Verbal aggression among ourselves is a form of abuse; yet, we all do it on some level, failing to gauge the immediate damage and the future imprint. However, for the most part, I have yet to hear: “I want to inflict harm“, rather, what I hear is: “I don’t know how to do it differently“. This is true but would you do it differently if you knew better?
As a relational therapist, I spend several hours a week coaching people how to effectively transform difficult conversations into productive dialogue to quash aggression and give way to healthy paths of communication. I do this by teaching them to choose interactive peace, the minute to minute practice of an elegant balance between the presence of empathy, self awareness and self regulation alongside the absence of any shade of aggression; shortly said: an emotionally intelligent cocktail.
Living a peaceful life is among the top sought out longings from clients in therapy. So, what makes is it so elusive?
A combination of:
- An overactive amygdala
- A poor relational template
As we ditch what doesn’t work, learn how to tame our amygdala and how to re-parent ourselves to relational health, we’ll find, live and impart interactive peace!
The most ineffective way to seek peace: Revenge.
- Revenge means simultaneously abhorring injustice and replicating it by indulging in fighting “dirty” (an eye for an eye: “I am pissed off at you, blame you for my bad feeling so I am entitled to go off on you”).
Most of us are horrified to hear about aggressive and violent acts towards others and it compels us to seek out fair social and legal changes to prevent it. However, under our own roofs and between our own ears, there are no activists to help us restore harmony and often times we exercise deformed means to seek it. I am referring to the inadequate and mean ways we often use to treat each other when frustrated or unhappy, discharging unfiltered thoughts and actions in the hopes it will “awaken” our partners and regulate our own discomfort: “YOU ARE A JERK!”, “There you go again, typical “you” interrupting everything I say”, “You are a nag!”, “You are lazy”, “No sex for you!” ,“Are you crazy?”, What’s your problem!?”, long icy silences, one word answers, etc., etc., etc.
That is revenge, the foundation for living in a war-zone. If you enjoy this type of adrenaline rush, stop reading now. I hope you are not a parent.
But, if you are ready to declare a “cease-fire” between your ears and with others, please join me!
What does interactive peace “look” like?
- It’s an individual active practice that happens from the inside out, and minute to minute.
- It’s the ability to relate kindly, assertively and respectfully towards yourself and others EVEN when others don’t reciprocate in the same way.
- It’s raising your index and middle finger together rather than just your middle one.
- It’s keeping your voice down when your partner has “lost” it and won’t keep hers down.
- It’s seeking conversations and sharing your thoughts passionately and respectfully.
- It’s standing up for yourself respectfully while keeping your dignity: “I don’t agree with your opinion of me, what makes you think that?” vs., “You are a crazy idiot!”
- It’s warmly hugging your child at night even after he lost your earphones (for the 10th time)
- It’s not: “I will never get it right! But: ”I made a mistake, I will do better next time”.
- It’s expressing your anger without histrionically acting it out
- It’s the difference between: “you are a f… liar!, vs.,“I am crushed by your dishonesty”.
You get the idea. In essence, it’s how we’d like to always be treated.
- Why we “lose” it and fight “dirty”:
Because we were poorly taught.
When angry or frustrated we (desperately) seek a way to restore justice and we start young: shrieking sobs when we are in discomfort morph into “temper tantrums” as we get a bit older, and passionate arguments followed by slamming a few doors as we hit adolescence. This is how we externalize disharmony within: “I don’t like something I hear or experience so I rebel to find a way back to harmony within”. As we get older, when parenting or partnering, unless we were taught differently, the quest for peace is sought backwards; hoping others, from our pets to our world leaders, either meet all our needs instantly or get (the hell) out of our way when we want serenity and harmony. This is a normal childish longing, yet, the product of an immature brain replicating and passing on, the same ineffective ways to relate within and with others.
I LOVE teaching my clients how to ditch their ineffective relational templates, befriend and tame their amygdalae and step into interactive peace!
- Get acquainted with your brain leader
The amygdala is our “first responder”, a primitive brain structure found in our limbic system which is set up to help us survive by firing hormones that trigger fear and/or anger upon perceived danger so we can fight back, avoid or go for cover really fast. It is also responsible for our emotional lives, learning and memory formation; we remember most what affects us greatly and are conditioned to react strongly to those memories (or any version of them) at the drop of a dime.
Angry couples show up in therapy with the hope that I will talk some sense into the partner that hasn’t yet become acquainted with his/her own amygdala: “He punched the coffee table and called me a lunatic!”, “She yelled at me for hours! “I had to hide in my own home just to get away from her!
What I teach couples first is how their ineffective, often really mean reactions, are a product of a brain hijack: The amygdala overrides the prefrontal cortex, the more evolved, executive part of the brain. Because the amygdala is fully developed at birth and the prefrontal cortex does not mature until early adulthood (there are many more connections from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex than the other way around) children and adolescents do not always make rational decisions and cannot always control their emotions. Exposed to poor parenting models, we drag this out into adulthood. The way it shows up in your adult life is by often being unable to tolerate discomfort, reacting impulsively and inappropriately, feeling badly about how you unleash your thoughts and or actions and regretful over it later:” I can’t believe I threw that clock against the wall”, “If only my daughter hadn’t sassed me I wouldn’t have yelled at her!”, “This is just not me, I lost it”, etc,.
One 50-something-year-old man during a couples’ session stopped mid- sentence and in deep reflection said:” this is so much more relevant than calculus; why were we never taught about this?” Sadly, it’s because we are generationally, educationally, culturally and socially handicapped; many leaders, educators and parents are ill-equipped and busy surviving their own bad legacies. The result is crops of grown children in adult suits acting out and paying forward an inability to create and practice interactive peace when it’s most needed. Instead, the amygdala, in charge of our primal well-being, gets dibs. (Our current presidential debates illustrate this, vividly!)
2. How we can tame our amygdala
Taming your amygdala is a minute-to-minute practice to a lifetime of peace.
The task is to give the prefrontal cortex a chance to unscramble the perceived threat so that it can move us from impulsive reaction to thought-out response:
In conversation with your spouse, children or others, if you begin to feel “heated”,
- Say out loud: “Give me a moment” (and take it!, announce it and return to dialogue after a few minutes or hours)
- Take a deep breath before you say anything and exhale loudly (this alerts the brain to shut off adrenaline and cortisol production)
- Remember respect (mean words/ gestures and or icy silence do severe damage)
- Remember purpose (to communicate vs. overpower/defend)
- Stop your monologue (turn it to dialogue)
- Stick to the subject at hand ( bringing up past resentments
- Reward yourself for “keeping it together”, even if the other part didn’t (say one kind thing to yourself)
To successfully generate, radiate and model interactive peace, we must also uncover how we were taught to relate so we can re-parent ourselves into healthy relating.
- The 3 questions that expose your relational template
Our relational template (what we were taught or not taught in “younghood”) sets us up to how we deal with discomfort in adulthood. These 3 key questions will help you uncover why your amygdala may be “running the show” in moments of stress or discomfort:
- WHERE DID YOU SEE THIS DONE? (Who behaved impulsively/ reactively/neglectfully and or thoughtlessly in your home and with whom?)
- WHO DID IT TO YOU? (Who acted irresponsibly towards you, by violating boundaries, leaving you unprotected, being inconsistent and or neglectful?)
- WHO LET YOU DO IT AND DIDN’T TEACH YOU DIFFERENTLY? (Who let you act out inappropriately and either dismissed it or praised it?)
You may be modeling after any one or more of those behaviors and/or reacting against them in a trauma-style way.
As parents, it is our job to consistently model, teach and practice higher brain functioning. From disrespectful and unhelpful: “SHUT UP!” to calm and assertive: “I can’t hear you when you scream and would like to hear what you have to say, can you please tone it down a bit?”
As partners, it is our responsibility to learn how to re-parent ourselves and expose our partners, families and others to the healthy adult version of us. From “YOU ARE ALWAYS PUTTING ME DOWN!!!” to: ”What you just said sounded harsh to me, what do you need me to hear?”
As individuals, we owe it to ourselves to be able to regulate our impulses so we can choose vs. react. From: “I am a victim! “ to: “what response will fit this situation best?”
The secret to mastering this skill of living and modeling interactive peace is practice.
Day to day practice and honest and open conversations about this will lead you to abandon ineffective, harmful old practices in favor of healthy ones. Therapy can help you uncover blinddspots and guide to healthy relating. Why do this?: Mainly, because you deserve to live in peace and as importantly, because we are each part of the whole. If we each learned better, we’d all treat each other better.
When in doubt, whether to surrender to your immature-brain-pull or practice interactive peace, ask yourself whom you’d rather have a fender-bender with, be led by, spend your life with, work for or co-parent with and if you chose the latter, you’ve just made the world a better place.