Why do we suffer? It's universal

Why do we suffer?

Every single one of us will experience some kind of challenge during our lifetime. These challenges are inevitable. Navigating those challenges, and learning what we need to learn from them, are some of the most productive experiences we will have. When we recognize the universality of adversity in the human experience, we are able to ease up on ourselves as we struggle our way forward through these challenges. Instead of asking "why do we suffer?", we learn to ask, "what can I learn from this?"

I have been working as a therapist for over a decade, and I have seen clients struggle with the three big stressors: health crises, relationship crises, and financial crises. In every case, it is as though the Universe is bringing up issues, sometimes repeatedly, to show us where we are vulnerable. Being courageous in the face of this vulnerability is the first step to healing.

Being Courageous

This means that we take the position that our struggles are not some "unfair thing" that is happening to us; instead, we choose to believe that in overcoming our struggle, there is a tremendous opportunity for personal growth. Surely, there are unfair things that are way outside of our control that do happen to us. But placing our attention there saps our energy and removes us from our personal empowerment. By focusing instead on how we can grow from these hard experiences, we put ourselves in the driver's seat of our lives.

Fostering a sense of authorship

I have noticed a pattern so often that I am now deeply convicted of its truth: When we focus on the things that we can do something about, we feel a sense of efficacy, of authorship, over our lives. Most of life is out of our domain, but it as though we are an artist; we have been provided the canvas and the paints, but we are the ones holding the brush. It is up to us to create the best we can with what we have.

Sometimes, friends and family, books and workshops, places of worship or spiritual practices help us through our struggles. Sometimes counseling can help. If you are struggling and would like some perspective, give me a call.

The words we speak

The words we speak

Our words affect our feelings, and create our lives....

Words have power

The words we speak create the context and template for our lives. Our words have a lot of power, so it is important to use them with care. When we are precise with our words and avoid dramatic emotional language, our emotions calm down and life becomes smoother.

I am a therapist, so I have plenty of opportunities to hear how people talk to themselves, and talk about themselves. I also am a human being, and therefore I have plenty of opportunities to talk to myself, about myself! And I know, from both perspectives, that words matter.

Words matter.

The words we speak matter. They create the context and template for our lives. They drive our emotions, for better and for worse.

As you read these phrases, try to feel into them:

  • This is awful.
  • I can't handle it.
  • You make me furious.
  • This is unbearable.
  • I will never get over this.
  • I'm sick of it.
  • I'm tired of it.
  • I can't take it anymore.
  • There's something wrong with you.
  • There's something wrong with me.

All of these common phrases carry a lot of emotional weight. So much weight that they can trap us. Using words and phrases like these can pin us under our emotions.

We all experience all of the emotions, the comfortable ones and the uncomfortable ones. They are part of being human. We all experience challenging situations, heartache, and loss. These are part of the human condition.

Acceptance and grace come when we are able to strip away the emotional language. When we do this, we are left with a situation ― whatever the situation is ― that we are better able to handle.

Words work magic

The magic comes when we can identify that we are experiencing a certain uncomfortable feeling, and that the feeling is ours. This allows us to move toward a state of grace with what is.

Using simple, clear, precise language to describe our situation helps us to get into a state of acceptance, a state of grace, with what is. It is more common to resist uncomfortable situations. Our cultural myth holds that when we suffer there is something wrong. We rail against the injustices we experience and the unfairness of it all; we want things to be the way we want them to be. And that leads to emotional discomfort.

We feel better when we recognize that all this suffering is normal, and everything is changing all the time. We learn to accept that things don't go our way. People die. Couples divorce. Children leave. Lovers break up. Companies fail. Everything is temporary. We all experience loss.

Words in action

I recently talked with a client about her breakup. She said,
"I was such a mess, I drove away the one person I loved most; now he is
repulsed by me."


I had heard about the breakup. I had heard that theirs was his first real relationship. I also had heard that he wanted things to be "as they had been before." They were still talking on the phone twice a day. It was a complicated situation.

I had never heard that he was "repulsed" by her.

