watercolorIf you want to have a healthy, loving relationship, take a look at the way you argue.  Studies show that the way you argue can be a predictor of whether your relationship will last. There are basically two destructive fighting styles:  yelling and screaming, or stonewalling, which is withdrawing emotionally.  

And it doesn’t stop there!  In a new study from UC/Berkeley and Northwestern, researchers were able to accurately predict what type of health problems couples would have based on their fighting styles.  The study found that shutting down emotionally was linked to muscle tension and stiffness, particularly in the back and neck, while patterns of angry outbursts were associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular problems like chest pain and high blood pressure.

So, how do you change the way you argue?  The key to changing the way that you fight is about interrupting where your mind automatically goes.  

When we are in an argument, feeling angry, anxious, or sad, and our emotions are out of control, there is a part of our brain that causes us to react before we are even aware of what we are even doing or saying.  The amygdala are two almond shaped parts of your brain which are the first to react to emotionally significant events.  So, when our emotions are out of control, it is the knee jerk response from this part of our brain that can cause you to over react.

It is this part of the brain that is responsible for our instinctual “Fight-Or-Flight” responses.  So it is also the amygdala that triggers us to either fight by becoming angry, or flight by either withdrawing or leaving the situation.

It is this automatic reaction that people need to learn how to interrupt.  Who is really in control at the moment you are fighting?  Is it YOU or is it your automatic mind that is responding?

When we fight with our spouse, we automatically try to protect ourselves from deeper pain that is triggered, that we are not even aware of.  All human beings have vulnerability at their core.  When our reactions are out of control, it is because our deepest core vulnerability is triggered.  We are triggered into inadequacy, shame, guilt, abandonment, failure.  This is when our defenses are strongest, and the fight or flight response takes over.

You can interrupt the automatic response of the amygdala by learning to re-direct your mind to the pre-frontal regions of the brain, the part of the brain that is responsible for problem solving and processing more complex thoughts.

In other words, you have to consciously use your thoughts to change your behavior.  If you stay triggered in your core vulnerability (inadequacy, shame, guilt, abandonment, failure), you will act out your anger against your partner. If you can consciously remember your commitment to the health of your relationship, and your physical and emotional health and well being, YOU can choose how you will fight, rather than leaving it up to your automatic mind.

Here are 5 Ways to practice interrupting the automatic reactions and change your fighting style:

1.     BECOME THE OBSERVER:  Understand that your reactions are automatic, and become familiar with what you are really feeling when you react automatically.  As soon as you recognize that you are automatically responding to a core vulnerability, you become the observer of your reaction, rather than being lost in it.  Separating yourself from your automatic reaction is the first step in practicing change.
2.    CHOOSE LOVE:  In the moment of observation, the possibility of CHOICE becomes available.  You can choose to be right or you can choose to be connected.  You can choose to continue to stone wall or fight with hostility OR you can choose a different way of being in the argument.
3.    TAKE A TIME OUT:   Taking a time out allows you to cool off and take time to understand your own reactivity then come back to the conversation calmer.
4.    CHOOSE YOUR WORDS:  Think about the words you want to use:  Be responsible for the inflammatory words you use.  Find a different, more effective way to express yourself so that your partner can understand how you feel.
5.     LISTEN FROM A “WIN-WIN” RATHER THAN “ME AGAINST YOU”:  Seek to understand your partner’s perspective in a way that you are able to understand what he or she is really trying to communicate to you.  Repeat back to your partner. “so what I hear you saying is…” and check in with them to see if you got it right!

The bottom line:  Changing your fighting style is all about practicing how to become the observer of your automatic mind.

Who are you really?

wonderAll of us think we have some idea of who we really are. We may be a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend.  We may be a teacher, a doctor, an office worker, or a stay at home mom.  We may have been told that we are fun, funny, a good listener, and kind.  We may have been told that we are cold, selfish, controlling, judgmental.  It runs the gamut.

Where did our sense of self come from?  Primarily from our thinking…a collection of thoughts about our selves.  Our thoughts about ourselves include who we think we are, and what other people tell us. We have developed an identity from our childhood experiences, our ideas from our parents and siblings and from our culture.

What we often fail to realize, is that who we think we are, actually begins when we are first figuring out the world around us, and how people in our world relate to us.  As a child, we don’t have an understanding of how the world works. The beginnings of our sense of who we are, and who we are not, start to take shape when we are about three or four years old.  That’s pretty scary when you think about it!  Our three and four year-old selves are starting to form opinions about how important we are, how loved we are, whether we are smart enough, how much we think we matter to others.  And not only are these beliefs becoming a solid part of our sense of self, but it is these early beliefs that will play a huge role in almost every aspect of our lives, from our self esteem, to the people we choose to be in relationships with!  And it all starts around three years old!!  Yikes!!

