Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA
So, an entirely hypothetical person--I'll call her "Lissa"--was in a situation recently in which she very much wished to take her laptop computer and chuck it through the window.
Now let's say that "Lissa" has quite a few conflict management skills; in fact she has a good deal of training in the mental health field. Why might she get into a situation like this? And how might she get out of it without sustaining hundreds of dollars worth of computer and window repair bills?
First of all, I don't know how you managed to guess, but yes, "Lissa" is really me.
We all experience those moments when there appears to be NO OPTION other than chucking the laptop through the window, or shrieking at a significant other, or pulling the car over onto the median and banging our heads repeatedly on the steering wheel. We even take a kind of ugly delight in tearing down all of our hard work and stomping around on our relationships with muddy feet.
When these moments happen, you are not going to be able to reason yourself out of your emotional response.
It doesn't matter how much you meditate, how often you go to therapy, or even how many mental health licenses are framed on your wall.
The rational mind is not in charge at this point. In fact, it's entirely offline.
This is why when we try to "reason" with a tantruming child or enraged significant other, it so often goes sideways.
When we are highly emotionally activated, the central nervous system goes into fight or flight. This means that blood is diverted from our brains into our muscles, and thinking is limited to perception of threat. The consciousness is focused on fear and short-term survival, not love and long-term life goals.
Which leaves us with two wisdom nuggets:
1) It is important to reason with yourself BEFORE you hit emotional overload (that's where the skills and meditation come in!) and
2) When you are in the moment of crisis, it is absolutely vital to engage in damage control.
How, you ask? Well...
Here is a 5-step process for damage control in moments of crisis.
1) DO NOT MAKE PERMANENT DECISIONS BASED ON TEMPORARY EMOTIONS.
Remember this sentence. Put it on a sticky note on your laptop, your alarm clock, or any other small objects that tempt you to the delights of window-chucking. Write it above the laundry hamper if you have ever pondered upending it over your chore-neglecting child. Memorize it: memory resides in a different part of the brain than logical reasoning and may be accessible to you even in a heightened emotional state.
2) Walk away.
Yes, it sounds so simplistic. But if you are on the edge of throwing something or shouting out an unforgivable insult, you are in FIGHT mode. This could very well lead to you making a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion. If it is at all possible, put that clothes hamper down and walk away.
Once we are in FIGHT mode, we can't easily toggle back to calm rationality. But we can easily shift over to FLIGHT, which tends in these situations to be slightly safer. You might think you can handle a conversation with someone right now. You can't. Walk away, then explain and (if necessary) apologize later.
3) Unhook from your narrative.
As you walk away, your brain will very likely be shouting things at you like "Walking is definitely not as fun as throwing that computer would be!" or "Nothing is ever going to be okay ever again!" or "But that person is WRONG and I absolutely have to set her straight or she is going to be smug FOREVER!"
As much as you can, give yourself some distance from these thoughts. It can be helpful to put them into the third person, like this: "Lissa is thinking what an amazing sound that blasted computer would have made shattering all over the concrete" or "Ah, here we have Lissa, a nearly 40-year-old professional counselor, in the middle of a world-class temper tantrum."
If there is a frequent story you fall into, see if you can name it: "Oh, it's the 'Technology Hates Me And I Should Have Been Born In Prehistoric Ireland Instead of Post-Industrial America' story."
"Aha, here's the I'm The Only One Who Ever Does Anything Around Here Story, chapter 843."
Notice that there is a person who can notice those thoughts. Let yourself rest back into that witnessing self instead of running around on the hamster wheel. The thoughts are going to happen, but see if you can choose to observe them instead of identifying with them. This will help to ease you out of fight-or-flight in preparation for the next step.
This is a very important and very neglected step. Oftentimes, the moment we get hold of ourselves, we want to jump back into the breach. We want to make it right, justify, and apologize. However, it takes the nervous system a while to step down from fight-or-flight. If you don't take the time to soothe yourself and get your rational mind back online before you try to problem-solve, you could end up in the very same headspace you just escaped.
Re-regulation is different for everyone, but basically it is doing something that soothes you. Walking by the river, practicing yoga, scrubbing dishes, singing, taking a hot bath, digging in the garden, chucking walnuts into a pond, reading a book, popping and locking...if you feel calm and relaxed after you've done it, it works for you.
Here's the important thing: YOU DON'T GET TO BEAT YOURSELF UP WHILE YOU'RE DOING IT.
Miserable thoughts are 100% likely to arise, yes, but don't buy into them. Keep your attention on the physical sensations and colors and scents and textures of the activity you are engaged in, and treat yourself with kindness and compassion.
5) Apologize and clean up.
When you feel fully re-regulated, get in there and be accountable. If you scared someone or hurt someone's feelings, you need to honestly, vulnerably, and bravely state your part in that and how you mean to do better next time. If you violated your own values, you need to apologize to yourself and hold yourself accountable for that violation.
Again, this is not a time to beat yourself up, it is a time to take an account of what went wrong, and address it. When you've addressed it, let go of the guilt and move forward. People mess up sometimes. It's a time-honored human tradition.
Finally, and most importantly, it is time to commit to nugget number one: proactively caring for yourself BEFORE stuff gets real.
This means noticing the little physical signals of frustration and giving yourself a break before you hit the point of overwhelm; it means practicing mindfulness or other self-soothing activities daily to lengthen your fuse; it means communicating clearly and honestly from the get-go to avoid the misunderstandings that trigger you.
Having terrible, violent, heartbreaking thoughts is 100% normal. Our human work is to learn how to keep ourselves from acting on them.
This means taking care of ourselves, learning communication and stress-relief skills, and practicing them daily. We all have to do that work. Nobody gets a free pass.
Not even counselors.
So once again, all together now:
1) Take excellent care of yourself BEFORE you get to crisis! Counseling, yoga, naps, hiking, and time with friends is NOT wasted time, it is crisis-prevention time.
2) If a crisis hits, remember: NO PERMANENT DECISIONS BASED ON TEMPORARY EMOTIONS!
Your laptop--and your conscience!-- will thank you.
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