Call us at: (312) 573-8860
1111 N. Wells St. | Ste 400 | Chicago, IL. 60610 | Map

Menu

Resolving Marital Conflict: A Roadmap on How to Fight Fair with Your Spouse


Introduction

Let’s face it, marriage can be hard! When two different personalities decide to intertwine their lives and establish an exclusive union that is expected to last into perpetuity, the potential for friction can be quite high. Case in point, studies have shown that on average, only 31% of marital disputes constitute solvable problems (Gottman, 1994). That means that issues will present themselves, the requisite solutions will be applied, and the problems will never appear again. That then suggests that a startling 69% of marital problems are considered perpetual problems, meaning issues arise, they’re temporarily resolved, and then they reappear again on an ongoing basis (Gottman, 1994). For example, it is an all-too-familiar occurrence for couples to argue because of their differences in orderliness, which is largely due to the contrast in how their personalities are constituted. Because the more orderly spouse may have a higher sensitivity to disorder, he or she may be more inclined to become agitated when an area of the house is in disarray. This spouse may then petition their partner to clean the area that was causing their unrest, only to find that a week later, there’s another area of the house that the less orderly spouse has left unkempt. This familiar scenario is evidence of how personality differences inevitably result in perpetual marital problems. Given that personality differences beset each and every marriage, it is then sensible that couples learn how to engage in tolerable conflict because disputes are bound to occur. In light of this, I will be discussing Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are four relational patterns that ought to be avoided to increase the likelihood that one’s marital relationship will withstand the test of time. These horsemen include criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Dr. John Gottman, a leading research psychologist in the domain of couple dynamics, first published his research on the four horsemen in 1994. In his investigation, he found that if couples employed the horsemen regularly enough, the probability was quite high that the marriage would end in divorce (Gottman & Levenson, 2002). Within this article for essay structure, I will explain what the four horsemen are and also review their more effective alternatives or antidotes. With this information in mind, you’ll be able to experience greater marital satisfaction and increase the likelihood of your marriage going the distance.

The Research

Decades ago, Gottman set out to determine what relational patterns were characteristic of marital relationships that remained together, and those that fell apart (Gottman, 1994). In order to assess this, he invited droves of newlywed couples to a bed and breakfast-like laboratory setting for a weekend, in which he outfitted the site with video cameras and physiological monitors so that he could examine their relational patterns and physiological responses to one another. Each couple participated in an oral interview in which they reported on their relationship history, they then completed a number of questionnaires and then they were video recorded engaging in neutral conversation, pleasant conversation, and conflictual conversation. The couples were then directed to review the video recordings, rate their emotional responses, and then expert coders categorized their behaviors. After several years had passed, the couples were invited to participate in follow-up interviews in order to discuss the state of their marriage. At the end of the longitudinal study, he dubbed the couples that stayed together and reported marital satisfaction, “Master Relationships,” and those that did not, “Disaster Relationships.” He discovered a number of interesting findings, but one of the most striking ones was that the “Disaster Relationships” regularly used the four horsemen when in the throes of conflict, whereas the “Master Relationships” used them minimally. Furthermore, the latter group was more likely to utilize the antidotes to the four horsemen. Naturally, you’re likely wondering what actions characterize the four horsemen and their antidotes, so without further ado, let’s get to it. 

