One of the tender situations that clients share with me is when, interrupted in some fashion by their beloved ones, the client erupts in rage or overwhelm towards them. Like when their child or partner is greeting them, asking them for help, or demanding their attention. And the client responds not in kindness, but in hostility, irritation, and resentment. What comes out is usually a rigid, intense, angry dismissal. The message is something along the lines of, “Figure it out for yourself!” “Why are you asking me again!” “I wish everyone would leave me alone!” The client’s response is a rebuke of this connection bid by a loved one.
Shaming and Discounting
What may come from a client’s need for space, rest, or relaxation, becomes a negative and harsh dismissal of the loved one, like a figurative pushing away. The loved one is visibly hurt; they usually become quiet or outwardly upset. Their likely response is to dis-connect from the client with feelings of distrust. It’s like saying, “I don’t care about your needs” “you’re on your own,” or even, “you are not important to me” to the most important people in their lives. This dismissal may achieve the client’s urgent need for space or quiet, but at a high cost.
This ruptures relationships in two ways
The first way this is a relationship rupture is between family members. Family members will say they feel scared, afraid, and unsafe. The basic message they receive is interpreted as, “you have done something wrong, something bad.” This will in turn can cause the family member to feel shame and to feel discounted; that their feelings or needs aren’t safe to have and feel. This disruption is painful and often will feel like an entrenched pattern or cycle that unintentionally maintains distance and distrust between family members with an uneasiness that can last.
The second way this ruptures relationships is within oneself. When clients reflect on this pattern, they often report a bodily sensation like intense sadness in the center of their chest and near their heart. Clients also report very critical and shameful messages about themselves. In addition, clients will acknowledge that they feel like their own feelings and needs are unworthy and unacceptable.
This rupture happens when a person is out of their “window of tolerance,” according to neuroscientist Dan Siegel. It is saddening because this rupture, usually unintentional or reactive, creates a greater sense of alienation for clients. Afterwards, clients will often internalize the experience with judgement and feelings of shame. Additionally, they will criticize themselves as “hypocrites” for repeating negative relationship patterns they themselves have been hurt by. “I swore I’d never be like my mom and/or my dad. I hated when they treated me this way.”
It happens when you are dis-regulated
One of the most common body sensations that accompanies this relationship rupture is a combination of high tension and a strong sense of aversion. “I can’t take it! I don’t want to deal with you! I just want to be left alone!” This describes an overwhelming sensation; a very uncomfortable, locked, or trapped sensation. Dis-regulation is a high pressure, high intensity experience where there seem to be little response options available except for a dissociative rupture like fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
If you willing to try, think of a time when you felt this intense, constrained, and uncomfortable pressure. What is your first impression of this moment? What did you observe about the situation you were in? How do you handle this tension?
Pause to bring your conscious self online
The necessary pause is the first step towards moving back into one’s “window of tolerance.” It is the moment where we have the opportunity to do something different instead of what we automatically do when we are dis-regulated. Strategically, it is taking a transition moment. You are pausing to allow yourself time to practice self-empathy and then choose an intentional response for your loved one. Pausing is a critical component of non-violent communication.
Pausing allows self-empathy. Self-empathy is the intentional practice of compassion towards oneself. Self-empathy is the capacity to tell yourself, “You are ok, you are going to be ok. You are really tense, tired, upset, etc. and you are ok right now.” This practice allows us to move back into the window of tolerance. Then we can respond to our loved ones with a non-shaming observation of what we see them asking for. Then we can connect with them more peacefully and also share our needs and feelings.
So let’s put it all together. Imagine you are sitting with this dis-regulated version of yourself. Imagine the tension, imagine the pain this part of you feels and what this part wants to scream out. “Leave me alone! I feel miserable all the time and burned out! Everybody wants something from me and I just want them to GO AWAY! And I can’t say anything at work because I’ll get fired!” Take a moment to pause. Breathe, then respond to this part with, “I hear you are very tense and stressed. You’ve been feeling very tense at work and you feel like nobody cares. You can’t ask for help because you’re worried you’ll lose your job. And you’d like some space from some of your responsibilities. Did I get that right?”
What does it feel like to give yourself some empathy?
What may be the case is that you don’t necessarily find the peace, relief, or rest that this compassion practice may evoke. It may be that self-empathy feels unusual and unknown, uncomfortable and untrustworthy. You may notice internal tension or conflicted feelings, other images or beliefs that don’t seem to ease. That’s normal and our internal experience is deep, rich, and complex.
What we know now about human beings is that we all have the capacity for self-empathy and empathy towards others. This may be a time where you can turn to therapy to help heal the internal tensions that are present or have been learned. We learn self-empathy through the empathy we experience in our relationships, and therapy is an opportunity for safe and secure relationship.
Here’s an alternate response to try with a loved one
So imagine yourself feeling out of your window of tolerance and a loved one is requesting a connection. Pause for a moment, notice what is going on in your body. Practice a self-empathy message (ex. “I am ok”) and then reflect back to your loved one, “I hear you are wanting to connect right now. I’m feeling tired and would like to take some time to rest, or have some quiet time to relax. Can we connect in 10 or 15 minutes?”
Or, alternatively, “I see that you really want to tell me what happened to you today and I really want to listen! I’m also noticing that I’m needing to take care of myself too. How about you give me a quick 1 minute recap and then I’ll take a break and we can connect a little later?”
How does that feel?
Remember, everyone has the capacity for compassion towards others and compassion towards ourselves. Human relationships are remarkably resilient and families are resilient. Ruptures can be repaired. We humans are designed not to be perfect but to love and care for each other. And we are designed to grow, which happens in safe relationships and comes from our emerging capacity to be intentional and compassionate.