It can feel very scarey coming to counselling but in my experience nobody has yet regretted facing that fear, being able to look it square in the eye and work out that fear alone is no longer going to limit the responses and options available.
I'm truely hoping for you to get in touch, share your thoughts, I'm just a message away...
I’m sitting reflecting on the phenomenon, that when things are not going well in a relationship... why this often leads to the situation appearing, (in very real terms) to spiral out of control. Assuming everything is going relatively well but then a situation occurs (a misunderstanding, argument, hurt, falling out or an unfortunate coincidence in some cases) and very quickly one party, comes to feel that the bond that keep the relationship strong do not seem as good as it has previously appeared. Instead of being able to build bridges and repair the broken bonds, evidence just keeps presenting itself on just how different you both seem to value the relationship. You are left holding the dilemma of do you quit now to prevent further inevitable hurt or suck it up and risk suffering again and again. The long term result of ‘sucking it up’ is of course that suffering in silence becomes the norm and you have to rely on your own judgement which does not always feel reliable. Having already complained to friends and family the first time it happened and maybe the second, third and fourth… we are ashamed to be still facing the same problems over and over yet not having managed to change anything. Understanding what might be happening behind the scenes, helps to reality check the situation, strip away some of the shame we carry which binds us in silent suffering and might even allow us to bridge ruptures between our nearest and dearest.
So right back in our childhood, the way we are brought up, conditions us to hear experiences in a certain way. Sometimes that is helpful. For example ovens are hot, touching a hot oven causes pain and distress and so we quickly learn not to touch hot ovens anymore. But some are virtually unavoidable but less helpful. When we are toddlers we start to learn we have free will, our own thoughts and desires. 'Mummy this way' we point and head to the park across the road. 'No!!!! That is dangerous' we are yanked back to safety and scolded for walking onto a road. Of course our carers’ are just trying to keep us safe, but in that moment, we are practicing independence and need to know we exist in our own right. Every time our attempts are thwarted a blue print is being created as to what might press our buttons in a relationship in later years. Imagine the mother and child who live across from a sweet shop. Every day they leave the house the child will be tempted to exercise their independence by demanding they go to the shop yet it will be thwarted by everyday life which dictates it is not practical to go to the shop every time they leave the house. How this plays out for mature adults will be different for everyone, but what the toddler might hear might translate in later life as hearing… ‘you are not listening’, ‘you don’t understand my needs’,’ you hear me yet you refuse to help me’, ‘what I want doesn’t matter’, ‘you are more important than I am’, ‘you are ignoring me’, ‘you expect me to put your needs before my own every time’, the list of possible trigger lines is endless but I bet the sound familiar!
So let’s look now at how this plays out in our adult relationships. Let’s assume everything is going reasonably well in your relationship (with your partner, friend, boss or nearest and dearest) but a situation occurs like a misunderstanding or argument (see previous examples) and in that situation we hear the trigger – ‘you are not listening to me’. In that split second we are reminded unconsciously of our attempts of actualising our existence being thwarted, which means we feel under attack and our bodies might initiate the fight or flight response.
In short the flight or fight response releases adrenaline, which shuts down our thinking brain and our memory processing centres and we are left with a flood of emotions. The flood of emotions takes us outside of what Janina Fisher and Dan Siegal refer to as the window of tolerance. This is the amount of emotional distress we can tolerate before we stop being able to think and feel at the same time. At this point we have one of two paths available on this journey. We become numb, passive, disheartened, discouraged and feel flat. This reminds me of the cliché men refer to, when they have had an argument with their wife/girlfriend and the woman goes quiet. There is basically no capacity left to tolerate any more emotional disturbances at that time and the only survival technique left is to ‘check out’ until safety, peace and quiet is restored. The other path available is one of hypervigilance. This is where we become very sensitive, reactive, maybe angry and highly aware of every tiny detail of life. This is where we become scared there is an imminent threat to our relationship and we become aware of evidence just keeps flooding in that we have made a massive mistake trusting these bonds. We see everything that is wrong in the relationship. Again maybe another cliché, unfortunately directed at women but you often hear men referring to women as nit picking, like they think they are superwoman they pick up on every little details. This is what being hypervigulant creates, a superhero response running on adrenaline, spotting every eventuality, dodging every curve ball and remembering which recyling bin to use with every single item of garbage. So now one situation has occurred but because we have been pushed outside of our window of tolerance we are now hypervigilant and suddenly the disparity between the two parties seems unmanageable because the other party is not scared the relationship is under threat, because what they see beside them in a superhero not a partner or friend scared the relationship is falling apart.
