But there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide
We hold on so tight, we cannot deny
Eats us alive – Sia
“You will get tired of me, if you find out what an emotional mess I am, you will leave me”
“I don’t deserve your comfort, it’s my job to take care of you”
Hidden longings, secret fears. So many of us are walking around with incredible dragons that tell us to be strong and not reveal our need to be seen. In fact, in many cases, we either don’t even realize that we would feel better if someone would help us; we often associate vulnerability with getting hurt or feeling exposed and awkward. The problem is that when we keep these parts of us in the shadows, it can be a major impediment to intimacy and it is also very costly for the body to always have to intervene when we perceive that we are at risk of being shamed or humiliated.
Luckily, our evolving understanding of the ways that human physiology organizes negative emotions has made it more and more possible to identify steps we can take to be more open, available and to heal from debilitatingly negative perceptions of ourselves that keep us locked in. For instance, even understanding that our earlobes start to shrink in response to stressful situations to protect our hearing helps us understand why when getting into arguments, they often feel circular, repetitive and there is the sense that even though each person is getting louder or more frustrated, nothing new is being heard or effectively communicated.
Taking a step back and scrutinizing what happens to us when we feel under threat is one of the first steps to developing tools for intimacy. I have named this process “The Front of the System” because it targets very specifically the first thing that happens to you when you start to feel vulnerable. For example, depending on how upset or tired we are, we may find ourselves pointing out a flaw in someone as a way of communicating our need, such as “You always do this, you never listen to me when I’m trying to help you, you just get defensive and shut down”. This may be a valid statement, but the goal isn’t just to express how we feel, the goal is to try and have the other person actually hear us, and the single biggest obstacle to being heard is our own response to stress as our brain is sending a signal to the other around how safe or unsafe we are in that moment. When the other person registers (which takes place in fractions of a second) that we are tired, stressed, upset, angry, frustrated etc. their own brain goes into reaction to protect them from getting hurt. Now there are many nuances to this, and we can learn to tolerate ever greater degrees of emotion from ourselves and from others, but the subtlety of how quickly human beings tend to shut down and become anti-social when they feel threatened cannot be underestimated and is responsible for countless instances of fruitless and potentially damaging interactions that destroy relationships time and time again.
Learning to identify the front of the system means thinking carefully and reflectively about what happens in the first instance when you feel upset. Not what you are thinking about, not what you WANT to say; usually it is not a thought, but a physical sensation. Often people will say “My chest starts to get tight” or “I feel uneasy” or “my heart starts to race”. We want to slow things down and really identify the physical impact the dis-ease has. The reason for this is that if we actually want to establish empathetic communication, we have to break it down into its smallest parts. A useful phrase that can be helpful is “Will the baby take the food”, as in, can it be small enough to be accepted and digested. I understand that it can be frustrating when we are trying to communicate big emotional needs to have to slow things down and simply focus on how it is making us feel, but the end goal is to be heard, so it doesn’t really matter if we beat our chests, scream at the top of our lungs, and put on displays of overarching emotions if, in the end, we are still left with our concerns and hurt. In fact, that can even feel worse.
In my next article, I will go into some of the incredible brain science that explains not only why slowing down and breaking our fears into smaller parts can dramatically improve our interpersonal relationships, but why so many of us have learned over the years to feel nervous, ashamed and to have distorted perceptions of what will happen to us if we are exposed. Getting to the bottom of these thought processes is the key to feeling safer and more loved.