During painful conversations with your partner, you will instinctively get defensive. Your instinct as a human is to protect yourself from pain. It’s a necessary instinct. Humans are designed to go into a state of fight, flight, freeze, or faint, when we feel hurt and/or threatened. Our nervous systems get activated, and we act in ways to survive. That means we fight back, shut down, leave (physically or by dissociation), and sometimes we may even faint.
While these responses to threats are necessary for survival, not all threats are to your survival.
Your partner’s words are not threatening to your survival, though they may be deeply hurtful. Your partner’s misunderstanding you is not a threat to your life, though a younger part of you may feel threatened in an existential way. However, your nervous system doesn’t know the difference between the threat of a lion preying on you in a jungle, and the threat of being misunderstood by your partner. They only know activated and not activated. So when you feel emotionally hurt by your partner, your nervous system will respond as though your life is in danger. That’s why your instinct is to defend yourself.
The problem is, if you’re responding from a survival state (fight, fight, freeze or faint), you can’t respond effectively. You can’t think critically. You lose access to the parts of you that are necessary for emotional intelligence. If you’re in a survival state, you don’t need emotional intelligence. You don’t need relational intelligence. You just need to survive.
The good news is, you have more control over your responses than you realize. By choosing to use your breath to self-soothe and get more regulated, you can tend to your nervous system, thereby lessening it’s activation. When your nervous system is less activated, you have more choices than fight, flight, freeze or faint. Hint…..Having more choices in how you engage with your partner is a great goal!!
The following tips will help you self-soothe during a difficult conversation:
Awareness. The first step to tending to your nervous system and self-soothing is noticing that you’re activated. That means noticing you’re defensive. Get to know your defensiveness. Get familiar with how defensiveness feels in your body. The sooner you recognize defensiveness has shown up, the sooner you can start soothing yourself.
Slow down. Make sure that you ask for time to self-soothe once you recognize you’ve gotten defensive. Until you are a bit more regulated, you won’t be able to have an effective conversation.
Connect. Start self-soothing by connecting to the sensations of your breath going in and out. Focus your attention on your body, wherever you feel your breath most.
Continue. You have to continue to breathe through the conversation. You will get reactivated.
Practice. It’s important to have a regular breathing practice. This can be meditation, guided imagery, or other relaxation techniques. If you’re not building this muscle regularly, it won’t be available to you in the hardest moments.