- Relationships can be challenging because we are wired to fight, flee or shut down when we run up against "perceived" threats.
- While adaptive for our ancestors, these habitual ways of reacting may only sometimes help us navigate communication most effectively.
- The "flashlight" is a tool that can remind us to bring mindful awareness to what we think, feel, and how we are inclined to act.
Most people would agree that communication is at the heart of every relationship. Yet, we often find ourselves in situations where we react to others in ways that may be less than ideal or in ways we may even regret.
When communication goes well, when we are able to express what we are thinking and feeling, and in turn feel heard and respected and help the other do the same, there is a feeling of ease, connection, and synchrony that ensues. But communication can break down easily; when it does, it can lead to minor, temporary upsets or major heartaches and disruptions.
Whether we are aware of it or not, our brain and nervous system's evolutionary wiring has something to do with this breakdown in communication and, specifically, our tendency to react in less than optimal ways, even when we might know better. We are wired to scan for threats, and in the face of perceived threats, our go-to adaptive, protective survival responses are to fight or flee or, in some cases, to shut down.
How This Translates Into Modern Relationships
Think about how "perceived threats" might translate into the course of normal, everyday relationships:
- Your boss emails you that there is a big mistake with the project you have been diligently working on for the past few weeks.
- Your partner approaches you as you walk into the house from a long day at work and immediately starts complaining about the mess you left in the sink this morning.
- You are at a party, and your friends are standing around in a circle, seemingly ignoring you.
- Your young child acts up, refusing to do what you ask, or your teenager ignores you and slams the door in your face.
How might you respond to these situations? Can you imagine instances where you might “fight” back and lash out in anger, or perhaps “flee” by isolating in unhelpful ways or perhaps shut down and disconnect?
The problem is that in our modern lives, fighting, fleeing, or shutting down are not helpful solutions to the relationship issues we find ourselves in. Yet it can be hard to think clearly in the heat of the moment. Importantly, our adaptive survival responses are not "bad." They are necessary and play important roles at times. The challenge is to see what is happening, meet ourselves where we are, and then pause long enough not to get swept away in automatic reactions that may not be helpful.
Besides our brain's wiring, we also are strongly influenced by our old conditioning and past experiences. If your boss reminds you of your critical parent or your child’s tantrums or the chaotic environment in which you grew up, these past experiences can unknowingly shape your reactions to current situations.
Additionally, we have the added challenge of modern communication, comprised of tweets and texts and the like, where we often can’t read the person’s facial expressions or hear their tone of voice; in such situations, it may be easier to make assumptions, read into things, and project our own past experiences into present ones.
The Flashlight of Mindful Awareness
So what can we do about all of this? One of the tools that I teach to help people cultivate well-being is what I call “the flashlight,” which is a metaphor for mindful awareness. A flashlight in a dark room helps us to see more clearly. If we are trying to get from point A to point B, furniture and other obstacles may be in the way, but the flashlight helps us navigate more easily.
When we carry this flashlight of mindful awareness into our day, we can step out of automatic reactivity by beginning to notice the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that are arising within us. When we do this, we meet ourselves where we are, see more clearly, and interrupt the conditioned response of our automatic pilot reactions to create a space in which to pause.
As we become attuned and attentive to our internal mental and physical states from a little bit of distance–where we can observe what is going on rather than be swept away by what is happening–it gives us the space to choose how we want to respond. Often, we know what is most helpful; we just need to step out of our own way and listen.
The other day, some information came to my attention that triggered me. Anxious and upset, I grabbed my phone and began to compose an angry and highly emotionally charged text message to my young adult son. Then, remembering my “flashlight,” I took a few moments to notice what was going on inside me. I recognized that this anxiety I was feeling was partly a reaction to a friend’s anxiety from an earlier conversation I had had with them and partly connected with my own old issues.
From this pause, I was able to see clearer–that my text, sent in a moment of high emotion, would not be helpful or accomplish what I wanted to communicate. It was simply a quick fix to assuage my own unresolved emotions. This awareness allowed me to sit with my anxious feelings and find a time when I was calmer and could sit down face-to-face with my son to address the situation in a positive way.
Try This: Using the Flashlight in Interactions
The next time you notice yourself becoming triggered in an interaction with another, try pulling out your "flashlight" of mindful awareness and shine it on the following:
- Notice and follow your breath. Is it smooth, constricted, fast, irregular, or something else? What is your breath saying about your emotional state?
- Notice your body sensations. Are there any ways your body prepares to “fight” or “flee” or perhaps shut down from the situation?
- Name your feelings. Is it anger you feel, or perhaps hurt, disappointment, fear, or sadness underneath? Making these important distinctions that can help inform what might be most needed and beneficial.
- Notice where your mind is resting. Are you in the present moment or projecting things from the past or future into the current situation that may not be relevant?
- Now ask: "What would be most beneficial to communicate my concerns? How can I express this in a way the other person will most likely hear? And, is this the appropriate time to do so?"
Taking a minute or so to shine your flashlight inward and ask yourself these questions might just help you see more clearly what is needed to create a win-win communication.