Criticism vs. Complaining with a Softened Start-Up 

The first horseman is criticism, which is distinguished from the more effective alternative of complaining with a softened start-up. Criticism is characterized by attacking the character or personality of one’s partner and using absolute language such as “always” or “never” when expressing a gripe of some kind. For instance, after a wife asks her husband to take out the trash, and he fails to do so for two days, an example of criticism would be for her to angrily say something like, “Didn’t I ask you to take the trash out two days ago? You never do what I ask you to, and I’m so sick of having to tell you to do things over and over again all the time! It’s either you don’t care or you’re just lazy.” In response to this, the husband would likely become defensive or attack back. Furthermore, in reaction to his wife’s use of absolutes like “always” or “never,” the husband is likely to defend himself by expressing the exceptions to the overgeneralized mischaracterizations. This type of communication often doesn’t end well, and both partners end up hurt. With that being said, let’s take a look at the antidote to criticism. In the aforementioned scenario, an example of complaining with a softened start-up would be characterized by the following: 1) the wife leads with a term of endearment (i.e., sweetie); 2) she uses “I” statements rather than “you” statements; 3) she specifically describes the behavior that upset her, as opposed to her partner’s personality; 4) she articulates her feelings, and then 5) makes a positive request. So, she might say something like, “Hey, sweetie, so a few days ago, I asked you to take out the trash, and maybe it escaped your mind, but I just notice myself getting frustrated because it hasn’t been done yet. Do you mind taking out the trash tonight, please?” If she responds this way, the likelihood is much higher that the husband will happily meet her request. However, all-too-often, this is not how requests or expressions of upset are communicated, which often leads to the next horseman — defensiveness.

Defensiveness vs. Taking Responsibility 

Defensiveness is characterized by self-protective maneuvers that are meant to ward off a perceived attack. It often involves reverse blaming or excusing the behavior of oneself. For example, defensiveness in the aforementioned scenario would entail the husband saying something like, “You always talk about what I don’t do, you never talk about what I am doing for you. Sometimes I forget stuff, okay, but you don’t hear me breathing down your neck when you forget stuff, do you?” This line of conversation likely won’t go well; thus, an alternative is advised. The alternative or antidote to defensiveness is taking personal responsibility. In this case, the husband would be taking responsibility if he said, “You know what, sweetie, you’re absolutely right. I’m sorry, the trash escaped my mind. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, but that was my mistake. I’m going to take the trash out right now.” This response is likely going to lead to a lot more peace as opposed to war and it’s a lot easier to keep one’s defensiveness in abeyance when one feels as though they’re not being attacked. Most people are not as virtuous as Jesus or Gandhi, so when the majority of people are attacked, the natural response is defense. With this in mind, if you want to decrease the likelihood that your partner will become defensive, you will have to be careful not to attack their personality or character. Instead, it’s key that the complaints that are made are related to specific behaviors. 

Contempt vs. Creating a Culture of Appreciation

The next horseman is contempt. Contempt is described as the act of not only speaking disparagingly to one’s partner but speaking in a way that communicates disrespect. Moreover, it is often characterized by insults or abusive language. The following statement is an example of contempt: “Sometimes I feel like I’m not just raising one child, but two – our son and you! You’re so irresponsible sometimes. Didn’t your mother raise you better?” This horseman has been found to have the most damaging effect on marital relationships, both psychologically and physically. Being the object of contempt has been found to increase the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, which at high levels can undermine one’s immune system and cause a person to suffer from a greater degree of physical ailments. To avoid this, the antidote that’s advised is creating a culture of appreciation within the relationship. This is where one regularly expresses their gratitude towards their partner for the things that they’re doing well, such as taking out the trash, washing the dishes, cooking a meal, or running an errand. Often, partners do things that the other appreciates, but sometimes the requesting partner keeps their appreciation private and they fail to communicate their gratitude towards their loved one. It’s important to note that the expression of appreciation is not only crucial for the recipient but for the person doing the expressing as well, as it is a reminder to them that their partner is useful and worthy of fondness and thanks.

Stonewalling vs. Physiological Soothing 

The last horseman is what’s called stonewalling. Stonewalling is where one may be in the throes of an argument with their partner, but they’re disengaged and no longer giving the plaintive the cues that they’re listening. They’re not nodding their head, making eye contact, and their disposition is icy-cold. Although the listener may appear cool, calm, and collected on the outside, their internal physiological responses are often heightened. Interestingly, it turns out that if your heartbeat is around 100-beats per minute; your body is in a state called diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). This is when an individual’s body is in a state of threat protection or a mode known as fight-or-flight. When in this mode, the individual’s heart is racing fast, their breathing is shallow, and their adrenaline is pumping. It is challenging to accept influence from one’s partner when one is in a state of DPA, which is why being able to engage in physiological soothing is so important. Physiological soothing requires the listener to regulate their own emotions by breathing deeply from their diaphragm or taking a break for 20-minutes and then returning to the discussion. When taking a break from conflict, it is recommended that such breaks last no less than 20-minutes and no more than 24-hours if things are particularly tense. When both partners are calmer, they are a lot more capable of actively and civilly engaging in the dispute at hand.

