Here’s something that happens a little more than I care to admit: I’ll be making playful banter or casually chatting with my daughter or someone else and before I know it I’ve managed to hit a nerve. The next thing I know the person I’m interacting with is crying. Frequently things break down further from there, with me feeling like the bad perpetrator. I used to rationalize such events, attributing it to me being such a safe and sensitive guy, and that it was no big deal. Now I’m pretty sure that’s wrong.
Most often the roots of such upsets are tangled up with painful things that happened in the past – a relationship betrayal, a job loss, a failed attempt at something creative and important. (A recent example: I was startled awake by acid reflux this past Wednesday night. With it, the image arose of Walter Trestle punching me in the stomach with all his might at age eight).
Be Here “Ow”
My present moment actions trigger emotional upsets in the here and now. This surfacing of painful memories is what often happens in a therapist’s office. With one difference: my friends and I are not in a therapist’s office. We’re usually in a restaurant, or out walking a woodland trail, or in a business meeting.
In a therapist’s office, we’re mostly there for surfacing this kind of disturbing material, interrupting such memories as they attempt to reconsolidate and eventually being done with them. In a restaurant, we’re not; and the research evidence suggests that surfacing traumatic memories and not resolving them, simply piles more traumatic memories on top of the old ones, to less than optimal well-being. Traumatic memories piled on top of traumatic memories takes up valuable neural real estate, suggesting that ineffective therapy, as well as ineffective restaurant discussions, violates the Hippocratic Oath – Primum non nocere: “First, do no harm.”
The good news is that such public displays of emotion can be a launching platform for some pretty profound healing integration. But in order to accomplish that, much of the current direction of social neuroscience and somatic psychology suggests that the body has to be involved. (Unless, of course we’re somehow able to take a pill (propanolol?) and magically remove the AMPAR proteins in the amygdala neurons that fire during a traumatic experience).
As with therapists and clients, it’s best if there’s a mutual understanding that emotion is often a signal for some kind of healing integration yearning to unfold. Further good news: research evidence suggests that successfully working through and integrating such traumatic memories makes us not only stronger, but more mentally flexible and emotionally resilient as well. Seems like a path worth exploring. Some people think surfacing, resolving and integrating these webs of memories in our personal history is the central work of a committed relationship.
Crowning Our Soul Mate
Carolyn Myss is one such person who thinks that is the primary work of relationships. At a talk of hers that I once attended, a young woman stood up and asked how she might best find her “soul mate.” Myss’s response: “You want to find your soul mate? I’ll tell you how to find your soul mate: marry the person you absolutely can’t stand most. That’s how you find your soul mate.”
So, it’s not the emotional upset with our kids, our partners or our friends that is the central problem. Those upsets are often signaling that a tender memory has been tapped. (Often we fail to realize their historic roots, since many traumatic experiences are stored on the right side of the brain as unrecalled implicit memories, memories often formed before we learned words – the Unthought Known). It’s what happens in the aftermath of upsets and disagreements that cause the most problems. What we do in order to repair any present-moment damage we’ve created and how we manage to reconnect are key components for integration, for learning to love a good fight. Or at least to respect and appreciate a good fight.
Recycling Fault and Blame
One helpful thing to do is consign fault and/or blame to the recycling bin. We all come to relationships with extensive personal histories, many of them painful and neurologically volatile. The conflicts that inevitably result can be expected. If they weren’t so painful, they could be welcomed and wholeheartedly embraced, the way we would an antibiotic that promises to reduce our fevered brow. But with practice, I can tell you from personal experience, it’s possible to learn to create a little space around the pain, a little ease and awareness that more often than not, some larger healing purpose is at work.