I just returned from a week in Egypt and the journey home was…challenging. To put it mildly.
The experience reminded me about the power of choicefulness, how I can respond in the moment, and the way our nervous systems can adapt over time.
Actually, from the moment we’re born, our nervous systems are adapting and learning how to survive in response to the stimuli we’re receiving from our families and environments.
When we grow up in relationships in which our feelings and needs are routinely dismissed, our perceptions are corrected or denied, and we are swimming in judgments, evaluations, and criticisms. Our nervous systems get activated, and we live in a slightly hypervigilant state. We tend to disconnect from ourselves and lose trust in our own sense of reality.
But, because we’re awesome and amazing, our nervous systems learn how to adapt and function effectively within those environments. We normalize much of what we experience because it gets so deeply wired and installed into our implicit, unconscious memory system when we’re little.
The relational environment that we become familiar with growing up becomes our internal model for what “real life” is, and that unfortunately often leads us to get into relationships with people who treated us in the same ways we were treated as kids. I remember the moment I realized that if a relationship “feels like home” or “feels so familiar” or “feels like I just know them,” I should run the other way and not settle in!
Two core practices you can do if you want to actually change the kind of relational environment that your nervous system is conditioned to surviving in:
Learn how to emotionally regulate and soothe your own nervous system so that you can calm down, soften, melt, and relax into new experiences.
Seek out and install disconfirming experiences or what we also like to call “corrective emotional experiences,” in which new people in your life actually respond to you in more validating, soothing, and nurturing ways than you may have been habituated to.
Take my recent trip home from Egypt with my daughter Jessie, for example.
All the “normal” things that tend to go wrong went wrong: delayed flights, mixed up seats, changing requirements for COVID documentation, missing forms. All of these got glitchy at some point, but we took it in stride and made it onto our final flight home from Paris.
But then when we began our final descent into Minneapolis, we had to change course due to strong electrical storms. We headed to Chicago and then were “refused” at O’Hare, not allowed to disembark. Eventually the pilot announced we’d be heading back to Minneapolis in hopes the storms had moved. However, they hadn’t moved. We had to turn around yet again and headed to Chicago yet again.
You can probably imagine the vibes on our flight by this point: we were a bunch of tired, hungry, stressed-out passengers with flight attendants who were powerless to change our circumstances and had little more information than any of us.
Every time I felt myself getting stressed out, irritated, or indignant, I worked on relaxing myself and getting back into the present moment:
I remembered that my way of being would be modeling resilience (or not) for my daughter.
I remembered that what I want most when I’m stressed out is kindness and reassurance, so I made a commitment to offer that where I could.
I reminded myself what I could control (my attitude, my mindset, my heart, my focus) and chose to be as playful and warm about the whole thing as I could.
Here’s how that turned out:
I had meaningful conversations with a Black Muslim woman from Guinea about her experiences of various kinds of discrimination during her recent travels and how she draws on principles of her faith to also live into what she wants to see more of in the world.
I had lighthearted conversations and much rolling of eyes with the young Black student trying to get back to Madison, and we laughed about how the world would be different if we ran things together.
I watched some people on this flight helping strangers in so many ways: giving them a hand with their bags, translating for those who spoke neither French nor English, sharing pens, and just generally checking in on each other’s well-being.
We eventually did make our collective way through immigration, customs, and then up to departures at O’Hare to get booked onto new flights for the next day.
Heading from arrivals to a hotel for the night, I somehow found myself in a pod of six people. Besides me and Jessie, there was a white Midwestern woman from the Twin Cities trying to get home to her four kids, two friendly French businessmen in suits, and a six-foot tall African man who had to collect and carry three checked bags and two large pieces of carry-on luggage and spoke not a word of English.
We found ourselves waiting for luggage together, in elevators together, and waiting in line for the hotel shuttle together. We empathized as we heard each other’s unique journeys up to this point. We consulted with each other on the next move, held elevators for each other, and laughed at the wrong turns we made together.
Then we were told to shelter in place since a tornado had been spotted. But we decided instead that we’d brave the storm and try to get to the hotel instead of staying another minute in the airport. When the shuttle driver got impatient and rude with our friend who didn’t speak English and wasn’t understanding the directions, we stepped in as a group to protect him and help.
And the adventure wasn’t over yet!
The next morning, we returned to the airport for our outbound flights only to discover that they’d never been “confirmed,” and so we were all on standby for whatever seats we could get onto on various different flights and airlines and times. We all rolled our eyes and laughed. Of course!
Eventually, we all dispersed into our various corners of the world. We had not exchanged names, but we had shared an experience and chose to band together instead of turning on each other.
As I reflect back on what went well (when everything seemed to keep falling apart) I can think of three “internal GPS” principles that guided me through.
Principle #1: Focusing on what I can control (myself) instead of what I can’t control (life events, someone else’s feelings, reactions, and inner states) benefits all of us.
I had no control over the weather, the decisions made by multiple airline employees, the quality of job training that various agents along the way had, the errors being made along the way, etc. But I did have control over how I was going to respond to these unwelcome, unpredictable events. I could choose to be kind or crabby. I could choose to ask questions and show interest in people, or I could choose to raise my bristles and try to force new outcomes with my anger.
Principle #2: My internal state and way of being directly influences anyone in my relational field.
Taking responsibility for my own inner state is one of the most powerful gifts I can give people in my life. I know that my commitment to working with whatever life throws at me, instead of railing against it, fundamentally changed my daughter’s experience of the event, and likely impacted others around me as well.
When I expressed my concern for how stressful it must be for the flight attendants to be fielding all these unhappy passengers, the people around me became kinder and more generous toward each other.
At one point, Jessie remarked, “Mom, this could have been such a dreadful experience, but everyone is being so nice. I love our little pod of people!” For me, this was like having a mini “corrective emotional experience.” Years ago, I would have enjoyed the melodramatic trauma story that emerges from experiences like this, and a part of me still goes there.
I can take time to acknowledge the exhaustion, the headaches, the frustrations, the disappointments, the number of times I wanted to cry – and did. These days, I find much more joy in letting life happen and staying in a warm, curious relationship with those people who are experiencing things alongside me. Much more joy.
Principle #3: Surrendering and leaning into the moments we encounter, especially the ones filled with pain and anguish, is a wiser response than resistance, allowing life to move through me, instead of against me.
I gave up thinking “this shouldn’t be happening” or “why is this happening?” Instead, I found myself wondering, “I wonder what life will surprise me with next?” and “What people will I meet as a result of this that I would never otherwise have met?”
I made a commitment to just enjoy the delightfully unpredictable nature of life’s unfolding and to look for the good in the present moment. There was so much good to be found.
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Where do you get the most triggered in your own life? What helps you to surf those waves with more skill and ease?
WANT TO GO DEEPER IN THIS WORK?
Here are a few of my programs that might be of interest to you: