We are always in a rush to talk about or “fix” things. The distress we feel for our own and others suffering mounts itself, like a tidal wave that crashes down upon us and the idea of leaving something “hanging out there” feels like an insurmountable task.
I’ve done this more times than I can count. I’ve found reasons to text or call someone because I couldn’t read how they felt at the end of a conversation. I have sat there, frantically refreshing my emails to see if a response has come in from a boss or coworker because the unknown of what they are thinking or feeling has shackled me to my anxiety. I have pushed my husband to stay up way later than either of us wanted because we have to “solve” the arbitrary “this” right now.
Why? Where does that sense of urgency come in?
It has to do with allowing our emotions to drive the bus. Emotions are a natural response to any situation or experience. They are extremely powerful. They can shift our thoughts, disrupt connections and take a blah day to amazing or a great day to shit, all in one fell swoop.
AND, they are meant to be fleeting and transient. We have talked about this before - I cannot expect to feel happy all of the time and on the flip side, fear, shame and sadness do not last forever either. It is hard to remember this when they come in with a force surging through them that seems to outweigh any rational or logical thought. They create a sense of reactivity, fueled by fear and shame, that lead us to think that if we do not do something RIGHT NOW to solve the issue at hand, then, essentially our world will go to shit. Someone will be mad at me, I may get fired, my husband will not sleep as well (or ultimately, I may not sleep as well)…we may have to sit in the distress and feel a feeling we cannot “fix”, and no one likes that.
But, does it help when we push so intensely? Does it work to dig deeper into a hole or a wound or to press about a situation or experience to process something that may never have been there?
It’s not an all or nothing answer. Sometimes it may be what is necessary to get past the avoidance and disconnection. My husband and I ran up against this early in our relationship. No matter how much space he was given, it would always feel like he was fueled by his emotions because he had not had the opportunities to really sift through and dialogue about his thoughts and feelings in the past. We worked through a lot by “sitting in the shit” together.
AND, more times than not, I have found that if I am leading an interaction with emotion, I never get out of it everything I need and often am unable to give the other person/people what they need. My thinking is more rigid. My brain is focused on repairing the disconnection at all costs without taking the time to think about how I really feel and what I want or vice versa. I tend to be fueled by shame, using it’s defenses or as Brene Brown calls them, “Strategies for Disconnection” to fight against it. I either take a passive, people-pleasing role where I absorb the wrongdoing as my own and work to make everything okay for the other person OR I enter what my husband calls the “spin zone” where passive aggressiveness and protective manipulation work to make it the fault of someone else so that there is no possibility I would be “guilty” and as such, unworthy of love and connection.
Either stance never leaves me feeling complete. I still wonder what else is there. I think about things I wish I could or would have said. I feel disappointed in the way I responded. I never reflect back and feel like how I responded was congruent with how I feel and what my assertive self would say. And so, I have had to make some major changes in how I communicate with others in times of distress and disruption. And all of that comes down to following 1 simple rule.
The 24-Hour Rule.
We need to learn to sit with our own and others’ distress. Anxiety, shame, fear…all of these emotions are normal. AND, they do not have to dictate our lives. They do not have the final say about who we are and our place in the world. And I get it, they think they are being helpful, but they’re not.
Whenever I feel myself getting consumed by my anxiety and assume an urgency about what I need or should do, I disconnect. If I find myself drafting an email immediately to someone because I feel worried about what will happen if I don’t, I save the draft and shut it down. If I can feel myself getting elevated in a conversation or assuming one of my shame-based roles, I take a break. When I find my brain incapable of putting me on the same platform as the other person/people, either by putting me above or below them, I take a break.
How long? 24 hours. That’s it. That is all I am asking of myself. To sit with the distress for 24 hours. It’s like waiting to paddle your kayak until after the choppy waves from the douche bags on the jet skis who got way to close and don’t follow the rules in a no wake zone settle down. Your emotions are like the jet skiers. They don’t care about the effect it will have on you in that moment. They are just here for the main event. Let them get bored and walk away, or at least sit down next to you rather than stand in front of you.
Is it hard? Fuck yes, it is hard. I hate sitting down and letting shame, anxiety, fear and anger all talk, or rather scream, at me throughout the course of that “break”. Sometimes I draft emails and letters to the other person. Sometimes I talk to myself in the mirror pretending I was able to say what my emotions wanted me to say. AND, I survive the break. I make it through just fine. Sure, it’s painful, but not like what I think it will be. The ambiguity of it was way worse than getting through it. In fact, the relief I feel when I am able to see the waves settle and can clearly see what I want from the interaction feels so much better than giving in to the pressures that had plagued me in the moment.
I am more assertive. I am more able to hear the other person. I can create space to process. The interaction feels better because it feels lighter. And that does not mean that anger or fear or shame does not show up - they do. But they are a part of the conversation, not the guiding forces and are more easily recognized in the moment.
My husband and I have talked about what this rule has done for us in our relationship and he told me that he used to feel like I had an unfair advantage because I knew how to talk about emotions and that he needed time to “catch up” to where I was before he could engage. He talked about feeling like there were times he would “get away” with things because of how my shame guided an interaction or where he felt like he could have been more assertive but wasn’t clear in that moment about what he even wanted and needed to ask for. We talked about feeling like this rule has given us more balance. We both show up to conversations with open hearts and minds and a respect to be honest with each other. We can hold space for the possibility of being wrong or being upset or hurt without needing to hold shame at the forefront. This space has equalized us.
Now, as you do it in your own lives, here are a few tips:
Set a time or make a plan for when you will come back to the conversation. As much as you might want to, you can’t just dip in the middle of a conversation without saying something. Close the loop, whether in email, text or in person. Set a time you will get back to them or ask them if you could come back to this at a future time.
Example email/text response: “I am going to take some time to think more about everything discussed. I will get back to you tomorrow.” OR SAY NOTHING. Take the information, hold it and get back to them when you are ready. Email and text are passive forms of communication so it is okay to take some space without explaining what you are doing.
Example in person/over the phone response: “I can feel myself getting very activated right now. I need to take a break from the conversation. Would it be okay if we pick this back up after dinner?”
Try to move the conversation to direct - in person or over the phone. I know this is ironic given I am telling you ways to take space via text/email. AND, that has to do with two things - 1) Some of you are not going to be comfortable talking to people over the phone/face to face as you are starting out and 2) Sometimes it is out of your control - they are not available, they keep turning to email even when you as for a phone meeting, etc.
And, whenever possible, try to take the conversation off line and talk directly. Context and subtext is hard to read in emails. Tone, nonverbals, eye contact, etc…all of these things are lost in electronic communication. And, we all know email and text has become something we do while multitasking with 3 or more other things. There are too many distractions that take us from being able to really sit and respond the way we might if we truly showed up to the interaction. So, even if it feels difficult, you owe it to yourself to have a direct interaction.
Use “I” Statements. When you come back to the conversation, lead from your perspective. Let them know how you feel, what you need and want from them and the interaction and how you understand what they are saying, need, and want. We can only speak from our experience and perspective. Telling someone what they did or leading with “You” only creates more defenses.
If you need more time, take it. Sometimes we come back to a conversation and it is clear we are still very activated. It is okay to own that and to take another break. And if this person or topic is one that keeps activating you, it is okay to put that out there. Example: “This is a really hard topic for me to talk about without getting upset. I am really working on it and I want you to know that this may be hard for me whenever we talk about it.”