How do I stop being reactive? I get this question from my coaching communication clients all the time.
You know, you could be enjoying a lovely Valentine’s dinner with your partner. Everything is going great. You’re loving the food, the wine, the company. You feel relaxed and at ease. And then, your partner does or says something that you really dislike. Your Valentine’s date is now a date with disaster.
In an instant everything around you: the easy vibe, the food, the wine, all falls out of sight. A little inner voice says: “Watch out! You’ll end up arguing, fighting, maybe going home hopeless about the whole relationship!”
Why? Because you felt a button being pushed inside and you’re going to get reactive. The bombs are going to fall – judgment, blame, defensiveness, aggression, and all the other weapons in your arsenal. It happens every time.
I use the metaphor of a weapon because our communication becomes a form of violence, and if unchecked, can sometimes lead to physical violence.
So how to defuse the bomb? If you’ve ever asked yourself that question - and I sincerely hope you do - I have three strategies I teach my clients to stop their own reactivity. These will help you avoid going “there”- to that devastating place of disconnection and dissatisfaction that comes from battling with our intimate other.
#1. Understand What’s Really Going on With You
The first thing you can do is take a moment to listen and understand what’s happening for you when that button gets pushed.
When you’re triggered, you usually don’t pause to get to know what you’re experiencing. You jump into action; you do or say something right away. This is because when that button is activated, the back of the brain – the so-called reptile or critter brain - gives you danger signals that swiftly lead you to do or say something to protect against perceived danger. In a sense, your brain is telling you that instead of having a lovely date with your partner, you’re now confronted with an enemy.
And when your flight/flight/freeze responses are activated, the neo-frontal cortex - the part of your brain in charge of strategic thinking - is no longer in charge.
If you want to get out of a potential ‘bloody’ mess, you need to understand what’s going on within you. The very act of trying to understand calls your neo-frontal cortex into action; directs your attention out of the battlefield and into creative and skillful ways to navigate the situation.
To understand what’s really going on with you, ask yourself one of these very important questions:
Am I really in danger?
Is this what I want to experience with my partner?
What would going to battle with my partner get me?
#2 Remember You Are an Adult. As an Adult You Have Choices
When you were a kid, your parents, caregivers, teachers, and others made choices for you. Some decisions were mundane, like what you’d have for dinner. Some were more profound, such as what you should do or say when you felt upset. For example, my dad taught me “never show you’re upset because that would make you weak, better to pretend it didn’t bother you and that you’re above it.” A client’s mom told her if she felt upset, she should blame the other person for causing the discomfort and get bigger and louder because that was the only way to get respect from a man. These are powerful lessons that become part of our operating system.
When that inner button gets pushed, you tend to go into automatic pilot. You repeat behavior and communication styles from your operating system. And those past behaviors and expressions were chosen for you by your caregivers and your circumstances.
As an adult, you get to choose. When you feel triggered, you don’t have to repeat your expressions or actions from the past.
A great way to help you remember you have choices is by asking yourself the following questions:
What do I really want to experience with my partner right now?
What do I choose?
What else is possible for me to do or say right now?
#3 Be Mindful about What You Reveal to Your Partner
A client told me she was upset when her partner didn’t kiss her right away when they met at a restaurant. Her friends were there and eager to meet her partner and she was excited to introduce this person to her friends. The lack of immediate show of affection pushed her insecurity button. She completely lost contact with her friends, her partner, and the love and excitement she was feeling during the whole dinner.
She got triggered because she had spun all sorts of stories about what it “meant” that her partner hadn’t kissed her. This story was full of judgment, fear and blame.
So what do you reveal to your partner when something like this happens? If you want to create intimacy and connection, sharing the story in your head may not be a good idea. This story may have no basis in reality and is just a neurotic reaction to an uncomfortable feeling. Simply unloading your neurotic thinking is likely to scare or annoy your partner, and doesn’t authentically reveal what is really happening for you beneath the automatic reactions. Deepening your connection comes from revealing what is authentically true for you and can be vulnerable and tender, rather than reactive and judgmental.
So before you reveal yourself to your partner, ask yourself these questions:
What do I need to do or say to get back to connection?
What’s most useful to communicate in this moment?
Is this a good moment to reveal what’s inside?
If you remember to pause to understand what you’re actually experiencing, remember you are an adult with choices and are mindful about what’s useful to reveal, you’ll likely communicate with your partner with clarity, confidence and compassion. And when you do, your connection and relationship thrive.
I’d love to hear from you if you’re able to stop your reactivity in its tracks and say or do something more creative, spontaneous and useful rather than habitual, combative and disconnecting. And if you tried but it didn’t work out, I’ll be happy to chat with you about working with these situations to foster greater connection in your relationship.
And if you’d like to receive practical transformative communication directly in your inbox, sign up here. I would love to contribute to you and your relationships!