple. The skills acquisition and execution constitute a lifelong pursuit of wildly imperfect mastery.

YES, things are shitty everywhere. YES, we are justified, if only partially, in our fear, anger, frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction.

AND we can choose, at any time, to manage these intensely uncomfortable emotions in ways that either connect us in solidarity and cooperation or divide us in mutual denigration and destruction.

Recognize emotional hijack. Breathe through it.   

Let us speak and act from our core values ahead of impulsive, fearful, and self-righteous rage.

And let us thank one another for the effort.

Read more along these lines from one of my heroes, Brene Brown.

Calm Down and Connect

NaBloPoMo 2021:  Do Good, Kid

If you’re a child of the ‘80s and you’re looking for 45 minutes at a time to flash back during mindless cardio, I recommend Halt and Catch Fire on Netflix, a historical fiction series about the advent and uprising of personal computing and the internet.  It’s like watching a slow motion, multi-car emotional pile-up on the highway in your home town.  You see the speeding Porsche coming around the bend, just as the drivers of the F150 that rear-ended the Corolla and pushed it into the MAC truck, all friends of yours, start to realize what just happened.  You feel dread rising, your muscles tense, you know what’s coming.  You cringe and mutter (shout), “Nooo, don’t do it, slooow doooowwnnn!!”  And you can’t look away.

Hubris, ego, vision, Machiavelli, **relationship**, complexity, trauma, identity—I tapped these words onto my iPhone notepad during one particularly vexing episode, while bouncing on the elliptical.  I find myself both cringing and knodding at the raw, intense, and artfully, lovingly rendered drama of human foibles on this show.  There is something about every character that I can relate to.  I’ve been there, I think (feel?) so often.  I’m invested in these characters and their relationships; I want them to succeed—to ‘do good’.  Halfway through season 2 now, I notice what makes me squirm the most: Witnessing decisions made in the throes of emotional hijack—hurtful words slung in rage, impossible promises made under threat, carnal impulses followed in limbic heat.  It’s fiction, which gives me safe distance to reflect on how I know better, while recognizing my own absolute vulnerability to these same and other lapses.

It doesn’t take much, when someone treads too close to a strongly held identity, a fiercely held belief, or an otherwise sensitive spot in my psyche, to upend my attitude from calm clinician to defensive tackle.  I may not lash out in words right away, but I wonder how this affects my decision making going forward, especially at work.  When I experience recurrent threat, rejection, disdain, or disrespect, real or perceived, from or toward you, what stories do I start telling about you (us)?  How do these morph into entrenched assumptions that then cloud my judgment and compromise my objectivity?  In short, how does my being a normal, emotional human put my clinical decision making, and thus my patients’ health and outcomes, at risk?  How so at home?  It’s all potentially dangerous.

I can think of a few ways to guard against relational and decisive pitfalls here:

  1. To calm down, I can take a few deep breaths, remind myself that we are all humans.  We have the same fundamental needs to feel seen, heard, understood, accepted and loved.  I can ask questions, like, ‘What part of me or the other person is not having a need met here?’
  2. Practice ODP:  Observe, Describe, Participate.  This is a mindfulness tool from dialectical behavior therapy that I learned of recently.  I can take my subjective reactions and judgments and substitute objective observations and neutral descriptions.  This helps me slow down, get space and clarity.  Then I can refrain from speaking and acting from a place of hijack.
  3. I can also practice RAIN:  Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and then Nurture my experience, to gain both understanding and acceptance of myself and my circumstances.  Radical acceptance and compassion form the foundation of right relationship with self and others.
  4. Consult objective others.  Colleagues, friends, extended family, therapists—people outside of the index relationship and who have no stake in its workings can give valuable perspective and insight.  Even better if they can make honest observations about me and my hijack patterns, so I may learn and adjust, over and over.

Our lives are most meaningful, I agree with my friend, when we find deep connection with others. But too often it is our encounters and the very relationships we have with people that keep us from connecting. How ironic. Wow, these posts (and this blog) really do revolve around only a few central themes…

Self-awareness and -regulation are key to a life well lived—that is, a life at the end of which we are more likely to look back with the fewest regrets. Keeping practices and connections that tether us to our highest and best selves, even as the gales of life threaten to blow us away, is how we exert positive agency. We make the best decisions and tell the best stories about ourselves and other people when we are truly grounded and stable.

What practices keep you steady?