One of the biggest threats to conscious, compassionate connection is when our old-brain defensive mechanisms kick in.
Once activated, these ancient survival systems run roughshod over our good intentions. Whatever strategies and skills we’ve been cultivating to support us in such moments can be easily lost under an onslaught of signals from our psyche and physiology telling us that we are not okay and that we must take extreme, severe, decisive, and often destructive action.
Is all of our training and learning really for naught?
Is it to no avail that we practice “needs consciousness,” consider the importance of safety in our relationships, and invest countless hours and dollars in attempting to understand and master our inner reactivity?
How can we bring the new skills, learning, and care to bear in moments in which our prefrontal cortex is no longer in charge?
How can we fulfill promises or intentions for ourselves or our partners when we know we can be so completely hijacked?
These powerful and important questions drive many of us into therapy, self-development programs, and healing work as we seek to have more satisfying and secure relationships.
There are few things that can help us on our journey when it comes to working with those human parts of ourselves and others that get hijacked by pain and fear and then move into disconnection strategies.
These strategies fall into two categories: 1) the inner work we do with ourselves, and 2) the outer work that we put into the space between ourselves and others.
Inner Work (for practice with ourselves and by ourselves)
Choose self-empowerment. (Release internalized victim- or perpetrator-consciousness.) One of the most powerful moves we can make is to accept that everything arising within us offers us an opportunity to heal and transform. When we recognize that our own healing and self-development work can actively re-wire and change the dynamics we’ve been stuck in, we move toward self-liberation and self-leadership.
Stay awake to the present moment. (Disentangle the here-and-now from our memory and anticipation systems.) What is actually happening here and now? We look for ways to separate the present moment from whatever feels familiar and from our past. We tune into our sensations, we relax into our emotional states, we connect with our present-moment needs, and we bring our prefrontal cortex back online.
Greet everything with compassion. (Develop kind eyes toward ourselves and others.) Everything that arises in the present moment can be welcomed and embraced or rejected and condemned. We choose to soften into the experiences of life arising within us, especially the emotionally challenging ones. We greet everything as an opportunity for awareness and the alleviation of our suffering. We redirect any parts of ourselves that want to judge, punish, shame, or condemn.
Expand our zone of tolerance. (Relax into a wider range of emotional experiences in the here and now, without allowing our emotions to turn us against ourselves or others.) When unpleasant feelings arise in the moment, watch them arise and try to relax into simply experiencing the sensations of the emotions. Watch what they do. Sit next to them with curiosity, with openness. Track the tension patterns they bring and notice how they move and the quality of their message. Are they itchy, tingling, hot, burning, icy, numb, or heavy? What happens when you start feeling them? We practice remaining conscious in the present moment when feelings arise within us, reminding ourselves and others that we are safe, even in the face of feeling our intense feelings. Become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Practice conscious containment. (Remember that everything that arises does not need to be vented through unbridled self-expression or repressed and stuffed down.) Sometimes we want to discharge our pain by taking it out on others and pushing them as far away as possible. At other times we repress and suppress our awareness and disconnect from ourselves. Conscious containment, in contrast, involves staying awake, aware, and alive to ourselves and others, without lashing out or numbing out. We stay aware, self-connected, and curious about what is arising within.
Discharge energy in life-affirming ways. (Work with our bodies.) Shake, cry, tremble, sob, stretch, move, dance, shout, sing, talk, journal, lie in a hot bath, go swimming, roll around in the grass, climb a tree or a rock, walk through the woods, watch the birds and the squirrels, cuddle your pets, hug people, get a massage, do yoga, etc.
Outer Work (new relational moves)
Speak from vulnerability. (Try this instead of leading with blame, shame, accusation, or attack.) We share our hurts, our fears, our vulnerabilities. We talk about what we long for, desire, and need. We paint a vision of a parallel universe where things could be different: more connected, safer, more intimate, more empathic, more playful. We suggest ways of living into that parallel reality and invite others into co-creating it with us.
Listen empathically. (Listen for what people mean instead of getting hooked by how they say it.) To the degree that we offer ourselves and one another empathy, we humans feel more resilient and less defensive and self-protective. When relationship moments become charged with pain and fear, empathic listening involves listening to the pain — tuning into the stored, historical pain arising into the moment — and bringing what was repressed or hidden to light, without blame or judgment. We need new relational experiences in the face of old hurts, and empathy is one of the fastest and most effective ways of de-escalating and healing our pain.
Of course, all of this becomes challenging when both people have pain stimulated at the same time. Even when our partner shows up with empathy, two things make it difficult to really let in that empathy:
We may have been experiencing them as the source or cause of our pain and wanting to keep them at a safe distance from our hurt hearts, and
We often assume that they are about to do “the same thing that always happens,” and we show up in self-protective mode. The more we stay in a self-protected mode, the less likely any present-moment empathy will actually land, and we get stuck in an isolated, self-perpetuating cycle of disconnectedness.
In these moments, the love and connection we long for may seem dubious or unsafe. How are we to trust this person with our tenderest and most vulnerable pain when they were so recently perceived as unsafe, unreliable, and uncaring, and as the one who stimulated this pain in the first place?
What helps us connect with our partners as the resource — the empathetic, caring listener — that we yearn for in those moments?
When the present moment truly offers a new experience, and not just a replay of past pain, then tune into what may be available in the now: Look at this other person and see their smile. Take in their kind eyes. Notice the non-verbal safety cues available in the now.
We reassure each other with touch, facial expressions, movements, softness, heartfelt words, and relaxed attention.
We can help soothe each other’s inner fear systems and ease into the kind of sharing that will ultimately relieve the disconnection and allow us to finally receive the care that we both need and have banished or believe is unattainable.
Once we’ve tuned into the care and trustworthiness that is present in this new moment, with this person, we often become more willing and able to reveal our hurt, even though we may be feeling shame and defensiveness, even though we may be afraid of being corrected, trivialized, diagnosed, or pathologized — or any of the other patterns that we and others routinely use to avoid the intensity of being present with our deepest wounds and hurt.
If we’d like to change the quality of our relationships, sometimes it simply comes down to being willing to be wrong and being willing to be surprised.
We embrace the possibility that this new person is not actually trying to invade our space, abandon us, control our every move, dominate us, stonewall us, attack us, dismantle us. We embrace the possibility that we are remembering things we have already survived, not things that are necessarily being replayed, especially when we actively change our own dialogue-dance steps.
We embrace the possibility we may be seeing ghosts from our past instead of people in the present, and we allow our perceptions and our experiences to be updated with new experiences, instead of clinging to outdated models of past experiences.
Yes, it takes courage, compassion, and commitment to choose a potentially risky and vulnerable new relational move, but the possibility of co-creating more life-affirming, fulfilling, and meaningful relationships as you move forward is completely worth it.
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Wow! That was incredibly rich. Thank you! Conscious containment and the willingness to be surprised really struck a cord with me. Also the “possibility of seeing ghosts” is such playful language that I am excited to have available to me.