"Let's try some different language," I suggested.

I much prefer the narrative that the pressures of a long-distance relationship took their toll on this couple. They had loved; she had grown anxious about his love (an anxious attachment style is pretty common). He had grown more detached (a avoidant attachment style is also pretty common). He valued her very much and did not want her to hurt. He was new at the whole romantic relationship thing, and maybe didn't realize that feelings wax and wane, problems arise and resolve, and people are perfectly imperfect. They both learned and grew together. They parted with kindness and compassion, and on friendly terms.

And it hurts. Of course it hurts. How could it not hurt? And it passes. Everything is temporary.

Words in practice

She tried my suggestion. She re-stated the case. She did not say "he is repulsed by me." She said, "he broke up with me." She didn't say "I was such a mess." She said, "the pressure of the distant relationship took a toll on me, and on him." She felt a little better. She even smiled.

When we use big emotional language to describe our situation, we can't find our way out from under it. Yet when we use precise language to describe our situation, we get some of our power back. It does not change the situation, but it helps us feel better about the situation. And that is usually the only thing we can do anything about, anyway.

Blame vs Responsibility

The line between blame and responsibility

Blame vs. responsibility

There is a huge difference between "whose fault is it?" and "whose responsibility is it?" Learning to distinguish between the two (and learning which question to ask) is powerful and empowering.

In a therapy office, blame is often present but rarely
useful. Clients come in to deal with problems, and those problems have origins ―
and they have solutions. Many of my clients torment themselves with self-blame,
or they are caught in a loop of blaming others for the pain they are
experiencing. These ways of thinking keep us stuck. Understanding the genesis
of a problem is helpful; taking responsibility for solving it is ― well, it is everything.


Self-blame is like a poison, keeping us stuck in the past
and nurturing feelings of not being enough, not being worthy. It is the
antithesis to self-compassion or self-acceptance. Self-blame dims our light.
When we are stuck in a pattern of blaming ourselves, we necessarily will be blameful
of and hard on others. When we can't love and accept ourselves, we will have a
hell of a time trying to love and accept anyone else.

Blaming others

Blaming others is like fly tape. When we keep blaming those
who have wronged us, we stay stuck in the problem. The more we rail against the
unfairness of it all, the more we lash out with blame in thought or word or
deed, the more stuck in the problem we become. 

That does not mean that important childhood events don't
leave their mark on us. The trick is to tell the story in a way that sets us
free, rather than that keeps us stuck. And then, we need to move from the
problem to the solution.

For example, it is one thing to say, "I have low
self-esteem because my mother criticized me constantly; it is her fault! She
did this to me."

It is quite another to say, "I have been living with low
self-esteem for a long time, and it probably stems from the way my mother criticized
me when I was a child. She was not very skillful and was probably pretty
wounded herself."

Whose problem is it now? And who has the power to solve it?

In order to live happy, peaceful, empowered lives, we need to take the reins. Ultimately, our healing lies in our own hands. It is not possible for our critical mothers, or abusive relatives, or inept teachers, or anyone else from our past, to solve the problems they set up for us. Only we can do that.

The first step to solving the problem is to step outside of blame and into responsibility. Yes, this problem has an origin. Yes, someone did something. And yes, now we have a problem to solve.

Blame vs. responsibility: We have a problem to solve.

When we make this shift, the problem and its solution have become our responsibility, and our healing has begun.

A Case for Counseling

Why Get Counseling?

Getting therapy isn't just good for you. It's good for the people in your life.

I'm a therapist, so maybe I'm biased. From my perspective, there are benefits of counseling that are important, not just for the one getting counseling, but for everyone in their lives. Therapy is the opposite of self-indulgent. It is actually a win-win; it is pro-social. This is because of the effect we have on each other. The more we are happy and self-accepting, the better we will treat others and the more accepting of others we will be.

The whole is the sum of its parts.

Our human family is made up of seven billion individuals. Each of us makes an impact on the world― primarily in how we affect other people. Most of us yearn for a more peaceful and happier world. We can each do our part to make that happen ― one more peaceful and happier person at a time.