Conflict as a Necessity 

As you’re taking stock of the horsemen and their antidotes, you may be worried that your marriage is headed for the dumps because sometimes you notice that you level criticisms at your spouse or become defensive at times, but Gottman discovered a finding that you might find encouraging. The couples that were considered master relationships were not perfect. Gottman and his colleague, Robert Levenson, found that the positive to negative interaction ratio for master relationships was 5 to 1 (Gottman & Levenson, 1999). This means that for every negative interaction, there were five positive interactions. However, the disaster relationships had a positive to negative interaction ratio of roughly 1 to 1, meaning every positive interaction was also coupled with a negative interaction (Gottman & Levenson, 1999). For most couples, the latter interaction pattern eventually becomes too chaotic, and the marriage ultimately dissolves. One might think that the best marital arrangement is one where there isn’t any conflict at all, but this isn’t true. Gottman and Levenson found that in relationships where the positive to negative interaction ratio exceeded 11 to 1, those relationships eventually dissolved too (Gottman & Levenson, 1999). This is likely because the partners in these couples avoided conflict and thus were not honest with one another. Consequently, these findings suggest that some conflict is necessary in order to keep a relationship going.

Verbal vs. Non-verbal Communication 

Up until this point, I’ve mostly discussed the impact that the content of one’s speech can have on a relationship. However, there’s another element to consider when relating to one’s partner and that’s implicit or non-verbal cues. Interestingly, the right hemisphere of your brain is specialized at deciphering implicit cues like the tone of one’s voice (McGilchrist, 2009). Conversely, the left hemisphere is adapted to attune to the content of one’s speech, which is why the brain areas which undergird one’s productive language faculty (Broca’s area) and receptive language ability (Wernicke’s area), are nested in the left hemisphere (McGilchrist, 2009). Put another way, the left hemisphere is more concerned about what someone says, whereas the right hemisphere is scanning the environment for how someone says it. If you find your heartbeat increasing or a rush of adrenaline because someone speaks in an ornery tone, it may not be that you’re overly sensitive, rather your brain is sensing subtle threats in the environment and is thus recruiting your biopsychological resources in order to prepare you for aggressive confrontation or escape. Compared to the left hemisphere, the right one is a lot swifter, which is largely because the right hemisphere is more densely comprised of a greater number of neurons (brain cells), dendritic spires (neuronal extremities that extend from and connect to other neurons) and white matter (fatty sheaths that coat neuronal axons and speed up neuronal transmissions) (McGilchrist, 2009). In other words, the way in which your brain is constructed enables you to have an unsettling feeling a lot quicker than you may be able to articulate it with your speech.  

Closing Remarks

In conclusion, the words that you use in a relationship and how you use them (i.e., tone of voice, facial expressions) will influence how your relationship will fare. No relationship is perfect, but it’s incredibly vital that you make sure that when you’re conversing with your partner, it’s marked by good-will as opposed to antipathy. Peace is always better than war, as life is certainly a lot more pleasant when you’re at peace with your spouse.


References

Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Gottman, J.M. & Levenson, R. W. (1999). What predicts change in marital interaction over time? A study of alternative models. Family Processes Journal, 38 (2), 143-158.  https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.1999.00143.x

Gottman, J.M. & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analysis using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Processes Journal, 41 (1), 83-96. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2002.40102000083.x

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

What is your parenting style?


Authoritarian Parenting

In this style of parenting, children are expected to follow the strict rules established by the parents. Failure to follow such rules usually results in punishment. Authoritarian parents fail to explain the reasoning behind these rules. If asked to explain, the parent might simply reply, “Because I said so.”

