We all self protect. We are built that way, as mammals. We have mechanisms in our brains that scan the environment for threat and allow us to guard against that threat. This is helpful, but how does it impact our relationships?
Threats can be real, or they can be perceived. If your mother used to turn into a frenzied tyrant when guests were coming over and she wanted the house clean, and later in life your wife asks you for help in preparing the lawn for guests, you might become guarded while helping with these tasks. You’re guarded because your brain and body remember the wrath of your mother, but in real time, the threat is only perceived because your wife activated the memory.
Stop and think of a time when you were threatened by a current or past partner, when really it had to do with a memory or event that had taken place before that. Maybe you blew the situation way out of proportion. Maybe you had no idea why you were so mad then, but now you can see that you were self protecting based on something that happened previously. Maybe you have never considered this before and see now that this is what was happening! Well done!
This affects relationships in large and small ways every day. Partners are frequently upset about something that is causing them to feel emotionally threatened that has roots in the past. The threat otherwise truly wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a prior trigger that we were just consciously or subconsciously reminded of. Previous threats, or traumas, make imprints in the brain whether conscious or not, and we move forward in life guarding against those threats until we bring them to consciousness and heal them.
If we are hardwired for this type of protection, and we naturally scan for threat, what can we do about it so that it doesn’t sabotage connection in relationship? This is key, because, unchecked, it will sabotage your relationship, rest assured.
When I work with couples in my coaching practice, I teach them about present moment awareness, tracking sensations, and speaking to one another in moments of tension from a place of noticing (rather than mental analysis). I will give you an overview of these tools now, so the next time you notice yourself in protection-mode, you might pause to practice the following:
1. Present moment awareness is something that we cultivate over time, but a simple mindfulness practice to begin daily would be to take five minutes, twice a day, and breathe while purposefully noticing that you are breathing. It’s that simple. Count the breath to anchor your attention to it. Count an in-breath of 6 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, and an out-breath of 9 seconds. This is a triangular breath technique that invites the parasympathetic nervous system to active, which is helpful when you do not want to overreact. You will notice a relaxed breath pattern, a relaxing of muscles, and maybe a relaxation of tension in the stomach when you have breathed for a few moments and activated the parasympathetic system, also known as the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system. The more you practice this, the more you’ll train your brain to default to this internal sense of regulation, which feels pleasant and enforces a lower chance of emotional reactivity.
2. Sensations associated with self-protection include clenching muscles, tight jaw, withdrawal and caving in of the chest, or erratic movements as if you want to fight. These are all associated with the fight or flight response, and I’m sure you can think of more. How does this impact your body when you feel threatened? When you have a practice of noticing the present moment, you can then also notice your body’s sensations associated with any emotion. As a culture we are not used to noticing sensations first, so this is something to practice. Notice when you want to run, fight, flee, and what the associated sensations are. This is incredibly empowering, as then you are more likely to respond to a situation less reactively and more mindfully.
3. As individuals cultivate the above practices, they are able to upgrade their communication skills to move from the common accusation or assessment strategies often employed in conflict, and move to a personalized account of present-moment notices. This might sound like, “I’m noticing that I want to run away, that my chest feels tight and my breath is short.” A few things happen when a couple begins to speak this way. First, arguments are completely diffused. Second, compassion and empathy naturally grow between them. It is difficult to hear someone’s present moment experience and deny the truth of it, as often happens in arguments where two people are trying to prove a point. An added bonus to speaking from present-moment awareness of the body and breath sensations is that you do not have to name your emotions. Many times in various therapies, we try to train our brain to memorize emotional language, but when we are triggered, it is much easier to notice and report what is going on in real time than it is to identify an emotion word to label the experience. The latter brings us back into our analytical minds, and I am advocating that we stay in present-moment awareness rather than analysis when we are in self-protection.
These tools are worth cultivating, because what each and every person wants, regardless of age, previous history, various diagnoses, etc, etc, is connection. We all want connection. And, we know that when we default to self-protection, then connection is harder and harder to achieve. In the modern world, we seem to have more separation and self-protection than ever. And you may see it right there in your closest relationships - an ongoing lack of authentic connection, often due to the self-protection that you are both maintaining.
The good news is, you can safely train yourselves out of this tendency as a couple. You can own your own tendencies to self protect, you can learn to safely share your vulnerabilities with your partner, and you can both learn to respond safely so that connection is achieved - hopefully the deepest connection of your lives.