Don’t want to yell at your kids? This month’s blog post is inspired by a request back in November 2013, when reader JB asked:
“How about some blog content please on how to use mindfulness to address 'snapping' at your loved ones. Thanks!”
Step One: Identifying Values
Firstly, congratulations JB, you have identified a key value: the value of being someone who does not want to snap at loved ones. I’m with you there, hate the snapping thing and would prefer a breezy response. Wouldn't it be nice to keep an even keel!
Identifying our values brings us closer to the person we want to be. Values imply something held dearly in our heart; a way of behaving or being in the world that resonates with us. Values are different to goals, things we can tick off the list (I will do my tax return; I will buy a kitten). Unlike a goal, a value is ongoing, a work in progress.
Values: Who Do You Want To Be?
Identifying a value can feel like stopping in your tracks: “Oh yea, that idea is really central to who I am”. When you have that realisation, stay with it and savour it. Don’t rush on. Take the time to let it sink in: acknowledge it; put out the welcome mat.
Get the Picture: Embracing my wish not to snap at loved ones, I see how I value being a laid-back, easy-going person who has time for others and for herself. Someone who is not just rushing from task to task on frantic high-speed. Who is not habitually yelling at the partner and kids out of pure frustration. (Hmm, maybe I’m exposing a value around getting off the treadmill here….) When I see myself being a grouchy, tight control freak it doesn't sit well with my self-image, or deeper value.
Step Two: Setting Intention
Having identified our core value, we come to Step Two: setting an intention to anchor the value in our life. The intention could be a word, a phrase (“I want to chill-out more”) or a mental image (you on a swing with wind in your hair).
Intention is not something we have just once and then forget about: it is an on-going aspiration to be recalled on a regular daily basis. Chose a time that suits, such as on waking or in the shower. It may help to put up a visual reminder. Setting intention need only take the briefest time: the important thing is that we are truly present when making it.
It will become obvious that mindfulness is the key skill behind setting and keeping your intention. The process of setting intentions itself enhances mindfulness; the power of mindful intention comes to our aid during rocky emotional situations.
Step Three: Action.
Action is a broad topic. I've chosen to focus on two important aspects in this post:
1) The nervous system and its role in snapping. It helps to understand how the evolution of the nervous system loads the dice in favour of snapping. Knowledge is power.
2) Self-empathy and why it is important. Understanding the workings of the nervous system and how it induces snapping gives us solid ground for self-empathy.
Conflict and the Nervous System
Why is aggression the automatic response when our buttons are pushed? Why do we find ourselves in behaving in ways that horrify our better self and offend our true values? The answer lies in evolution and its shoddy job on the nervous system. Emotionally, we are positively stone-age.
Evolution has primed us to respond to threats immediately and unconsciously. It’s how our ancestors survived hostile environments. The heart speeds up and breath quickens. In the brain, control is given to the amygdala, an alarm centre in the ancient midbrain. In a crisis the amygdala shuts down access to our rational lobes, the pre-frontal cortex that is responsible for thinking clearly and making good decisions. Under the influence of the amygdala we react instinctively and habitually: it may save our life in a tight time-frame.
The problem is, the brain interprets any threat to our well-being with the same guns-out approach as in the stone-age ( prowling sabre-toothed tiger confronts ancestors). Tax returns, deadlines, hostile workmates, whinging kids… wham bam, the autonomic nervous system jumps into action and we pay the price.
The Mindfulness Solution
Based on the evolutionary scenario, is it any wonder we lose our cool? It’s not that we’re a bad person. Rather, we’re at the mercy of automatic processes. To have any hope of change we need to do the job ourselves.
Self-empathy is admitting to oneself “Hey, this is difficult.” It’s about letting go of harsh self-judgments. It’s about connecting to what we’re feeling and needing in the moment and recognising that our own feelings and needs are as important as the “opponent’s”. Self-empathy can help us move on and be more present for our kids or partner.
I'd like to recommend two resources that I will expand on in a later post:
1) NVC. “Feelings and needs” are the language of a conflict resolution modality called Non-Violent Communication (NVC), also known as Compassionate Communication. I highly recommend this brilliant training and approach to conflict http://www.cnvc.org/about/what-is-nvc.html
To find a trainer near you, go to http://www.nvcaustralia.com/?action=page&id=16
My trainer is the wonderful Paulette Brai Narai in Byron Bay: http://www.expresspeace.com/
2) Naming emotions is taming emotions. If we can find a word to pinpoint exactly what we’re feeling, it works wonders, as shown in a study by Matthew Lieberman (Melinda Wenner LiveScience.com 29 June 2007)
With mindfulness we can train ourselves to notice when our feelings of frustration, rage or irritation are building to explosion point. It’s crucial to lengthen and deepen the breath at this point; we can also call to mind our value and intention of being a more cruisey person. With the self-image of our chilled self in mind, we are motivated to change our behaviour. Motivation quickly translates into the power to do so.
I'd love to hear your response to this post: please leave a comment!