To say this year has been challenging feels like the biggest understatement of the 21st century. 2020 has been relentless and it doesn’t look like its stopping anytime soon.
When we are under constant pressure and are unsure of what lies ahead, we are much more likely to be reactive and stressed out. Firstly, lets normalise this. Give yourself a break and instead of layering stress on stress, let’s take a time out to learn from it. This year has the potential to be an enormous growth year for us all if we give ourselves a little time to explore.
Recently I noticed myself get upset about something that on a different day, may not have impacted me at all. A friend didn’t get in touch with me when they said they would and I felt let down – more than was justifiably so. I felt sad and pissed off and so I decided instead of reacting that I would take the time to reflect on my emotional response to ask myself some questions and use the opportunity to grow.
Dr Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician, created a psychotherapeutic approach called Compassionate Inquiry to explore our reactions. Maté states that we don’t respond to what is happening in the moment but to our interpretation of what is happening. In my case, my friend could have been caught up with children, not been feeling well, lost track of time and instead of me responding to any of those things, I had a heightened emotional response. Maté also states that of all the possible outcomes we can choose to respond to we will automatically go to the worst one. This is not out of choice but is based on how our brains evolved and what happened to us through our childhood. Why? Because the first time in our life that we felt this exact emotion was from a traumatic event. When we feel the emotion again, subconsciously we go back to that particular event.
We aren’t responding to the present moment we are responding to the past.
This is so important to acknowledge. We are responding to a traumatic event in the past, which is why the emotions feel so raw and often so over the top when compared to what has actually happened.
In order to understand this we ask a few simple, but powerful, questions:
What was the emotion I felt?
Keep this to the very basic emotions. For me based on the example above, this was anger and shame.
What am I angry about?
I was angry as I was feeling unimportant, a sense of abandonment and feeling like I had been taken advantage of.
What am I embarrassed/ ashamed about?
I was compromising myself, feeling used and not feeling respected or respecting myself.
For me the most charged and uncomfortable feelings was anger associated with abandonment, and shame associated with disrespect.
Wow this was a huge insight for me!
I lived alone from a young age and I spent a couple of years before that living with friends. Because of this, it felt like I didn’t belong anywhere and I would over compensate on fitting in (i.e. not asserting boundaries) in order to be safe. I also didn’t have a place in my life where I felt I belonged or if I did, it was only because I was acting how others wanted me to.
In Maté's Compassionate Inquiry it is really important not to blame others, parents in particular do their best and are suffering with their own issues. Most importantly, it is to look at our behaviour with compassion and gentleness so we can understand it and start to change it.
Some further exploration questions are:
How did this behaviour serve me or protect me?
Who else have I felt this with?
When was the first time I felt this?
After exploring these questions I asked myself, what is the opposite of abandonment and disrespect? This was a huge ah-ha moment for me. To understand why I overreacted to a seemingly small action of a friend - who of course didn’t think they were abandoning me or disrespecting me – and to start to see the source of this trauma and to reassert what I needed.
Abandonment created a lack of belonging, and shame created a lack of boundaries. For me belonging and bounders have very often come one without the other and important people modelled this. For example, I can belong to a group but people will walk all over me or I will assert my needs and the relationship will fail. Now I can see that the two are not mutually exclusive and I can have them both - this is a wonderful insight and I can cultivate in my relationship healthy boundaries alongside a feeling of belonging. I also see that nothing that I felt had anything to do with my friend, and by default this stops me over reacting or attacking people I love.
Affirmation: I am worthy of belonging and boundaries – at the same time.
Next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you're overreacting, reflect back on these questions and get in touch should you need any additional support.