Nothing seems to go right and there is a never ending stream of STRESSssss. If you’re human chances are that this is unfortunately all too familiar and common in your life. Once a source of stress has been dealt with then magically “poof’ another one comes along to take its place. But why do we seem to be wired to dine from this never ending buffet of problems, worry and stress? Why do we keep taking another bite from the Gateau of Catastrophe?
I coined this term from a client during a counselling session who after having worked really hard at overcoming some very tricky relationship problems began to re-pick at the resolved issues. They began to go over all the negative awful events in the past week/month/year and I suddenly commented ” Do you really want another slice of Catastrophe Gateau?”. A light bulb went off for them and they put down the gateau there and then.
You’re wired for stress.
I hate to break the bad news but our brain is wired for stress, its part of our makeup.
As Ruby Wax puts it in her book Sane New World “As soon as you even think about stress, a whole cascade of reactions happen: your thalamus (the relay station of your brain) sends out a wake-up call to your brain stem.” This is the oldest part of our brain, developed about 400 million years ago. “It prompts us to mate, kill and eat, which is perfect if you’re living in a field or working for Goldman Sachs.” Signals are then sent to all vital organs and muscle groups, getting them ready into “fight or flight” mode. Adrenal glands release cortisol, the stress hormone, which suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from potential injuries and stimulates the amygdala to keep you vigilant, which produces even more cortisol. “It also suppress activity in the hippocampus reducing your memory so you only think about what you did last time you had a similar emergency. This chemical also stops your digestion and the urge to have sex. Another chemical, epinephrine, increases your heartbeat so it can move more blood and dilates your pupils (to help you find your foe in the dark). All this is useful if you’re actually in danger. If you’re not actually in a life or death situation and those chemicals can’t stop pumping through you, they will wreck havoc on your body and brain”.
To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). If we miss out on something pleasant its not an imminent survival issue but if we get attacked/killed its not a great way of ensuring we pass on gene copies. Therefore the brain is biased towards negativity as a survival mechanism and not towards our happiness.
So why is this a problem now?
Because in our modern world this prehistoric brain is responding to life events as if they are in fact mortal dangers and our drive to survive and multiply is killing us. For example
- Not enough likes on social media/relationship conflict/that big chat with your boss about being late again and the brain kicks into fear of social exclusion which back in our prehistoric mammoth times likely meant death . Or at least a nasty clubbing.
- Our drive to forage and not starve means we are constantly striving for the next promotion, the better car,higher family expectations or reaching scholastic ideals.
Our brain is geared to be not only be on guard but also be negatively biased.
Now for the good news .Neuroscience has progressed so much in the recent decades that we can now take advantage of new knowledge through understanding neuroplasticity. This suggests that it is possible “re-wire” the brain, change unhelpful habits, cultivate positive thoughts and awareness, thereby building up brain muscle in a same way we train our bodies. By learning to reduce “negative commentary”, become less obsessive about “being busy doing stuff” we can in fact have a slice of life not the entire Gateau of Catastrophe.
Mindfulness is the key.
Mindfulness is the current buzz word but its actually been around for a very long time. It is not just about being present (as opposed to just resting or emptying your mind) and it does not require you to bend into a pretzel or become a Buddhist unless you want too.
The following 3 steps are easy to use anywhere, anytime tools. The aim is not a rapid intense halting, rather to gently coax our brain and nervous system into a more chilled out state. Practice makes permanent and remember our brain has been fantastic at being in catastrophe for millions of years so it will take time to rewire!
- When you catch your brain going through endless scenarios take a moment to “switch” the focus to your breathing. Notice if its rapid ,slow or deep. You arent trying to change it just notice
- Take a moment to take 3 measured breaths in the nose for a count of 4 and then out the mouth for a count of 6. If you get distracted dont worry keep coming back to counting in and out until you get to 3 full “in and outs”
- Describe SLOWLY AND IN DETAIL 3 things you can visibly see, 2 things you can hear and one physical sensation ( not an emotion ).