But today, a lot of people are unhappy. They struggle with depression and anxiety and low self-esteem. This is noteworthy because we see the world through the lens of our own wounding. Parents who are abusive, neglectful, or just oblivious to their kids' struggles, mostly because they are dealing with their own struggles, leave us feeling like we are not enough. Schoolyard bullies, who try to assert their place in a Lord of the Flies type of environment, leave wounds that are just as indelible.

We can do better, and I believe we should make a collective decision to do so. As adults, when we choose to heal our old wounds, we are less likely to inflict those wounds on others. It seems that this is a high calling. Indeed, parents can learn to be more attentive and mindful of their kids. They can even heal the wounds that lead to their abuse and neglect. Schoolchildren can learn the value of compassion; this is a hallmark call from the Dalai Lama.

Hurt people hurt people

There's an old saying, "hurt people hurt people." This is often quite true! When I work with couples, for example, I find that people are often projecting their own hurts onto their partner. Recently, I asked a husband and wife (I'll call them Bill and Susie) to tell each other what they appreciate about each other. Bill told Susie that he appreciated that she's a great, devoted mother, and that she's very loving.

I asked Susie to repeat what she'd heard Bill say. "He said he appreciates that I'm a devoted and loving mother," she replied. This led to an interesting conversation about how lovable she believes she is; where in her life the breakdown started, or the origin of the wound; and most importantly, how to begin to shift her thinking so that she can believe that she, in fact, is lovable.

Healing the wounds

Many adults in modern Western society are living with the aftermath of parenting that was less than ideal, or the impact of other children's cruelty. Unless and until they work to uncover and heal those old wounds, they move through the world feeling that they are not enough: not lovable, not worthy, not safe, not deserving. Most people agree that all human beings have worth. Believing it's true for you is one of the benefits of counseling.

Can we heal those old wounds? Can we soothe the pain and learn that we are, in fact, all worthy and deserving of love, peace, freedom, and happiness? We can, and it's not even that hard to do! Therapies working in the subconscious level are very effective in helping us achieve rapid, positive, lasting change. These therapies include EMDR, NLP, hypnotherapy, and EFT and other forms of energy psychology, and modalities that are grounded in Eastern practices, such as "heart breathing."

The yoga sutras teach us that when a negative thought is present, we should cultivate its opposite. The Dalai Lama says that we overcome negativity by cultivating positivity. Indeed, we can learn and practice self-compassion. When we do, we have more compassion to give to others. This matters, because when we have compassion, we are able to create a more peaceful world.

In order for humanity to thrive, maybe even to survive, we need to do our healing work. It is not selfish or self-indulgent to do this work. It is essential. I don't just do the work for me. You don't just do the work for you. We do the work for all of us. When we do, we are doing our little part to create a more
peaceful world, one more peaceful person at a time.

Setting Personal Boundaries

Strategies for setting healthy boundaries

Having healthy boundaries is essential for our overall well-being. It also lays the groundwork for healthy relationships. Here are tips on how to create them.

Healthy boundaries create a virtuous cycle of positive self-esteem and personal responsibility. Unhealthy boundaries, on the other hand, leave us feeling resentful, angry, and at risk of burnout. Interested in setting healthy boundaries and need more information? Read on.

What are healthy boundaries?

Personal boundaries are rules we establish for how others treat us. Healthy boundaries tend to go hand-in-hand with good self-esteem and peaceful relationships. Unhealthy ones lead to chaos.

Consider this: We are constantly teaching others how to be in relationship with us. That means that if you don't like how others are treating you, it's time to set new rules! Sounds scary? It's actually pretty simple, once you understand the lay of the land.

What do healthy and unhealthy boundaries look like?

