Who’s Driving Your Bus?
“Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that leads others to join you.”
(Ruth Bader Ginsberg)
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Why do we deteriorate in conflict with people that really matter to us? The logical brain between our ears is watching us, sometimes screaming “STOP!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? THAT MAKES ZERO SENSE!!!” and yet the other two brains are sending so much signal that it’s all one big scramble, leaving us doing so many of the things we said we wouldn’t do in conflict.
It’s maddening, isn’t it?
To be clear, this blog isn’t just about romantic relationships. The same thing can happen between parent and child, parent and grown child, close friends, colleagues. It’s another one of those human things.
Still No Magic
I don’t have a magic trick. I don’t have some wonderful, fool-proof way that will stop this forever while also assuring our relationships will continue to grow. Sorry. Anyone who tells you they do is either lying or delusional. That’s not how the “skin gig” of humanness works. I do have tools that can help us keep moving more healthfully forward.
I’m on that same journey. I truly get it.
I’ve shared many times in this space that step one is, (as it always is,) to get off of our own last nerve. (See the “Changing Anxious Chemistry” techniques here.) But then what?!?!?
Once we are at least half-way sane, we can listen to the messages from gut brain and heart brain more effectively. When we tune in and listen to what those other brains are telling us, (learn more about your 3 brains here,) they can stop rapid-fire throwing all of the messages at us all at once, for fear that we won’t hear any of them.
A Maddening Cycle
Reacting without figuring this out is a truly maddening and fruitless cycle that harms both people and the relationship. The way out requires the clarity we get when we come out of Sympathetic Nervous System dominance even in moments that are fleeting, but just long enough for us to recognize that we’re doing it again.
The key word here is “threat.” We lose our minds when we perceive a foundational threat. These are not small, inconsequential things. The “clothes the argument is wearing” is very often something trivial. That makes it confusing. Why are we so upset over something so stupid?
We aren’t. Neither is the other person.
The Real Issue
The stupid thing is simply the delivery system for a much deeper fear that’s been tapped. That thing will never be resolved until we stop pretending that the argument is about the clothes the argument is wearing. This is the kind of threat that taps the web-like logic of heart brain and gut brain and causes them to light up like a demented Christmas tree that has ignited into a roaring fire due to multiple short circuits and overloads on the strings of lights.
The fires are almost always connected to perceived threats that leave our younger, more child-like selves feeling like it’s the end of the world. This explains why we can sometimes act in regressive, childish ways: The terrified little kid has taken over the driver’s seat and can’t even see over the dashboard. It’s a bit miraculous when this doesn’t result in a colossal wreck.
The good news is, those spectacular mash-ups very often have recurring themes. Understanding what our specific themes are can offer us a shorthand to find our adult foot and step on the brake.
Non-Negotiables and Preferences
I very often encourage clients to write down and keep working on their “non-negotiables” in relationships of all kinds, (different terms for different relationships.) If we don’t know what our terms for relationship are, we don’t have any gauge for whether a relationship is healthy enough to put in the hard growth work required to sustain it. Most often when we completely lose our minds in conflict it’s the result of feeling like one or more of our non-negotiables is in threat.
Here are some examples:
These are just a few examples, but you can see how those foundational “must have and can’t stands” can appear to be in threat. For example, if this person I care so much about truly doesn’t give a rat’s ass what I think, we either don’t have a relationship, or that conviction is a preference, not a non-negotiable. If it’s a preference, it’s on me to find a way to cope with this person not offering the thing that matters so much to me.
The tree is now on fire because that little person inside feels as though they are fighting for the survival of the relationship. Sometimes walk away power, (see my comments on “should,” “have to” and “must” here,) can give us important clarity.
Fact checking comes in handy here. Don’t forget, if the scared kid in you is driving your bus, the other person’s scared kid is likely driving theirs as well. No one is at their best. Did the person really say what you think they said? Does it truly mean what you assumed it means? Or did it hook something big and scary inside that isn’t what’s happening here? Once more, getting off of that vagus nerve can help us figure it out.
That can’t always be done in real time. Sometimes it’s just too much. At times like this remembering this credo: “We can do this well or we can do it now, but we cannot do both,” can give us the space we need to peek under the clothes the argument is wearing and find the threat messages we were responding to. Then we can figure out whether or not they were present the way we thought they were. Armed with this knowledge, we can make a plan either to constructively and candidly talk with the other person about it, or to do our own work and leave it alone.
Moving to Curiosity
This gives us the power to move away from self-protection and into curiosity. When we get curious about what’s going on inside of us and also remember that we will ultimately be ok regardless of what the other person chooses to do or not do, we have the opportunity to grow forward. We have the freedom to be humble and to make much better decisions about what’s next with the person in front of us. The “adult” us can see over the dashboard. The “child” us can go play.
What are the messages that send you into child mode? What will make it safe enough for our more grown self to take back control? Spending some time with these questions can save us a lot of heartbreak.
Would you like help recognizing what puts the little kid in you in the driver’s seat? Contact Tiffany today and let’s make a plan