As February arrives, I am reminded how quickly time passes, and how much there is to do in a new year. Maybe, like me, you just woke up to check in on the resolutions, goals, and practices you took on for 2021. And maybe you see places where you have fallen off the path already.
If so, how are you talking to yourself about the situation?
NOTICE HOW WE TREAT OURSELVES AND OTHERS WHEN WE VEER OFF TRACK
Are you questioning now if you’ll ever be able to resume your course? Or worse, have you convinced yourself that you actually had no intention to undertake the resolution in the first place, peppering your stand with excuses, and justification? Often when we find ourselves off track, we judge and condemn ourselves. Notice if you are speaking negatively, chastising or cursing yourself. In perhaps the worst form of avoidance, you may notice you have begun to project disappointment onto others, diminishing them or their progress, all in a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable: Accepting that we are where we are.
HOW I SEE COUPLES UNRAVEL OR VEER OFF TRACK
A large portion of the work I do is with couples. Often, they come for guidance as they explore whether to stay or leave the relationship. They complain about distance in the relationship, secrets, an emotional or sexual affair, constant unresolvable arguments, and their partner’s failure to get in their world long enough to understand the pain and frustration they feel. When the level of negativity overwhelms the couple’s tolerance zone, we find each partner turning away, moving into their own corner. This moving away can be deceptively subtle, or as I am apt to say, can seem like “death by a 1000 paper cuts,” and opens the relationship to outside influences, some having destructive impact.
Couples typically have great intentions to stop negative behaviors. They plan to curb what we call in Gottman Couples Therapy “negative sentiment override.” That’s where the bickering back and forth overrides whatever love might be present beneath the turmoil. Old patterns can be interrupted, and communication exercises like Gottman’s Rapoport Method and Aftermath of a Fight can be practiced, but practice is still practice. It isn’t perfection.
Inevitably, an old pattern returns to rear its ugly head. When called out on the behavior (something as simple as texting at inopportune times), the accused partner will usually defend and justify their actions while missing their partner’s flawed attempt for connection. The complaining partner may respond with a sweeping counter-defense, or worse, a contemptuous remark that stings too strongly: “I bet you were texting so and so and doing such and such, weren’t you?” re-activating a cycle of perpetual problems that are not easily resolvable in the state of emotionality in which the couple repeatedly finds themselves.
PAUSE AND PLAN
One thing to do: Hit the pause button. That is, take a moment to allow the dust to settle. It can easily take 20-30 minutes to calm. While we humans have left-brain rationality at our disposal for problem-solving, we are usually stuck in a more right-brain/emotional mind after a heated argument. We’re flooded with physical sensations (heat in the body, body pulsing, heart rate elevated, concentration scattered). In that state, with all the emotional reactivity in the foreground, we are not likely to access the benefits of the more rational/logical area of the brain that will enable us to better reason and communicate what we want.
It may also be better to plan a more opportune time to talk, particularly if late-night or mid-workday conversations are impacting important daily tasks, especially when the couple are also parents.
WILLINGNESS TO TURN THE MIND
Once we find ourselves more settled, another tip to return to our practice or goal is to “turn the mind.” This is a distress tolerance principle from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). At the heart of the skill is acceptance. DBT asks us to first choose to accept whatever difficult situation has presented itself, in order to impact our experience with it. Turning the mind implies a willingness to see that we are stuck somewhere– resisting, defending, deflecting, or otherwise: not taking an action we promised ourselves we would take By turning the mind, we allow ourselves to be right here, right now. From here, we can regain our footing.
Sometimes you can turn the mind by recognizing that your partner does not “always” ignore you, but that they did last week, when it was a particularly bad time. Other times, the task will be more challenging, such as where there has been betrayal or infidelity. In such cases, it may seem like a 24/7 endeavor to accept what happened and find a path forward. Here, turning the mind requires that couples choose every day, perhaps many times a day, time and time again, to accept where they are and take the next step from wherever that is.
REPAIRS ARE A GOOD WAY TO START OVER
It can be hard to start over when you’ve made a mess of things (again) and resorted to defenses that left you and your partner a mile apart. In that case, it is time for repair. By repair, I mean finding a peaceful way to hit the reset button on the relationship.
Repairs can be easy, although challenging to the ego. I give my clients a great repair checklist from the Gottman Institute. What I love is that, when practiced in session, each party sees how a simple gesture can turn a conversation, putting them back on track. The list includes simple requests such as: “Could you say that to me again … more gently?”; “I’m feeling a little threatened by that. Do you want to try that one over?” and “I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Can I try again?”
In addition to pausing and turning the mind to fulfill our relationship resolutions, adopting a practice of simple, authentic repair will get you back into connection and heading where you want to go: We connect to correct.
CALL UPON A CREATED SELF TO REDIRECT YOU BACK TO THE PATH
When you find yourself disappointed in your efforts toward a life goal, remember the purpose driving it. Remind yourself what things would be like if what you wanted was accomplished. I also invite you to activate the imagination and call yourself back to the path. Research shows it helps to speak aloud to one’s self, and all the better when using second-person, such as “It’s going to be okay. Why don’t you take a break and try that again?” You can also call upon the voice of a wisdom figure, perhaps a family member, a mentor, teacher, or coach – what would they say in the moment? Or to a small child that was learning something new.
With gentleness and support, you activate the social brain and reconnect with others, returning to ways of getting what you want versus what you don’t want. Here’s to a year when we can PAUSE, REFLECT, REPAIR, and RETURN TO THE PATH, getting unstuck over and over again.
If you or someone you know feels disconnected and is looking to get back on their path, contact me and we will work on getting unstuck. You can reach me at 954/247-8120, or visit my website: www.TheIntegralTherapist.com.