There are real differences between healthy and unhealthy boundaries. These differences can be learned, or unlearned. Here are some of the most noticeable traits:

Signs of healthy boundaries

  • High self-esteem
  • Assertive; can say "yes" or"no" truthfully, and accept another's "no"
  • Take personal responsibility for their own happiness
  • Recognize that they are not responsible for others' happiness
  • Empowered, high sense of self-efficacy
  • Able to speak their truth clearly and directly
  • States their needs or makes requests simply and clearly

Signs of unhealthy boundaries

  • Low self-esteem; self-esteem depends on how others treat them
  • Hard time saying no; say yes when wanting to say no; expects others to just say "yes"
  • Do not understand that they create their own happiness
  • Believe they are responsible for others' happiness
  • Disempowered; tend to blame others
  • Have a hard time speaking their truth; become shut down or explode, or both
  • Over-explain; apologize

Setting healthy boundaries

When you need to set a boundary, be clear and calm, and use respectful language. You do not need to explain yourself. There is no need to apologize. There is no reason to get angry or upset. You are simply setting a boundary, letting the other party understand what you will and won't accept. You may even be their role model!

If this is a new skill, remember that it takes practice, and you are not the only one learning ― so are the people you are trying to establish the boundaries with.

Expect some resistance and discomfort at first, and don't back down. You teach your boundary through your words and actions. Unlike a "no trespassing" sign, people don't necessarily know where your boundary is without bumping into it.

What to do when someone has violated a boundary

"When are you going to get married?" "Your husband is at it again!" "Can you believe so-and-so did such-and-such?" "You are too pretty to be working so hard." The questions and comments can come unexpectedly. When we are caught off guard, it is hard to know how to handle it. A giggle, a blush, a reluctant joining do not effectively give the signal that our boundary has been crossed.

So how do you react when someone has violated a boundary? Give a simple, clear response like:

  • That kind of question is uncomfortable for me
  • Those are things I am not going to discuss
  • I'm not comfortable with that kind of comment
  • Please don't make comments about my appearance

Establishing healthy boundaries in existing relationships

What if the person habitually makes comments, and they have for a long time? Again, simply and clearly state your case.

You might choose to begin by addressing the fact that you are making a change. Say something like "I know that in the past you/we have said/done XYZ. But I'm not comfortable with that. So―

  • I'd rather not discuss whether or when I'm going to get married.
  • Let's not discuss my husband/wife/partner.
  • I'd rather not talk about him/her/them/that.
  • Please don't make comments about my appearance.

Why can it be so hard to set healthy boundaries?

Sometimes people have a hard time setting healthy boundaries. They may feel guilty or undeserving, or the whole thing might feel unnatural. This is common when

  • You we were brought up being taught that it was selfish to take care of yourself
  • Your parents or caregivers did not model healthy boundaries
  • You fear abandonment or rejection
  • You don't feel good about yourself

When people don't like your new healthy boundaries

Your responsibility is to set your boundaries. How the listener responds is their responsibility.

If they become defensive or embarrassed, keep your cool. Remember to be respectful and compassionate. If they become angry and abusive, give them time to calm down.  Perhaps you have collected people who are toxic and seek to manipulate and control you. If they won't respect your healthy boundaries, then you have the right to let them go.

If things feel awkward, don't backslide. Remember, the listener is responsible for their reaction or response, not you. As long as you are sure that you've done your best to speak respectfully and clearly, you have done your part. It might feel awkward and it might have come out a little clumsily; that's part of the learning process and it is OK!

Having healthy boundaries is a two-way street

Make sure that you return the healthy boundaries in kind: avoid gossip and refrain from making inappropriate comments yourself. 

Setting healthy boundaries creates a virtuous cycle of positive self-esteem and feeling that you are running your own show. You have aright to self-care and to respectful treatment. The people in your life benefit by seeing a happy empowered you. Hopefully, they will learn through your example.

having the same argument time and time again?

Same argument time and time again? Try this.

Often couples find themselves locked in a fruitless conversation, having the same argument time and time again, with no resolution in sight. The bad news is that this can lead both parties to feel hopeless, helpless, and misunderstood. It can create distance between you.

Stop having the same argument time and time again

The good news is that when we learn to communicate about what is truly important, going beneath the surface details to find our "pain point" and speak from there, these issues can actually help us grow closer.