Our first sense of who we are is heavily influenced by parents’ attitudes and behavior. When you’re a child, you don’t realize your parents aren’t perfect. You think of your parents as gods—beings with all the authority and omniscience of a deity. And your mom is mad cause you spilled the milk—so that must mean that you are bad. You don’t understand that your mom is mad because she has her own issues she is struggling with.  Maybe she’s over reacting because she had a fight with dad. You think it’s all about you. By the time you are five or six, you’ve got some beliefs about yourself, and they start to influence how you see yourself. It is these childhood beliefs that are the strongest factors in determining who we think we are.

Something simple, like Susie choosing not to play with you on the playground, becomes proof of what you believe. A voice inside your head says, “I told you there was something wrong with you!” It is the safety instinct that kicks in and tries to protect you from that criticism by becoming highly self-critical, and therefore using harshness to make sure that you never get yourself into a situation whereby you could be hurt.  The voice in your mind, that you believe to be you, says “you better figure out a way to make sure you are never criticized ever again!”  Although this demand is completely unattainable, you don’t recognize that.  Instead, you are convinced that there IS actually a way to achieve this!  You try to find a way to keep yourself safe and protected from emotional pain. But sadly, life doesn’t work this way.  It is unavoidable that we will have moments of failure, criticism, and rejection.

But who is really responsible for our interpretations?  It is not actually YOU who is responsible for forming much of who you think you are, but rather it is your Inner Critic:  The voice in your mind that speaks to you all day, every day, and tells you who you need to be, what you need to achieve, where you don’t measure up, what you need to fix, where you are failing, and where you are just not enough. It is our inner critic that ALWAYS has a judgment about something.  She is always looking to answer the fundamental questions: “What’s wrong?” or “What’s missing?”

Whenever life doesn’t fit your inner critic’s picture, you are often convinced that the reason why is because of YOU!  If you would just figure out how to be better, smarter, prettier, funnier, a better person, you won’t be hurt.  Every time you experience pain, this is evidence that YOU really ARE not good enough.  By the time you’re an adult, you’ve gathered enough evidence to make you believe that in some way, you are inadequate or not enough. “What’s wrong with my body?  What’s wrong with my looks?  What’s wrong with the way I am in the world?  Am I smart enough?  Am I accomplished enough?  Am I a good enough wife, mother, daughter, friend?”.

In case you haven’t noticed, our Inner critic ALWAYS has a problem with something.  If you stop and look, you can recognize that there’s always something that’s bothering you.  Today’s judgment may be different from yesterday’s, but once today’s inadequacy is gone, there will always be another inadequacy waiting to take its place. But rather than understanding that this habitual way of thinking is actually our inner critic talking, we think that’s US talking.  What we don’t realize is that our inner critic is contaminating who we think we are.  The habitual thinking of the inner critic is always looking at a question, “what’s wrong here?”  What’s wrong with me, or what’s wrong with it.?  She is always waiting to try to change or fix things, because she thinks that something is always broken or needs perfecting.

In her book “Playing Big”, Tara Mohr describes the Inner Critic by saying, “The inner critic may take inspiration from people in your life who played the role of outer critic. It adapts and expands on their behavior and often exists as a version of their voices inside your head. Listen for echoes of a parent, a sibling, a boss, or the voice of societal institutions or major cultural forces such as your religion, company, or country.”

Who does your Inner Critic sound like? You’ve been listening to a story for your whole life, and you don’t even know it. You have a seven year-old version of the story, a sixteen year-old version, a twenty five year-old version, and you have the version you have now.  You don’t need to have experienced difficult experiences or dysfunction in your childhood to develop a harsh inner critic. Her voice sounds a lot like your own. Listen: “You forgot to pick up the dry cleaning again! You’re an idiot,” she scolds as you walk up to your front door without your clean clothes.

It is this Inner Critic that we have put, without realizing it, in the position of governing our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs, and virtually all of who we think we are.  It is this Inner Critic that we have symbolically put on the throne.  Dethroning your inner critic (the Center hosts a workshop program by the same name) starts with recognizing the that the voice in your mind is not really you.  Learn to pay attention to how she speaks to you and exactly what she is saying.  Feel what it feels like in your body when she is speaking to you.

When you hear your inner critic talking, ask yourself:

  1. Is she making up worse-case scenarios?
  2. Does she repeat the same story over and over again?
  3. Does she hold you back from making changes in your life?
  4. Does she keep you stuck in fear?
  5. Does listening to this voice make you feel the way you want to feel in your life?
  6. Does it help you reach your goals?  And if so, at what cost?

Learning the difference between YOU and your Inner Critic has the potential to change your whole life.