 

Authoritative Parenting

Like authoritarian parents, those with an authoritative parenting style establish rules and guidelines that their children are expected to follow. However, this parenting style is much more democratic. Authoritative parents are responsive to their children and willing to listen to questions. When children fail to meet the expectations, these parents are more nurturing and forgiving rather than punishing. Baumrind suggests that these parents “monitor and impart clear standards for their children’s conduct. They are assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. Their disciplinary methods are supportive, rather than punitive. They want their children to be assertive as well as socially responsible, and self-regulated as well as cooperative.”

 

Indulgent Parenting

Permissive parents, sometimes referred to as indulgent parents, have very few demands to make of their children. These parents rarely discipline their children because they have relatively low expectations of maturity and self-control. According to Baumrind, permissive parents “are more responsive than they are demanding. They are usually nontraditional and lenient. Permissive parents are generally nurturing and communicative with their children. This style of parenting should be careful not to take on the status of a friend more than a parent.

 

Uninvolved Parenting

An uninvolved parenting style if characterized by few demands, low responsiveness and little communication. While these parents fulfill the child’s basic needs, they are generally detached from their child’s life. In extreme cases, these parents may even reject or neglect the needs of their children.

 

The Impact of Parenting Styles

What effect do these parenting styles have on child development outcomes?

  • Authoritarian parenting styles generally lead to children who are obedient and proficient, but they rank lower in happiness, social competence and self-esteem.
  • Authoritative parenting styles tend to result in children who are happy, capable and successful.
  • Permissive parenting often results in children who rank low in happiness and self-regulation. These children are more likely to experience problems with authority and trend to perform poorly in school.
  • Uninvolved parenting styles rank lowest across all life domains. These children tend to lack self-control, have low self-esteem and are less competent than their peers.

Baumrind, D. (1989). Rearing competent children. In W. Damon (Ed.), Child development today and tomorrow (pp. 349-378). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11(1), 56-95.

Socially Obese? Keep social media use healthy.


In order to maintain health, the most commonly recommended actions are diet and exercise. It is widely known that choosing quality, whole foods over empty calorie, junk foods provide better nutritional intake to support a healthy body. Unfortunately, the American population is “the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history” (Brown, 2010, pg. 36). When considering how technology is revolutionizing our world, is it possible, that we have entered an age where we are now, also, socially obese? In other words, are we attempting to satisfy our need for love and belonging with frequent binge episodes of empty activity on social media platforms?

As a Millennial parent of a young child who is intrigued by texting, FaceTiming, and online games, I do my best to limit the use of technology, or at least ensure it is a positive and educational experience. It seems I get to observe her need to belong in this world by her desire for her own phone or app watch because others have them around her. I’m also aware of the glories of life without technology. This compelled me to find the best research on the topic of how technology is changing us.

Humanity has the longest period of childrearing of any species, and therefore, is wired to be social. Attachment theory would argue we feel more secure and confident in whom we are when attached to an attentive caregiver (Bowlby, 1969). Therefore, the technological development of social media to satisfy our need for connection is not unusual. Research has highlighted the positives of social media use. But, what are the bounds of healthy use? Is social media use like binging on junk food and is there a healthier replacement?

There are factors that make social media an easy go-to for social interaction and even addiction. For example, Dr. Susan Weinschenk, who is an expert on user experience in computer systems, outlines how social networking may activate the brain’s reward system on her blog (November 7, 2009). She identified the following factors:

  • Immediate gratification
  • Anticipatory thrill (anticipating reward is more rewarding than receiving the reward)
  • Endless amounts of small bits of information (little information can make us more curious, leading to endless browsing or rabbit trails over hours)
  • Unpredictability of rewards

Based on her research, it appears our brain jumps into an endless dopamine high when engaging social media. Berridge (1998) argues that dopamine is central to seeking pleasure and the opioid system causes us to experience pleasure. Therefore, it makes sense to me that when we browse, post, and game, hours fly by without notice due to the activation of both of these systems.