It's not about the "facts of the case"

Often we think we know why we are upset. Sadly, we are wrong. "It's because he leaves his socks on the floor," "it's because she doesn't rinse the plates before filling the dishwasher." On and on it goes.

There are several problems with this approach, but the most important part is that we are having the wrong conversation. When we engage in the surface details of the argument, we are gravely missing the point. It's not the "facts of the case" that are really at issue.

It's the feelings.

Imagine it were your neighbor telling you about the socks on the floor or the dishes un-rinsed in the dishwasher. Would that make you so upset?

But, you say, these are my dishes and my floor; it creates a problem for me.

You have a point. But then again, think of all the sacrifices you have cheerfully made, the diapers you've changed, the cat boxes you've scooped, the dog poop you've bagged without question… socks and dishes aren't the very worst thing you've dealt with. So why is this issue a problem?

The art of going deeper

Beneath every uncomfortable argument, behind almost every angry feeling, is something more vulnerable. This is the feeling to identify, and the one to lead with. But often it can be difficult to figure out what is going on under the surface.

When you find yourself getting angry at your partner, take a moment to pause and reflect. Ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Why is this important to me?
  2. What feeling am I feeling?
  3. When have I felt this before? (Hint: it's almost always a life lesson, something we've been dealing with for a long time, that gets us riled up.)

Then lead with your feelings. It's much easier to be open to a request that is spoken with kindness rather than accusation, and that hinges on our vulnerability rather than a criticism of them. It goes something like

"Hey, I know you're tired at the end of the day and I appreciate how hard you work. But when I see your dirty socks on the floor, I just get caught up in this negative thinking about how I was always the one who had to help my mom with the chores… and it brings up those old feelings of being unappreciated. It would mean so much to me if you would please make an effort to put the socks in the hamper. Would you do that for me? Thank you."

Contrast that with the (eye roll, big sigh; angrily pick up socks and slam into hamper). "Why don't you ever put your socks in the hamper!?!"

There ya go. So ― go deeper. Once you know why you are upset, and you know that it is your own story grounded in your own history and vulnerability, you will be more likely to speak softly. And you will be more likely to get the response you want.

family political conversations

15 Tips for Peaceful political conversations at the holidays

It’s that time of year. Turkey, travel, ...and family political conversations between people who may love each other but sure don’t share a similar world view.

You want to have a nice time, but you just can't understand -- how can they possibly think that??!

What’s a family to do?

Here are 15 tips to keep calm during family political conversations.

1. Stop. You don’t have to respond. Often what we say in response will drive the other further into their corner.

2. Breathe. Relax. Remember that nothing has changed; they always think this; it’s just "in your face" because you are together.

3. Be thankful that we live in a country where we can debate politics without real fear of official retribution. Lots of countries have it much worse. And yes we can be scared by current trends, but still, we are free to speak.

4.Speak kindly. Find your compassion. Remember that the things which unite us humans are far greater than those which divide.

5.Avoid the trap of separativeness and divisiveness.

6. Remember brain science: conservatives have more volume in the amygdala - responsible for fear and anger; liberals have more activity in the anterior consulate cortex— helps modulate responses by distinguishing between instinctual response and intention. We can't really help how we're wired.

7. Exercise your anterior cingulate cortex. Practice discerning between instinct (fight flight freeze) and intention (stay calm, be rational, be kind).

8. Keep an open mind. Grandpa or Junior might have some valid points here and there. Be on the lookout!

9. Take the stance of an anthropologist, and try to understand why the others believe what they do.

10. Remember the key to negotiation: validation precedes problem-solving. **** ("I think I understand; you want ____ and believe ____, did I get that right?") More communication tips are here.

11. Turn the conversation to neutral ground: is there a sports team everyone can root for?

12. Take a trip down memory lane— think of some stories from your childhood to share.

13. Remember that the things that unite us are always greater than those that divide.

14. Keep in mind that the “liberal” ideas almost always win out in the end. And "conservatives" keep things from moving too quickly. Both sides have a role to play.

