To break bad habits of reactivity, try this mindfulness tool.
While often associated with Buddhist meditation, Mindfulness has in fact been a feature of many religions under different names, including Christianity. It has also become an essential tool in the field of psychology for helping those with disabling anxiety.
Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal experiences occurring in the present moment.” It is a kind of mental discipline that focuses our awareness on what is happening right now in our bodies, mind and immediate environment.
All of us have had the experience of runaway thoughts that induce panic at the prospect of a possible future disaster. Almost all of us have been caught in whirlpool thoughts that obsess about some past traumatic or negative encounter.
Neither of these experiences are pleasant or productive. When habitual, they can become seriously disabling as they ferment excessive shame or resentment about the past and pervasive fear or anxiety about the future.
Moreover, joy and well-being, can only be encountered in the present, and so these positive states get eclipsed by our focus on the past or future.
Mindfulness also has important insights for our relationships.
All too often, we find ourselves reacting and, dare we say, even over-reacting in our marriage. For example, recently during a hurried meal at the airport before our flight, Francine interrupted Byron’s attempt to call the kids and asked him to just eat. He reacted with resentment towards her nagging. She reacted with anger to his resentment. A icy standoff persisted until we boarded the plane, both of us silently defending our right to be offended.
This kind of reactivity is understandable but totally unhelpful. While it may feel very much about the specific incident in the present, it’s actually not about that at all.
Whenever we ‘trigger’ each other, we’re tapping into an unresolved past wound that induces a fear reaction of being wounded again in the future. Our state of agitation makes it really difficult for us to be attentive to what is really happening in us at that time.
Reactivity is basic to human life and may save our lives through the ‘fight-flight’ survival strategy. We share this biological reaction with lower animals, but for us, it can be triggered by either a physical or emotional threat.
It is the emotional threats that are the more common issue in our marriages. While a nagging or cranky spouse is clearly not a saber-tooth tiger about to eat us for breakfast, our bodies respond physiologically in the same way to an emotional threat as they would to a physical one.
Once triggered, we are in reaction mode; our attention is narrowed and the survival emotions of apathy (flight) and anger (fight) take over our awareness. Our spouse ceases to be the person who loves us and who we have been missioned to love and we focus instead on eliminating the threat and restoring our sense of safety.
In our relationship courses, we include a simple mindfulness tool for these moments. Called Time out to ask ‘Why?’, the tool helps to train us in stepping back from the intensity of our reactions when we’ve been triggered to focus on what’s happening internally. Why am I reacting this way? Why do I feel threatened/unsafe? What are the deeper, softer emotions hidden under my anger and panic?
This simple practice has profound results when practised regularly. It trains us to be responsive rather than reactive to our spouse so that we more readily assume good intentions in the other when we are hurt or annoyed. We’re also more capable of expressing our perspective in a respectful and non-blaming way, and to hear the perspective of the other.
Which is what happened over the hour or so after ‘the incident’. We stepped back from active relating and used the time on the plane to process our reactions. This allowed us to reconnect softly and respectfully when we got some private time after landing.
The essential virtue in all this is restraint. Restraint allows us to step back from the argument into a ‘time out’ and then use that time to productively focus our thoughts on understanding and diffusing our reactivity.
Restraint is the mechanism by which we transform our self-absorbed reactivity into other-centred attentiveness. Without it, we become trapped by our defensive reactions. With it, we move freely into mature and generous relating and so encounter new horizons for love and intimacy.