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