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Observing during Times of Tension

Recently, I have realized that when I experience tension in a relationship, I numb—I lose touch with my bodily sensations and don’t know what I am feeling. It is because of my observing practice that I have become aware of this.

Our evolutionary survival responses include fight, flight, and freeze. Freezing evolved as a last ditch effort: to use if fighting seemed dangerous and fleeing was unavailable. Numbing—dissociating from the body—is a freeze mechanism. Many of us, particularly women and others with less physical and social power, may have learned that fighting and fleeing were not viable options. We may have learned in childhood that fleeing and fighting were dangerous, when we were punished for running away or arguing with adults. We can develop learned helplessness—we don’t try to defend ourselves, even when it is possible. So, we do the only thing available: we dissociate from the situation and our fear. For myself, when the hyperarousal in my body broke through my dissociative defenses, I would lash out—feeling like I had gone from 0 to 100 with no understanding of what had happened.

As I practice pausing when I notice myself becoming agitated, I can reset my equilibrium and then observe the situation and myself—I can notice my inclination to dissociate. Now, I can lovingly investigate myself and the situation: What is my body feeling? What was the trigger that aroused fear in me?

There are no right or wrong feelings. Feelings, in and of themselves, are not problematic. What can be destructive to relationships are unmediated actions. Feelings provide us with insights into our fears, and how we are projecting from our past experiences onto our present realities. Learning to sense and acknowledge our feelings allows us to break the chain. But, it’s really hard work.

Learning to recognize our feelings and how they manifest in our bodies reminds me of toilet training. First, we become aware of the “accident”—and decide we don’t want to do that anymore. Then, we learn to associate the bodily sensations that precede peeing all over the place with “needing to go.” And, finally we learn the early warning sensations, when there is still time to get to the toilet. Just like with a toddler, as we learn to integrate and listen to our whole selves, there will be accidents—punishing these missteps only increases their probability. So, when the inevitable less-than-skillful reactions occur, take ownership, wipe up the mess as you can, and also try to be gentle with yourself. As a toddler, my daughter had an accident in Costco—the bathrooms were just too far away for the amount of warning that her body gave her. Try to be as kind with yourself as you would have been with that sweet little girl, still learning this skill.

Tools for Observing Under Tension

The ultimate challenge—and benefit—of this practice is observing your fears that trigger a desire to fight, flee, or freeze live time, during a conflict with a beloved. As this is the pinnacle of difficulty, it requires that we are well-resourced to enhance our probability of success. If you have experienced trauma, enhancing your observing will most likely require a professional guide to support you in learning to gradually engage in observing during times of tension.

The end of the Pause step was to assess if this was the right time to have or continue a conversation (see blog, Pausing NOW!). Good listening requires both setting boundaries on how you are willing to be spoken to and knowing your listening limits. If you Observe that you or your beloved are entering your relationship risk zone, and cannot be supported back to your learning zone (see blog, Applying the Zone of Proximal Development to our Relationships), it’s time to Pause, so that we don’t revert to self- and relationship-sabotaging mechanisms to handle the pain. What you can Observe is that your emotions are too much to safely address at this time, and you can offer yourself love for this awareness. Ideally, you then stop and schedule a time to reengage, assuming that feels safe—perhaps scary, but not dangerous (see blog, Scary versus Dangerous).

Following are some questions that I have found helpful to enhance my observing, during those times when I am likely to dissociate or numb:

What is happening now? What wants my attention? What am I believing? So often, our assumptions of what will happen and what we should feel, based on what we believe from the past, cloud our ability to clearly see the present and our genuine response to it. Acknowledging that expectations will cloud our awareness, we seek to notice exactly what is occurring in the now, especially that which might surprise—or even delight—us. This can be tangential to the interaction with the beloved—e.g., the blue sky overhead, the sun streaming through a window—as well as something about ourselves, the beloved(s), and our interaction. We can also Observe our stories, seeking to do so without engagement: What are we fixated on?; What stories are we repeating?; What are we not noticing?

What do I know? What do I not know? What may I be confabulating? These questions are a great way to check how our inferences are clouding what we are observing. As we notice that we are making inferences, we praise ourselves for the realization, and lovingly return to observing. As Psychotherapist Tara Brach writes in True Refuge, “Each time you meet an old emotional pattern with presence, your awakening to truth can deepen.” As we observe an inference or emotion, we can ask what it is we are believing and perhaps unearth the deep taproot of our stories.

What assumptions have I made to reach this conclusion? When we notice that we have made an inference, investigating from where this assumption arose can help us to see our implicit memories at work (see blog, Implicit and Explicit Knowing). We can determine if these well-trodden neuropathways are serving us well in this situation. If not, what might be a different explanation? If we don’t have the time to investigate our assumptions live time, we can bookmark our observation of an inference, and investigate it more fully at a later time.

Is this story true at the present moment? Similar to the prior question, we can question if our explanation is based on current reality, or on our histories. It is difficult to divest ourselves of our worldview. In counseling, we often help clients confront disconfirmatory evidence to their attributions—pointing out contradictions to their absolutist statements. Similarly, we can start challenging our assumptions by investigating if the story we have written is true right now. In the moment of observing ourselves and our beloved(s), we may only have the capacity to notice our surprise that our narrative is not substantiated by what is actually occurring. This is another thing we can bookmark to investigate at a later time. Recognizing that we are carrying something from a past time or prior relationship into our present is a huge insight—and, opens up many options for how to enhance our agency in current relationships.

How would I tell this story with love for all players? Undoubtedly, we are going to add some amount of interpretation to our observations. As we will be making inferences, we can decide to “assume positive intentions.” Drawing on our appreciation-, care-, and union-love (see blog, What is Love? Part 2), what is the most loving version of the story that we can tell about ourselves, our beloved, and the relationship? Examining our explanations and stories opens up new possible interpretations. As we do this work, we seek to respect our on-going stories (Fear always wants to protect us!), while giving ourselves permission to investigate and revise as desired.

Where does it hurt? This is the final observing question for me, which I learned from civil rights leader, Ruby Sales. With love, we seek to gently prod our understanding of ourselves and our beloved(s), to identify the pain, the tender places, that which we are protecting. Recognizing where it hurts allows us to not inflict further wounds and prepares us to Empathize (the next step in the LovePOEM). Seeing where it hurts can spark further personal work of acknowledgement, compassion, and healing.

It's not easy to remember to employ these strategies when they would be most useful. This is because we are usually dysregulated to some degree, and fear isn’t an optimal state for learning new behaviors. I have found it helpful to practice pausing and then the above observing techniques in minor disagreements, so that I have these tools more readily available when I most need them—when it feels like my emotional survival is at stake.

Peek-a-Boo; I See You

Observing is not for the faint of heart. I applaud you in your bravery to undertake the practice of observing. And, the riches that will come to you through enhancing your ability to Observe cannot be measured or anticipated—it is the path to Love and agency in your relationships. Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh councils,

When your mind is in the present moment, you can see deeply what brings you suffering and what brings you happiness. Your concentration and insight will allow you to think, act, and speak with more clarity.

Given our increased insights from Observing, we are now ready to Empathize with ourselves and our beloved.

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