Driving home from a beautiful Christmas concert in the snow storm last weekend, we passed multiple spin-outs on the roads. Given the icy conditions, I slowed way, way down on the freeway. My teenage daughter turned to me, “I think you need to go faster – there is a minimum speed limit you know.”
I replied, “Don’t worry, we aren’t going to get stopped for going to slowly in weather like this…”
“Whatever Mom. I’m telling you there is a minimum and you can get in trouble for going this slowly… “
“Yes, maybe when the weather is normal, but when it’s this icy … “
“Ugh. Just stop talking. I don’t want to talk about it. Can you stop talking please?”
Um. I didn’t see that coming.
So, like any normal (tragic) parent, I flipped out.
“Excuse me?! Why the attitude? I am just trying to explain that …” Blah blah blah.
You know the rest.
“Ok, fine. I’m sorry.” (Meant as a shut-down. No true regret in that comment. Great.)
Although I was able to stop myself from continuing to turn on her, I then simply turned on myself instead.
There I go again. I am just too reactive, too harsh. I should know better than this. Why do I always do this? What did I do to deserve being talked to like that? Why couldn’t I just let her be right and admire her knowledge? Why do I always need to educate people? I am too intense. Too intimidating. And so on. And so on.
Blame her, then blame me. Classic.
I know this place too well.
Catching myself wrapped up in this familiar reactive loop, I stop in my tracks, take a breath, and correct course. I put my attention on trying to be helpful and modeling what I want more of instead of talking about what I don’t like, in a way that I don’t like.
OK. Self-responsibility. Transparency.
With a softer tone of voice: “OK, sorry, I feel bad … think I yelled because I was feeling hurt and confused and I bet that felt bad and scary to you. I am sorry for responding like that. I don’t understand what just happened between us – what was coming up for you? It sounded like you were annoyed with me?”
The energy in the car shifted, slightly. Enough for her to say more:
She was feeling stressed about driving conditions, and was longing to be home as soon as possible. She wanted me to get home quickly and saw some other cars driving faster. She was “just trying to help” and “just didn’t want to fight.”
I got it. I felt soothed by…
• Her desire to help me; despite her delivery, hearing her intention shifted things for me. • Re-interpreting the edge in her voice as being stressed out by the driving conditions… • Re-interpreting her silence and disengagement as her best attempt to try to have more harmony with me …
And, I softened just a little more.
In that moment, I was able to gently share my own struggle to respond empathically when I am stressed out, and highlight my deep desire for curiosity and openness in our conversations. I apologized for my reactivity. She did too.
By the time we got home, we were joking about how ridiculous we all can get when we are so stressed out.
It continues to amaze me how quickly we can transform brittle, sharp interactions by tending to repair work.
Ruptures will happen.
In fact, we need them to grow. When we lift weights at the edge of our strength and capacity, we cause micro-tears in our muscles. When we rest, our bodies repair these little tears which causes our muscles to grow in size and strength.
Relationships work like this too.
We grow beyond our comfort zones, experiencing small ruptures, and then resting to repair them. Rupture, rest, repair. It’s how we grow stronger.
4 Steps for Rapid Repair Work:
1. Pause and notice: Put your attention on what is arising in the here and now, without judgment. Watch both what is happening inside you, and outside of you. 2. Tune into the charge and the energy that is flowing in the relational field. Develop an emotional literacy. Name the feelings. 3. Listen for each other’s deeply good intentions. What needs were trying to get met? Develop a literacy of needs. Universal Human Needs. (Not strategies!) 4. Communicate what will help. Empathize with the other person and yourself. Express yourself with self-responsibility and transparency. Ask for what will help.
Remember, words are tools. They bring what is unconscious into our awareness. With awareness, we have choices. With choices, we can be creative. With choice and creativity, we are able to change the world.