15. Have some food and give thanks. Remember, love trumps hate. Be love.

understanding attachment in marriage

Relationship help: Understanding attachment in marriage

Much of our current understanding of what goes wrong in adult relationships is grounded in the research on attachment. For several decades now, psychologists, therapists and educators have understood the bond between children and their primary attachment figures ― usually their mothers. You can read more about this here. Recently, therapists and researchers have realized that attachment does not end in childhood. In fact, being secure in our relationships is, or at least feels like, a matter of survival. There is a growing understanding of the role of attachment in marriage and romantic relationships.

After decades of research, we understand that there are basically three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Each of these will drive our emotional life and the way we show up in our relationships. We are usually unaware of these patterns, but learning about them can help us to better understand ourselves and our partners.

Secure attachment

People who have attentive parents tend to have developed a secure attachment system. By and large, they grow up expecting to love and be loved, to have their needs met, and to be comfortable asking for those needs to be met.

Anxious attachment

People who had unpredictable moms tend to develop an anxious attachment system. They often grow up to carry this attachment anxiety into their adult relationships. They feel insecure in love. These people are never quite certain that they can trust that their partner really loves them, and that he or she is really going to be there for them.

Avoidant attachment

People who had aloof and unresponsive parents tend to be aloof themselves. They seem to shut down their drive for closeness and connection; tend to grow up to be avoidant in love; feel suffocated by a partner who seeks emotional connection; and continually engage in distancing behaviors, keeping themselves familiarly aloof.

Attachment in adulthood

We humans have a strong drive to form close emotional bonds. Forget the myth of the cowboy, happily living alone on a grand adventure. Without human connection, we do not thrive. For modern Americans, in our frenetic-paced, time-strapped, isolated culture, the best place to have those needs met is in our romantic relationships.

Research shows that people who have happy marriages are far better off than those in difficult marriages are. Single people are better off than people in difficult marriages are, but not as well off as those in happy marriages. Happily married people enjoy many benefits beyond the economic advantage that often accompany a two-earner family. They are happier, and they even have physiological advantages. They get sick less often, recover faster, and may even experience less pain.

Attachment in marriage and romantic relationships

When we have been hurt, it is easy to rest in our anger instead of our vulnerability. We tend to see our partner as a jerk. Then we unconsciously build up walls to “protect” ourselves from him or her in an attempt to prevent further hurt. It is important to understand that the “hurt” that causes the breach does not even have to be a big, dramatic hurt. Little unanswered attempts to connect can lead to the same problem as big breaches of trust. Luckily, when we understand the role of attachment in marriage and romantic relationships, we are able to take a step toward cultivating a connected, loving partnership. When we have that, we are also able to reap all the many rewards that come with it.

Are attachment issues at play in your relationship issues? Contact me.

Help for my marriage!

Relationship help: Principles and Practices for Better Communication

In my work with couples, I apply a set of principles and offer practices to support them, healing wounds, and fostering closeness and connection. If you are asking for some "help for my marriage", read on to learn about some principles and practices I use in couples therapy.


Couples who are engaged in active conflict often get caught up in arguing the "facts of the case", but really, we are upset because of our history, stories, and interpretations. It's not about the "facts of the case" and if we stay there, fighting over the "facts", we are in a win-lose frame and ultimately, neither of us can win.

  • Shift to a win-win frame by realizing that if you are upset, your partner has simply created the context for you to experience that upset.
  • Notice that your triggers have long legs, reaching back into your past and coming up over and over again in various contexts.
  • Remember that your conflict gives you the opportunity to heal your wounds from the past.

We learn to be impeccable with our word. We learn to say exactly what we mean to say, speaking our truth for the purpose of mutual understanding, rather than blaming, shaming, or otherwise harming.

  • Search inside yourself to find the right way to speak your truth.
  • SLOW down
  • Avoid sentences like "you always_______", or "you never_______", or blanket character-assassination statements like "you are so _______(something bad)".
  • State your perception simply.
  • Talk about your feelings directly.
  • Have an "ask" - and understand that "no" is a reasonable answer.

