How Taking a Break Can Prevent a Breakup

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“Silence is never more golden than when a quarrel is brewing.” 

Clifford Adams

 

Great Expectations

Me. At my worst. Kinda looks like this. I was driving from Philly to Kripalu, a holistic retreat center in the Berkshires, where I was taking a week-long training to teach a specific positive psychology course. Typically, it’s a 4-½ hour ride, most of it through beautiful scenery. Having made this trip several times before, I was looking forward to tearing up the road in my Mini Cooper Roadster, blasting music without concern for anyone else’s eardrums or musical taste, while taking in the beauty of the dazzling New England fall foliage.

Expectations Unmet

I didn’t know it at the time, but a hurricane was unleashing hell all along the northeastern corridor. I could not listen to music because to add sound on top of the noise of the rain hitting my windshield like machine gun fire would have made the din unbearable. I could not see the fall scenery because I couldn’t see any trees. The cold rain hitting the warm air created a fog so thick I could barely even see the road, and I drove by following the taillights of the car in front of me. To make matters worse, each gust of wind and wave of water created from the passing trucks and SUV’s shook and rattled my little toy car.

I couldn’t help but think about two members of my family who had died in tragic vehicular accidents. There is a saying that things that are wired together fire together, and I started to panic. OMG, I thought, I’m going to die. On my way to a course – in happiness! This is not funny!!

Trip to Crazy Town

After a grueling six-hour drive, all the while pumping stress and fear hormones, my hands aching from gripping the steering wheel and my neck muscles clenched in knots, I couldn’t emotionally transition to the reality of being OK. Even though I arrived at my destination safely, my brain didn’t catch up with this fact and was still processing reality as if I were still in danger mode. And so nothing seemed right, people seemed weird and annoying, and I was seriously questioning why I had even come. Until my sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) could calm down, my cognition was distorted, even conjuring paranoid and absurd dangers. Was it OK for my room to be so near ground level in case some unhinged maniac who may have been rebuffed by a yoga instructor had finally snapped and wanted revenge? I was in crazy town.

Who Was That Lizard?

By the morning, the rain had stopped. I opened the window to breathe in the pristine mountain air and saw awe-inspiring natural beauty. I was fine. No, I was more than fine. No longer hijacked by stress, my rational brain was back online. I was calm, happy, and appreciative to be there. I felt a kindred connection to everyone I saw, a sense of belonging, and I was open and eager to participate in the training.

A Tale of Two Brothers

In Vayishlach, we read of the famous account of Jacob wrestling with the angel through the night, before encountering his brother, Esau. The one saving grace about Esau was his supposed devotion to his father, Isaac. Yet, when he learned of the deception surrounding the blessings, he openly yearned for his father’s death, so that he would be free to kill his brother. In short, Esau was in crazy town, and no one can function well or process reality benevolently from that place.

Whatever the nature of a conflict, it is not the objective facts that drive it, but our thoughts that create the story around it. When we get emotionally triggered, when our hot buttons are pushed, when we feel threatened, unsafe and get hooked by drama – bam – we become flooded, and our thinking process emanates from our primitive reptilian brain.

In that state, even loved ones can become “the enemy,” as we objectify and demonize them. We interpret their behavior in the most negative light, imputing the worst motives at every turn. We magnify threats, turning barbs into ballistic missiles, or we misperceive innocent remarks as attempts to cut us to the quick. Our inner lizard fears becoming someone’s lunch; and so as a protective measure, it becomes a destructive fire-breathing dragon.

Most of us don’t recognize this process for what it is. We believe the stories we spin, and then we perpetuate it. We live from that reality, and we attempt to rope in others to our way of seeing things – sometimes to the point of creating loyalty tests.   This wreaks havoc, sometimes permanently on our relationships, and to our psyche.

Getting Out of Crazy Town – Time Out

So first, you need to recognize the signs of being emotionally flooded. We have telltale signs in our bodies (shallow breathing, muscular tension, and pain) our emotions (anger, fear, feeling unsafe, overwhelmed) and our thoughts (blame projected outward, negativity bias, magnifying faults, linking prior events and other people to the present). It is crucial to know when you – or someone else is in this state – because there is no one rationally at home. Therefore, a constructive conversation cannot happen. There needs to be some space and distance to allow things to normalize, for the hot buttons to cool down and goodwill to return.