This hypervigilant stage is where we start thinking just how ‘wrong’ we must have been about this relationship. So we noticing: how much we love them and it is not reciprocated, what we do for them and they don’t do for us and the evidence just keeps piling in. Until the case is overwhelmingly conclusive. Or so we think at the time. This is where maybe ring our trusted friends and we blurt into high speed ‘you are not going to believe what has happened… and then they did this… and this and oh my goodness …’. Our friends agree, if it is this bad, crumbs how do we put up with it….? You know the type of conversation.
So the first few times this happens we release the overwhelm of emotions with friends and return peacefully back into the window of tolerance, start thinking and feeling at the same time which gives us some perspective. Once back in the window of tolerance the evidence collecting stops and we stop be super heros and all is well again. But what if we have exceeded the limit, as in, the number of times we think we can complain about the same thing, to our trusted friend? What do we do then? Maybe we have another friend or maybe now we suffer in silence… ashamed to have trusted again. The shame binds us to shrinking away in silence and we continue probably bouncing between hypervigilance and the numbing zone, which seems to be a fast track into a depressive state in the longer term. Or things go just a step too far and we file for divorce breaking all ties with the problem friend, partner, boss or family member. But there is a third option. Using tools and techniques to bring your emotional disturbance back within the window of tolerance again. So techniques that keep your thinking brain (frontal cortex) online so you stay in the present and are not thrown into feeling under threat.
If we can calm sufficiently we can either stay to return within the window of tolerance. This means we are not so sensitive and hypervigilant so evidence doesn’t come flooding in at every angle. We don't give the other person the silent treatment because we are simply too numb to converse further and of course this means we stop being super hero’s but that’s not living in the real world anyway that is living in a mode which will lead to emotional burnout sooner or later.
So what are the resources we can offer our valued relationships?
Time out to calm down after a situation occurs, without too much expectation on one another.
Use some grounding exercises to keep within the window of tolerance so we don’t go into superhero mode.
If we find ourselves feeling numb it might be tempting to try and re-engage with your feelings, but actually it was having a flood of feelings that put you there, so take your time, be kind to your self and be gentle.
You can google grounding techniques and find lots of artificial ways, but if I was working with you I'd be interested in what you do now when you are stressed, what helps what doesn't.
Some people exercise, gym, cycle, walk, run or swim.
Others do number work, shopping lists, listen to music whilst learning the lyrics to use their thinking brain.
Ever felt like there is something inside your head holding you back?
Maybe a little more self control, to stop you showing your frustrations, your anger, your rage...
Maybe a little more self constraint, to help you act more appropriately, stop you showing your true feelings which are getting you into trouble...
Maybe a little more confidence or self esteem to be able to tell people how your feel, get your own needs met...
Maybe a little more self discipline, to help you maintain better boundaries with people, stop them from making your feel invisible, help you to say no when you need to...
The truth is anger is simply a defense and it is a useful emotion if we can get a handle on what it is that is behind the defense.
Rage on the other hand takes us completely by surprise, like dynamite being lit. We feel like we are not in control and the feelings stay with us far longer than needed. Rage is the reaction to a perceived threat to our actual being. Probably a threat that happened a long time ago but something today reminds us, acts as a trigger and before we know what is happening we are right back there, under threat. But finding out what scares us needs a special pair of trusted hands because this person will walk along side your journey, help you look beyond what you see right now and offer you valuable insight. Are you ready to give that part of you a voice and permission to be heard so you can rein in your reactions into considered responses.
Some clients are aware of what is going on and want to make changes, others will feel the increased pressure building; almost helpless with outbursts becoming stronger and more frequent. Whilst at the other end of the spectrum others are forced into therapy when one day things go to far and intervention are the only option.
There is no right or wrong time to start therapy. But there will become a point when the risk of an outburst will threaten what we care about and love so much that we make the step into therapy.