Linda: There is a big difference between speaking from our inner experience and speaking from our opinions. Speaking from our experience is expressing our feelings and needs. Speaking from our opinions is frequently characterized by thoughts, which are often critical and judgmental. There is nothing wrong with expressing opinions. We do it all the time, and often that can lead to provocative, worthwhile discussions. But sometimes, when the opinion is about the other person, rather than the content of what they said, it’s more likely that one or both people will feel misunderstood, criticized, put down, unappreciated, judged, scolded, and shamed. When these feelings are present, the urge towards reactivity is strong.
Judgments, unsolicited opinions, advice, criticism, blame, faultfinding, name-calling and other types of verbal violence, are all forms of aggression. When we meet aggression with aggression, there is an intensification of the feelings of fear and anger. When this happens, we both feel more threatened, less secure, less safe, and prompted to counterattack.
Counterattacking can make us feel like we are more protected. We put the other person on notice that we don’t intend to allow them to threaten us. It’s not easy to override this hard-wired tendency, which raises the very real question. “Why should I turn the other cheek when I feel blamed, criticized or attacked? Why shouldn’t I react by putting the other person in their place? What kind of person would allow themselves to be attacked without attempting to defend themselves?”
These are very important questions that each of us needs to consider. If it is our intention to create a safer, more respectful and trusting environment within our relationship then resisting the temptation to counterattack is the smartest thing we can do.
Many of us understand that fighting violence with violence only creates more suffering. The problem for many of us is not that we don’t want to break these vicious cycles, it’s that we don’t feel that we can. When we perceive that we are being threatened, it’s easy to feel that the only alternative to reactivity is passivity. Consequently, it’s not surprising that many of us choose reactivity over passivity. Passivity is a state of inertia and inaction in the face of danger. It is a strategy for dealing with an underlying feeling of helplessness. We can take an active, but non-aggressive stance to assert our own truth in the moment.
To do so, we need to know what our own truth is. To know it, we have to direct our attention to ourselves, and to redirect our attention away from the other person. It is important to make the distinction between the felt experience in the body, rather than just the thoughts in the mind.
This isn’t easy in the face of strong emotions. When the other person shows up to us as a threat, we perceive them as the enemy. If we are dealing with a real enemy who poses a genuine threat, then it may be very appropriate to maintain this external focus, until we feel safe enough to be more vulnerable with them. This doesn’t mean that we should be vulnerable with everybody. If we make the assessment that someone’s primary intention is to cause harm us to serve their own agenda, openness in a situation like that would be inappropriate, even foolish.
In redirecting awareness from others to our own experience, we can check in to see what emotions we are feeling, notice our emotional state, notice how deep or rapid our breathing is, our heart rate, body temperature, cold or sweating. Sometimes we can do this even while we are engaged in dialogue, periodically checking in to monitor our own experience. When emotions are running high, this kind of a check in may not be possible. In such cases, it can be helpful to take a “mini-break.” for a matter of minutes.
Connecting to our own experience is the most valuable thing we can do in the midst of strong emotion. Speaking about our own feelings and needs is what convinces us that we are on the same team, joined in our commitment to handle whatever challenges present themselves. When we can both meet in the presence of this shared awareness, the intensity of our feelings does not diminish, but our emotions become transformed from fear to love, from pain to gratitude, and from separateness to connection.