It is critical to use this period of cooling down with the intention to allow things to heal. If we use time apart to ruminate, obsesses self-righteously about the perceived faults of others, vent to others, and escalate the tension, it will only cause further polarization.   Instead, use the time to turn things around to the positive by cultivating gratitude for the person, consider the validity of other viewpoints, acknowledge your part in creating the conflict, be receptive to any bids for reconnection, and don’t hold onto who you think should make the first move

While Jacob and Esau reconciled, it took twenty years for it to occur, and it was only temporary. Allow yourself enough time to calm down – but don’t wait unnecessarily long to get your relationships back on track. It may be too late.  

 

 

 

 

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No Bad Angels – How to Creatively Engage with Stress

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The heart must face its tests. Only then can we discover who we really are and what extraordinary things we are capable of achieving.

– James O’Dea

No one gets through life without being tested, repeatedly. So when we come face to face with the terrors that can keep us up at night, how do we achieve grace under fire? “Vayishlach” contains the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with the angel. At long last, brother Esau is ready to exact revenge for the “stolen” birthright and has come with a small army to confront Jacob. In advance of that confrontation, Esau sent his “angel” to do battle with Jacob to weaken him before their encounter.

Jacob was no stranger to this dynamic, however. Clashing with Esau in the womb, Jacob’s earliest encounter with conflict began in utero. Born in the midst of a power struggle, Jacob lived a life that can be characterized as one challenging battle after another – more or less – what we would call “the human condition.” But is that such a bad thing?

The Dis-empowered Reaction to Stress

Some people engage stress by reacting in these polar opposites: they becoming super aggressive or even violent, or they abruptly disconnect. Others, however, take the middle road of passivity, where they try to avoid any form of conflict. Even at a cost to their well-being, vested interests or personal integrity, people who are frightened of conflict will cling to being “non-confrontational” to avoid difficult individuals or situations.

If you asked such people whether conflict avoidance works as an effective strategy, however, the honest ones would admit that it does not. Whether they become entirely passive or passive-aggressive, these folks are simply trading one form of suffering for another.

Similarly, have you ever noticed that the very people who complain so bitterly about wanting to be “free from suffering” seem so unbelievably attached to it? They insist that stress is an external and arbitrary imposition that keeps them from being happy – which is just so unfair! Offer them a solution, a new mindset, or a coping strategy, however, and they are not so quick to get on board. Oddly, we seem addicted to the very thing we say we don’t want.

Never Letting a Crisis Go to Waste

In “Vayishlach,” Jacob gives us a role model that takes the engagement with conflict to a new level of empowerment and transformation. In his earlier conflict with Esau, Jacob was not straight with his brother. (While it was pre-destined that Jacob would receive the first-born blessing, there is still much discussion amongst the Torah commentators criticizing how he went about getting it.) When it came obtaining the blessings for the first-born, Jacob did an end-run around his brother, which caused Jacob to have to flee for his life. Twenty years later, Jacob came towards his brother. In taking his family away from the household of his father-in-law, Jacob could have circumvented him again and avoided him entirely. This time, however, Jacob sent messengers to let Esau know he was coming. And in so doing, he set the stage for the encounter, because at last, he was playing it straight.

It wasn’t merely that Jacob didn’t avoid the conflict. Rather, he didn’t waste his time and energy resenting it, complaining or making it wrong. Instead, Jacob prepared himself to engage. While the text is translated as “prepared,” the term literally means, “repaired.” When Jacob centered himself with truth and integrity, he repaired himself. And so when this version of Jacob wrestled with Esau’s angel, he authentically engaged it “full-out,” and yet at the same time, he was humble. At the end of the nightlong struggle, when Jacob prevailed, he did something that seems to make no sense. Jacob asked the angel to reveal its name and to give him a blessing. Imagine getting mugged, and then asking the mugger for a blessing. How strange is that?

So what can we learn from this odd request? Consider this – if we confront a stressor with a direct encounter – face it, engage it and wrestle with it – then we can learn from it and even make it our teacher. It is then that it can become a source of blessing. Relationship expert, Harville Hendrix, re-frames conflict as growth waiting to happen. And as Viktor Frankl, said, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

And so, stress will either open you up or shut you down. Those are the only two possibilities. If you choose to open up, you may stay engaged with the discomfort, but by wrestling with its meaning, you will see that there are lessons to be learned and that the pain can help free you to become a bigger, better and wiser human being. Like Jacob, you too can emerge from the darkness into the dawn of a new persona. Is that not a blessing?