Updated: Jun 8
As you “hunker down” and “shelter in place" with your family, everything that’s hardest for you about your kids, your partner and your self is up in your face right now. Every day. With no end in sight. You love these people so much, but they are hard to be with round the clock. Am I right?
The normal busyness of life, the constant movement from one place to another and all the distractions that accompany our usual fast-paced lives have the effect of distancing and delaying the feelings we don’t want to feel in our close relationships. When we always had to get to work, to school, to the next task, we could keep shifting away from the uncomfortable energy between us and inside us, and so we weren’t forced to face it or to address it. But here we are together in these tight quarters, day after day, facing a strange new reality full of unknowns. We can no longer get away. I feel the feelings that are most uncomfortable bubbling up between the walls of my home. I feel those underlying fears emerging within and between all of us. Today they look something like this:
How is she going to deal with her boredom? We’ve always kept her need for contact and socializing fed. Now we can’t, and she’s suffering. How will she work with her suffering?
How is he going to keep motivated and active? School was the thing that kept him on a schedule, when his own physiology has always seemed more inclined toward lounging and staying home. How do we keep him healthy and aware that he is part of the bigger world?
And how are the two of us going to work out our reactivity? There is no buffer now and no promise of time apart. We keep bumping up against our differences and having to figure out how to coexist. It isn’t graceful. It’s exhausting.
There is an opportunity here to learn about and tinker with our inner workings and to become wiser humans and more skillful family members. But we need some solid tools and a lot of encouragement to get there. Left to our old habits and patterns, we will spin together in predictable ways. How can we seize this world calamity as an unexpected chance for building trust and connection in ourselves and our families?
Step One: Bring the curiosity.
Start by listening. Get curious. Stop just talking. Be quiet. Maybe even silent. Let someone else be heard first. Fully heard. Take a deep, calming breath and remember these words: You don’t have to agree with someone to listen with an open heart. See what happens when you let the other person FEEL fully heard. Make this your goal just for this one interaction. Now, appreciate yourself for bringing the gift of curiosity to this relationship. This is a powerful tool. The person on the receiving end can feel the difference, even if they don’t quite know what it is. This is step one in creating a safe space where trust has a chance to grow.
Step Two: Appreciate yourself.
You just did something different, than many people never do. You’re on the right track.
Step Three: Ask for time to be heard.
Ask for what you gave in step one. Let the person you are relating with know that you’d like to just be heard, with their open heart. If they’re in a position to listen, move on to the next step. If they aren’t, stay calm. Demonstrate your calmness and ask them to let you know when they can listen, with an open heart. Share with them that they don’t have to agree with you. (Open-hearted listening means no defensive rebuttals, no eye-rolls, etc. There is a willingness, even a desire to better understand the person speaking. You have to feel mostly calm and safe in order to open your heart. We will work on Open-Heartedness in an upcoming offering. Stay tuned.)
Step Four: Speak for, not from.
Speak about your feelings, but not FROM your feelings. It helps to start like this: “A part of me gets mad when ______________.” By separating out the part of you that gets mad, you get to hold onto a percentage that DOESN’T get mad. This helps you and the listener both feel reassured that you can still love them, even when a part of you is angry. And in fact, that is the truth. When you are scared, threatened, anxious…old insecurities and painful memories are called up, and your nervous system re-adopts more primitive perspectives and strategies that aren’t in fact warranted in the present moment. Proof positive: have you ever said something in anger that you later regret? That was your angry part talking. Not all of you. If all of you agreed with your angry part, you wouldn’t feel regret later. If you can speak on behalf of the parts of you that have intense feelings and beliefs, without fully buying in or identifying with those feelings and beliefs, there is room for all of it. One part of you feels mad, another part is worried, etc. Behind those parts, there is still love.
Step Five: Appreciate yourself again.
You’re being very courageous. Noticing your impulse to be defensive or reactive - and naming it as just a part of you - is hugely hopeful. You have just changed the landscape of your relationship. So much growth is now possible.
I’d love to hear how this exercise was for you and what you noticed/learned. Please send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: Jessica Sorci, LMFT