Check out my resources section or other blogs for more support and suggestions.
Anger. Its one of those emotions most people struggle with, we often confuse anger with aggression or an emotion which breaks down relationships.
People either wield it so broadly it takes out everyone in its path and nothing is resolved.
Or people try and push it so far down they become depressed and continually try to keep the peace while internally seething and again the issues remain unresolved.
(Additionally I want to clarify this blog is about ANGER not to be confused with abuse or narcissism. Those are very specific issues which require a different set of understanding and tools.)
But have you ever wondered why we get angry? According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, “emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us.” Which sounds wonderfully logical and simple on paper but when we get the chemical flood of emotion its much more difficult .
In his book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman tells us that anger causes blood to flow to our hands, making it easier for us to strike an enemy or hold a weapon. Our heart rate speeds up and a rush of hormones – including adrenaline – creating a surge of energy strong enough to take “vigorous action.” In this way, anger has been ingrained into our brain to protect us yet we seem to have so many problems with anger.
The purpose of anger
Think of anger like an iceberg, a bit like the one that fatefully sank the Titanic. A large piece of ice found floating in the open ocean. Most of the iceberg is hidden below the surface of the water and we only notice the bit poking out of the icy depths. Similarly, when we are angry, there are usually other emotions hidden beneath the surface. It’s easy to see a person’s anger but can be difficult to see the underlying feelings the anger is protecting.
For example, Dave believed he had an anger problem. When his wife would make a request of him, he would criticize her. He didn’t like his reactions, but he felt he couldn’t help it. As he worked on mindfulness and started noticing the space between his anger and his actions, he opened up the door into a profound realization.
He didn’t really have an anger problem. Instead, he felt like his wife was placing impossible demands on him. By seeking to understand and accept his anger, rather than fix or suppress it, he began to improve his marriage by recognizing his anger as a signal that he needed to set healthy boundaries for what he would and would not do.
Dave’s story points out an important concept. As Susan David, Ph.D., author of Emotional Agility says, “Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.” Her point is there is something more below the surface of our anger.
Anger as a protector of raw feelings
Anger is often described as a “secondary emotion” because people tend to use it to protect their own raw, vulnerable, overwhelming feelings. Underneath Dave’s anger was pure exhaustion and feeling that he wasn’t good enough for his wife. So his anger was protecting him from deeply painful shame.
Learning to recognize anger as a protector of our raw feelings can be incredibly powerful. It can lead to healing conversations that allow couples as well as children and parents to understand each other better.
Below is what we call the Anger Iceberg because it shows the “primary emotions” lurking below the surface. Sometimes it’s embarrassment, loneliness, exhaustion, or fear.
3 tips for listening to anger
One of the most difficult things about listening to a child or lover’s anger, especially when it’s directed at us, is that we become defensive. We want to fight back as our own anger iceberg rises to the surface. If this happens, we get in a heated verbal battle which leaves both parties feeling misunderstood and hurt. Here are three powerful tips for listening to anger.
1. Don’t take it personally
Your partner or child’s anger is usually not about you. It’s about their underlying primary feelings. To not taking this personally takes a high level of emotional intelligence.
One of the ways I do this is by becoming curious of why they’re angry. It’s much easier for me to become defensive, but I’ve found thinking, “Wow, this person is angry, why is that?” leads me on a journey to seeing the raw emotions they are protecting and actually brings us closer together.
2. Don’t EVER tell your partner to “calm down”
When I work with couples and one of the partners get angry, I have witnessed the other partner say, “Calm down” or “You’re overreacting.” This tells the recipient that their feelings don’t matter and they are not acceptable.
The goal here is not to change or fix your partner’s emotions but rather to sit on their anger iceberg with them. Communicate that you understand and accept their feelings.
When you do this well, your partner’s anger will subside and the primary emotion will rise to the surface. Not to mention they will feel heard by you, which builds trust over time.
