Today’s article is a guest post from our friend and fellow writer, Mandy Spears. Read more of her writing here.
“Critical conversation” is a term used by conflict management professionals (therapists, HR reps, my mother) to describe the sort of conversation that has to happen when something in a relationship (personal, work, systemic) isn’t right, and tensions are very high because it’s an emotionally loaded topic or time.
I feel like 2020 is one long critical conversation.
Between the pandemic, racial justice issues, and the Election, I’m afraid to open up Twitter or ask anyone anything beyond what books they’ve been reading lately. I’m afraid to post on social media, which seems like it should be the easiest and safest way to connect with friends right now, because I’m afraid of getting it wrong: using the wrong terms, posting something light hearted at a heavy hearted time, or, worst of all: reacting to someone else’s post or comment instead of responding to it.
I don’t think I am alone in this.
I’ve had to think a lot about what the difference is between a reaction and a response. Reactions are unconscious, a knee-jerk answer to an external tap. We don’t get to choose our reactions. They’re built into us from our past experiences, from the lens through which we view the world. Our biases, our histories, our personal preferences all work to create a first reaction over which we have very little control. And sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for that.
Sometimes I am ashamed of my first reactions. They are almost always born out of fear, from recognizing some external threat that harmed me in the past, and so now my body and subconscious are gearing up for a fight-flight-freeze response. This is the sympathetic nervous system doing its best to protect you from some faintly remembered trauma, even if the current event doesn’t have the same context as the old trauma at all. And that trauma can be a “trauma,” it can be a threat that is taught to us from the news or movies; it can be a memory of a bratty first-grader humiliating us on the playground.
Your reactions don’t care that the threat isn’t real. They’re trying to protect you, even if it’s at the expense of your own basic human decency. Even if your reactions don’t know what you know now.
With your new education, whether it’s from a classroom, or new life experiences, you might discover that you need to shed your old reactions. You may need to reteach your body (and your mind) that this perceived threat – a person of a different race, a woman who looks like that bratty first-grader, your sweet boyfriend who was late without calling just like your terrible ex-boyfriend – is not something you need to which you need to react defensively.
When you know better, you do better. We don’t get to choose our first reactions, but we do get to choose our first responses. It’s our response-ability. The problem is your mind generally knows better before your body and your subconscious know better. This isn’t something to be ashamed of- your body and subconscious are trained to protect you from danger. But when you become aware that there’s a disconnect between what’s a real threat and what’s a perceived threat, you need to teach your body something new.
How do we do this?
Victor Frankl’s important work Man’s Search for Meaning contains a passage about creating space between a stimulus and a response: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
We usually fill this space up with our reactions, and we let our reactions be our response. But when we create more space, we give ourselves an opportunity to choose our response instead of surrendering to whatever our first reactions may be.
So, how do we create that space?
Your sympathetic nervous system is the one that reacts – it’s your lizard brain, your “fight or flight or freeze,” and it lacks language and contextual processing. It remembers what makes you scared, and what makes you angry, and it fills you up with adrenaline to fight back. Lately, with our isolation, it seems like this shows up in Facebook fights and rude Instagram comments.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is the one that chills you out. It is your “rest and digest” system. It slows your heart rate, relaxes your muscles, and more or less steers activity away from your lizard brain to your human brain, where executive functions like language processing are.
When your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is turned all the way on, your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) turns way down. This is why you get a stomach ache when you have high anxiety! You can also think of “rest and digest” as “quiet and process” for the mind. When the SNS is fully engaged, it’s like only alarm bells are going off in your brain. You have a hard time hearing what’s really going on. You need to turn your PNS back on so that you can fully process a situation and choose your response.
There are ways to engage your parasympathetic nervous system, and it gets better with practice. The best and easiest way to activate the PNS is to take control of your breath. Sometimes when your SNS is doing all the work, that “freeze” response means you hold your breath, or “fight or flight” can mean that you breathe heavily and raggedly, gearing up for a sprint.
Taking control of your breath when faced with a stimulus will slow you down and activate your PNS – creating that space for choosing a response. You can practice noticing and controlling your breath with guided meditations and yoga.
Choosing responses over knee-jerk reactions is not all the work of the body. One of the best practices I’ve taken on is responding with curiosity when someone says something rude or heartless. “What do you mean by that?” has been a friendship saver for me, and I’ve learned from asking this question that it is better to assume people mean things in the best possible light than to assume that they’re terrible people with no sense of decorum. If we assume people are doing the best that they can, and that they mean well, it is much easier to react and respond with grace instead of anger, hurt, or frustration.
Of course, I’ve also learned that one of the best ways to put space between a stimulus and a response is just to hit the “mute” button. Sometimes this means muting someone else on the internet. And sometimes it means muting myself in conversation.
Sometimes the space between the stimulus and the response becomes the response. Sometimes growth means knowing when to stop engaging in critical conversations and simply offer space instead.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk