Conflict is an opportunity. Reacting intensely is your signal to look deeper into the sources of the conflict with your partner. When your reaction seems to be out of proportion to the stimulus, historical demons may be playing a role.
We’ve all experienced hurt and disappointment in our lives growing up, and these experiences don’t just evaporate into thin air as we become adults, as much as we’d like to think they do. When we feel insulted or misunderstood or not listened to in the current time, it’s as if we dip back into that pool of difficult feelings we felt way back when. The power of those earlier feelings adds massive fuel to the current fire.
Cue courage. Along with those demons of the past comes significant discomfort. For example, if you felt criticized by your parents, you likely have a well of painful feelings stored away, often including shame or self-doubt. If your partner criticizes you, even in a small way, you react defensively in a split second. Yes, you are trying to deflect the hurt you’ve just experienced, but you’re also protecting yourself from a surge of painful feelings stored away from long ago. It’s likely you’ve spent a lifetime trying to avoid ever feeling these feelings. If there’s conflict afoot, you change the subject or become overly accommodating or refuse to engage. All of these strategies undermine the satisfying relationship you’ve longed for.
Facing the discomfort of these feelings requires courage because you really don’t want to re-experience pain. Yet as long as you keep a lid on those uncomfortable feelings, you’re going to keep the destructive cycle going. Our emotional system is such that we can’t let the good feelings in and keep the bad feelings out. With the lid closed on the bad feelings, our good feelings are muted, and our ability to think rationally and to solve problems is compromised.
In order to feel joy, you have to be open to feeling pain, hurt, and discomfort. This requires you to build a capacity to feel the uncomfortable feelings that you’ve buried over a lifetime. You build this capacity by intentionally feeling those past feelings of shame, hurt, worthlessness, or self-doubt that surface. There are moments that you can grab them before they slip away, buried in defensive anger or emotional withdrawal.
In these moments, ask yourself, “What else am I feeling?”
This question can allow you to pinpoint feelings that are hiding just below the surface. You know you’re angry or agitated or worried, but you might identify feeling humiliated or unimportant underneath. Emotions may occur to you that you weren’t aware of when you got angry or shut down. Take a deep breath and just stay there in that feeling, not distracting yourself, perhaps by picking up your phone. The more you can stay in touch with these feelings when they show up, the more you can tolerate them. Over time, they lose their power over you.