Maybe you grew up in a family where anger wasn’t allowed, so when your partner expresses it, it feels paralyzing and you freeze. Or maybe you try to solve their anger for them because their anger scares you. Open yourself up to experience you and your partner’s full spectrum of emotions.
3. Identify the obstacle
Anger is often caused by an obstacle blocking a goal. For example, if your partner’s goal is to feel special on their birthday and their family member missing their special day makes them angry, identifying the obstacle will give you insight into why they’re angry.
The bottom line is that people feel angry for a reason. It’s more productive to sit with them in it and explore. By doing so, you will not only help them to understand their anger, but create more connection and solutions.
Being an adult is hard and sometimes we find ourselves sounding like our parents,feeling or viewing our partner as a 5 year old version of the adult self. ” OMG stop acting like a 5 year old..Act your age….You sound like my Mother/Father.I feel like Im turning into your Mother/Father” are comments and thoughts most of us can relate to at some point in our lives.
Now if we are 5 years old or the persons Mother /Father then these comments are accurate and fine. When however our partner is 45 grown adult and we find ourselves either saying or thinking these things then we have a problem with the art of adulting.
Setting the scene is a couple Robyn and Chris ( notice gender neutral )just home from a long day of work /wrangling kids/work colleagues traffic and getting the wrong coffee order etc etc.
Chris- “Im so tired Im going to watch tv and just blob out for a bit with my beer/wine/chips/socks/Facebook/blanket fort”
Robyn- “But what about the rubbish you havent put it out yet and whose making dinner???”
Chris- “mutters under breathe- OMG just give me a break Im tired and just want a moment to chill.”
Robyn- “Oh great if I want anything done I have to do it youre like a teenager!”
Chris- “Well stop acting like my B%#$$Y Mother/Father you’re no fun.”
Robyn- ” Typical. Now I know just how your Mother/Father/geography teacher felt I always have to be the grown up”
This type of dialogue can keep continuing unresolved with ruptures in relationship and everyone being unhappy and no rubbish EVER getting put out. Dinner tends to be a plate of hot resentment with a side salad of contempt.
So lets take a side step and look at some theory .
Based on his observations of people in his own clinical practice in the 1950’s psychologist Eric Berne developed the idea that people can switch between different states of mind and behaviour—sometimes in the same conversation and certainly in different parts of their lives, for example at work and at home. He found that these states of mind fell into three types which he named Parent, Adult and Child and helped us respond to life in automatic ways. (Also known as PAC)Berne further broke these down into positive and negative roles within the parent and child states as in the diagram below.
The Parent state reflects the absorption over the years of the influences of our actual parents and of parent and authority figures such as teachers, bosses and so on. One is to enable people hopefully be better actual parents of their children with the two main characteristics being critical or nurturing in a positive( teaching/boundaries/caring for appropriately) or negative way (blaming or smothering/rescuing).
The Adult state is where we hope to be as adults. It is our adult selves, dealing with the never ending interesting facets everyday life. Its more logical, fair, solution based and It also has the function of regulating the activities of the Parent and Child, and mediating between them. IE Child- ‘I hate you and Im not going to eat my carrots’, Parent ‘You are so naughty and never do as your told. EAT YOUR CARROTS OR ELSE’. Adult ‘Hate is a pretty strong word , how about we mash them with sauce?”
The Child state consists of parts of ourselves which hark back to our childhood. It is childlike but not childish. This child can be spontaneous, fun loving, rebellious ,trying to please or inquisitive IE How does the moon not fall out of the stars….why are stars twinkly….why is twinkly called twinkly. You get the idea.
The above scenario highlights how individuals can get triggered by each other into unhelpful parental/child states and get caught in the drama triangle which I wrote about in a previous blog. Dreaded Drama Triangle
If as a child we had a critical parent we can SWITCH into this child rebellious/or over pleasing state when we perceive a criticism, equally if we see someone coming from a child rebellious state we can switch into our learnt parental roles of criticism or over nurturing. We can get stuck in these negative transactions and all our adulting goes out the door!
How it can look.
