Many of the couples I work with say their number one problem is communication. Usually the real problem is learning to stay calm when conversing with each other, especially if the topic is a “touchy” one.
Sadly, it doesn’t take much to turn a loving person into one who doesn’t act loving at all. We can go from asking a simple question to name-calling to shaming in only seconds. And once one person says something awful, the other feels justified saying something hurtful back. Does this couple have a problem communicating? Maybe. What they do have is a need to find new ways to manage themselves.
Here’s one simple skill that can change your life and your relationship–I call it Green Light Practice. Imagine a traffic light over the center core of your body. The green light centers around the abdomen area, the yellow light in the chest and the red light around the neck area. This symbol or image helps you stay connected with your internal experience and helps you navigate the conversation more effectively.
The goal when communicating with someone you love is to stay green. What this means is you are open to hear whatever is said and calm enough to speak clearly in response. In green you are able to speak without offending and listen without defending. The lines of communication remain open in green. The breath expands and releases from the abdomen and the body is at ease.
In green you have the:
Going yellow means the breath has moved up into the chest and you are beginning to feel anxious, angry or attacked. The chest tightens, the breath shortens and anxiety rises. If you’ve gone yellow you may not be able to hear what your partner is trying to say, much less be able to understand them. Your ability to stand firm, respond with kindness and communicate clearly is now compromised. Yellow means you’re in the dangerous waters of saying or doing something that you’ll later regret.
When you go yellow…pause, self soothe, take a deep breath, re-center in your own way. Make an effort to move back down to green. Sometimes you may need to let the person you’re talking to know that you are feeling yellow. An added bonus is you are the one who most accurately reports your internal signals so there’s no arguing about your experience. On the other hand, only you can keep yourself in check. Ask for a moment to take a breath and reset back to center.
When you’ve gone red the emotional thermometer has hit the top of the scale. You are angry, irrational, and may resort to old and ineffective patterns of relating. You’ve lost control and are about to have a head-on collision with a person you claim to love. If you are red and you’re still talking you are definitely going to say things that will hurt the other person and make you feel awful in the end. (Unless making your spouse feel worse makes you feel better…but that’s another post.)
When you have gone red it’s time to take a timeout…come to a FULL STOP. Ideally, you can calm yourself down without having to completely disengage from the conversation. What we know from neurology is that when we’ve gone red we are no longer using the higher level parts of our brain. We are relying on the instinctual protective elements of our mid to lower brains, the same areas that we have in common with mammals and reptiles. If you are red, STOP, let your partner know you’ve gone red and take a break.
So how do we keep ourselves from acting like skunks or snakes?
Learning to stay green is a skill like any other skill you might try to master…it requires practice. It means being in touch with what’s happening in your body, being aware of your emotional state and monitoring your behaviors. Like most aspects of life, effort matters more than perfection. So when you go red, may you have the humility to apologize, the courage to try again and the wisdom to do better next time.
Stay tuned for part two of this post: Tips for Staying Green…
Although she did not mention anything to me about it, she was quite purposeful in choosing this very special gift. While her 10-year-old brother and I were busy gathering the decorations, she was planning the perfect final touch to my office holiday décor…two small ceramic turtles. I’m not sure how a 7-year-old girl connects turtles with Christmas, but she did and it has become a true symbol of inspiration for me this season.
It was a late Monday night early in December. We had a tree to decorate and wreaths to hang. My two children acted as helper elves quietly spreading holiday joy in unexpected places…such as the bright Christmas balls spread out like Easter eggs all over the office. Regrettably, I spent most of my time undoing the disorderly way they had arranged the tinsel. I was so busy I didn’t even notice the two small turtles on the coffee table until the next morning. Sadly, I was more focused on being productive than being present.
Present VS. Productive
It seems the whole world turns into a giant rabbit chase this time of year. We wrap up year-end obligations, plan and attend holiday parties and navigate the overwhelming commercialism of the season. What might it look like to slow down when the world is spinning? How could we learn to be both present and productive?
One Simple Practice
These two small turtles have become a “slowing down” trigger for me these last few weeks. When I see them each day I practice slowing my speech, my pace, and my breath. Two tiny turtles are now a daily signal to slow down and shift inside toward an experience of serenity.
In this simple mindful practice, new meaning is ascribed to a symbol or everyday behavior. Bridging the great divide between the physical and meta-physical realm, it is like the staircase in a two-story house where all the daily physical activities occur on the bottom floor and the higher-level activities happen on the top floor. Here of some examples of how making new meaning out of everyday behavior can change the experience altogether:
• brushing teeth becomes a reminder to speak kindly to others
• getting dressed becomes clothing oneself in gentleness and compassion
• taking a shower becomes an inner cleansing and releasing
With simplistic awareness, these daily activities are suddenly transformed into a spiritual practice. Symbols can be powerful reminders to add meaning, joy, gratitude, spirituality and compassion to our lives.
Sometimes the connections are already there, but not by choice. We are often caught off guard by reminders of painful experiences. A helpful exercise I use in my work with survivors of trauma and loss is to identify and name negative sensory triggers. Sounds, smells, sights, and images can bring back a painful memory in an instant. Sometimes the holiday season is challenging for this very reason. Or sometimes it is the happy memories that hurt as we are reminded of those no longer with us.
Because of our drive to survive, the brain is wired to be constantly on guard. Usually triggers associated with pain get our brain’s undivided attention, but what if we create competition….like turtles do at Christmastime? The turtle represents slowing down in the midst of the everyday hustle and bustle. Truths are often packaged in paradox. What if we intentionally chose to connect with ourselves in ways that create comfort instead of chaos? Here are some basic steps:
1. Identify an activity you do regularly OR an object/symbol you see or use regularly.
2. Consider how this activity affects your day or the lives of others. What connections can you draw between the activity, object or symbol and gratitude or spirituality? How does the activity, object or symbol have implicit meaning that can remind you to be present, kind, grateful or connect to your own personal values?
3. Write down some possible meanings you could connect to the activity or symbol. If you are stuck…ask a friend for help.
4. Practice it! Notice what you notice and revise. Then practice again…
I wonder what competition you might use to invite yourself to be more present with yourself and those you love this season. How might you more fully enjoy the moment-to-moment gifts that really matter in the next year? Surprisingly, I’ve been invited by two small turtles to mindfully slow down in the coming year.
Whatever your situation, may you discover gift in the simplest of things. May symbols of joy, peace and gratitude carry you into the next year with hope, comfort and love.
Amy Fuller PhD