When we are upset and triggered, we regress to an earlier developmental stage. (Your grown-up self does not act that way!)

  • Bring a mindful quality to upsetting situations and avoid "catastrophizing".
  • Avoid black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking and statements.
  • Take a 20-minute "distraction break" as soon as you realize you are getting upset. It will be worth the wait if you wait till you are calm to finish the conversation.

Because of  our evolution, we remember the "bad stuff" more easily than the "good stuff". This helped our forbearers survive. In order to thrive, we need to put forth more effort into remembering the good stuff.

  • Savor our positive experiences, being mindful and aware of them while they unfold.
  • Make it a priority to invest time and energy into creating more good stuff in the relationship.
  • Prioritize spending time together, being present with each other.
  • Treat each other with kindness and think of the relationship with gratitude.

How to stop fighting

Relationship help: how to stop fighting

Sometimes we get upset ― really, really, upset ― with our partner. The person who knows us best can push our buttons, after all. This can be destructive and leave us wondering how to stop fighting.

When we are upset, we are in no shape to problem-solve or communicate anything remotely worth communicating. But often communicating seems urgent. It is much, much better to learn to recognize what is happening and take some time away from our partner to calm down. Once we are calm and rational, we can have a more effective and rational - and loving - conversation. Stopping the cycle of fighting will benefit our partners, our relationships, and us. Recognizing the signs of being flooded is a great step in learning how to stop fighting.

Amygdala hijacking

Researchers have taken to referring to the state of emotional overwhelm as "amygdala hijacking." This is because the amygdala, a tiny structure in the middle of our brains responsible for big feelings like anger and fear, takes control. When the amygdala is in control, we do not have full access to our frontal lobes, the part of our brain responsible for impulse control and higher-order thinking. No wonder communicating in this state is such a mess!

Recognizing the signs

Maybe our legs are shaking (with fear) or our arms are trembling (with anger). Or we are insistent that our partner hear us out right now. Perhaps we have withdrawn into a shell, seemingly impervious to our partner's upset.

No matter how differently it shows up on the outside, we are having a similar experience on the inside; even that seemingly unflappable partner is in distress. When we are flooded, our heart rate is probably about 100 beats per minute. Our blood pressure is elevated. We are sweating. Our breath is shallow and fast. The stress hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol are flowing through our bloodstream. We are experiencing a classic case of fight-flight-freeze.

Of course, our outward behavior is a reflection of our inner experience: fight  (I'm going to tell you everything right now, don't walk away from me!); flight (I've got to get out of here!); or freeze (our partner wonders if we have cotton in our ears; maybe we cry.)

Make a pact

No good comes of continuing to dialogue, or trying to dialogue, when we are so upset. We will only hurt ourselves, and each other, by trying to see it through. The best practice is to

  1. First, go to our separate corners and focus on doing something else.
  2. And then, when we are calm, resume the conversation.

In order for this to work, we have to focus on something else. Tetris. Solitaire. Candy Crush. Yoga. A walk. Some breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. EFT tapping. Gardening. Anything, so long as we are focused on the activity and not the fight, or our partner's role in it.

The 20 minute pause

If we were thinking about how they "done me wrong," we haven’t accomplished the assignment. It takes a good 20 minutes to allow all those stress hormones to leave our bodies and our entire brain to get back on line.

You will know when you are ready. Make sure by taking a few breaths, and then thinking of a few things you like about your partner.

And then, repair

Use the formula:

  • I feel _____ about _____ and I need (or ask) _____.
    • Go beneath your anger to find your emotional vulnerability, and speak from there. It is much more compelling!
  • Validation precedes problem-solving.
    • Say something along the lines of: "I think I get it, you felt ___ and thought _____, is that right?"

The bottom line: how to stop fighting

Engaging while angry is destructive, and the decisions you make will necessarily be irrational because your rational brain is not available to you when you are upset. So, do your love a favor and take time to calm down. You and your partner will reap the rewards!