Chris- “Im so tired Im going to watch tv and just blob out for a bit with my beer/wine/chips/socks/Facebook/blanket fort”(child response)
Robyn- goes over to Chris on sofa, gives a hug/head rub/kiss.( nurturing parent) “Was it a tough day Chris? How about we both get our selves sorted and think about dinner later?( adulting response)
Chris- “Yeah it was Im so tired can you make me dinner and bring it to me? (A mix of some adulting and still in child)
Robyn- ” No I cant as Im busy finishing a call but when your ready we can do it together or just have cake and pretend to be super heroes? ( mix of adulting and some healthy free child).
Chris- “Oh sorry I wasn’t thinking but ooooh I love you I can get the ice-cream and fruit for us?”( adult,nurturing parent and healthy free child)
As you can see its not always about being firmly in the ADULT, because the art of adulting includes having some positive child aspects and some healthy parent characteristics in the mix.
The art of adulting means we understand when we are getting triggered or coming from one of these unhealthy but automatic states and having the tools to shift gear. Important also is helping our partner get back on track and having healthy ways to discuss this.Try some homework question with your partner
- What did you learn about being a parent from your parents?
- How were decisions made? What were the rules?
- How were boundaries set, critical or fair? What did they say do?
- As a kid what was your way of dealing with this? Did you rebel or try to be the good kid?
- How do you think this plays out with us?
- How can we have more of the healthy child/parent roles?
Use these questions as a way of getting to know each other more and understanding that each of us is a product of our learnt relationship patterns which are often unconscious. When we can understand our selves and our loved ones we can communicate more effectively and build stronger connections together. These tools are also incredibly useful in other relationships whether work, family or friends.
Remember no matter how old we are its so important to enjoy that positive child state with others as life is short and often far too serious! If you would like to learn more or work with Caroline to make this year the one that counts contact Caroline now.
Conflict is one of those words most people have an instant recoil reaction to which often we avoid at all costs.
Whether because of negative experiences of conflict or just being bewildered by the whole messy concept, we as a general rule really don’t like it.
But what if i told you conflict wasn’t just useful it is absolutely vital to robust relationships and wellbeing?
Firstly lets clarify the concept. Im not talking about the arguments that go no where and get bogged down in stonewalling or defensiveness . Or the passive aggressive round and round of blame with no resolution .
Im talking about creative conflict (no its not just a made up thing) it is an approach to relating which values differences and sees obstacles as a way to growth. This can be at work with friends ,family or loved ones. It can even be about how you relate to yourself!
In this blog Im going to introduce you to a couple of tools that can help you get the most out of conflict..
1- Agree to disagree.Creative conflict doesn’t mean you have to agree. Its not about who is right or trying to have only one view.You don’t have to agree and neither does the other party ,what is important is finding a solution which can work. Respecting each others unique perspective is key to working with creative conflict.
2- The aim is to listen to understand not reply. Do you really get where the other person is coming from and even their motivation or intent? Can you communicate this back to them clearly and most of all CALMLY? By creating understanding we BOND (our body releases calming and connecting hormones)and when this occurs we are more likely to be receptive to new or difficult conversations.
3- Take the emotional punch out. Most problems arise when we feel attacked or we come from a critical/defensive place. Keeping the “start off” calm and open increases the chances of people being receptive and engaged No one responds well to being yelled at or intimidated as all our fight flight and adrenaline responses tend to take over. Keeping our voice tone balanced, maintaining receptive eye contact ( thats right no rolling your eyes) with non threatening body language helps create a safe space to voice difficult issues.
A warm approach of ” hey I have something important to talk with you about and I’d like us to be able to work out what might be a tough discussion. When would be a good time?”
Quick tips also include.
- Only one issue at a time
- No personal attacks instead use ” I “statements
- Take a breather to keep things calm
- Take turns to talk, listen and recap.
- Most of all look for options and ways forward .
If you would like to learn more about how to navigate conflict and improve your relationships call or email Caroline at
Resources of interest