Unhealthy Social Media Use

There are several studies that clarify at what points social media use loses its benefit. Initially, it is well established that the hormone oxytocin is a bonding hormone, released during delivery of a newborn baby, and at moments of physical or social contact. When a study challenged teens with a stressful task and examined different avenues of receiving emotional support from their parents, oxytocin was implicated. The teens who did not reach out to their parents and those who texted their parents had no noticeable difference in their cortisol or oxytocin levels. The teens who sought support over the phone or face to face, had increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol levels (Seltzer, Prososki, Ziegler, & Pollak, as cited in Greenfield, 2015, p. 130). Therefore, hearing someone’s voice or seeing a person face-to-face was more effective in comforting. It appears that the convenience of technology did not benefit the teens in effectively decreasing stress and increasing bonding.

Moreover, excessive social media use is a concern due to the restricted form of communication that may lack tone of voice, body language, and other avenues of feeling emotionally connected. Those who spend excessive time on screens have more difficulty interpreting facial expressions (Engelberg & Sjöberg as cited in Greenfield, 2015, p. 135). Greenfield’s concern is that technology may encourage autistic-like traits, such as poor eye contact and poor reading of social cues, in an online user (McDowell; Waldman, Nicholson, & Adilov; Hertz-Picciotto & Delwiche; as cited in Greenfield, 2015, p. 136). Other researchers are attempting to clarify any relationship between internet use and lowering levels of empathy. Therefore, excessive use can be a barrier to developing social skills needed to facilitate bonding and attachment in the real world.

Another concern is that social media is replacing real life relationship maintenance. It appears that those who have social anxiety and believe it to be a better platform for self-disclosure are more likely to use social media to build relationships (Oldmeadow, Quinn, & Kowert; Trepte & Reinecke; as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pgs. 102 & 104). The amount of time spent on social media was not linked to having a larger offline network or feeling emotionally closer to offline network (Pollet, Roberts, & Dunbar, 2011 as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pgs. 133). It seems the excessive use of social media may be an act to avoid social anxiety than a tool to overcome it.

Additionally, the use of social media may not benefit self-image. Those with low self-esteem have more frequent posts about negative attributes which seems to lead others to “like” their comments less or reject the online identity altogether (Valkenburg, Peter, & Schouten as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pg. 120). Whereas, in real life, friends may have been able to see their other attributes and consider their negativity more tolerable. Given limited immediate feedback, social media also allows for narcissism to manifest which is linked to low self-esteem (Buffardi & Campbell as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pg. 117). Therefore, those with low self-esteem who rely on social media for connection may create a cycle of rejection and self-inefficacy in online relationships they rely on for intimacy.

Lastly, we advertise our best or “ideal self” on social media or develop a new identity altogether (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pg. 117). For that reason, virtual reality continues to reflect less of actual reality. Consequently, we are exposed to the edited or imaginary version of a real person. Besides the scary implications of false identities online, social media provides us with an overwhelming number of personas to compare to ourselves. Therefore, perhaps the implications of our increased reliance on social media to meet our social and emotional needs is more complex than we think and possibly as nutritious as a junk food binge.

Healthy Recommendations

It is a relief to know that research has also identified the benefits of social media. Greenfield (2015) concluded from several studies, that it can be a beneficial avenue for maintaining relationships that were established offline. In order to be resilient from some of the drawbacks of social media use, I recommend that we:

  • Limit the time online to two hours or less each day
  • Develop social skills in offline relationships and work through social anxiety
  • Build face-to-face relationships while using social media to advance those connections
  • Work to limit online comparison, choose self-acceptance, and enhance self-esteem

It is my hope that, similar to other health-conscious trends such as yoga and organic eating, Americans would trend healthy Internet and social media use.


References

Berridge, K. C. & Robinson, T. E. (1998). What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience? Brain Research Reviews, 28, pp 309–369.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Greenfield, S. (2015). Mind change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. New York: Random House.

Weinschenk, S. (November 7, 2009). 100 things you should know about people: #8 Dopamine makes us addicted to seeking information. Retrieved from https://www.blog.theteamw.com/2009/11/07/100-things-you-should-know-about-people-8-dopamine-makes-us-addicted-to-seeking-information/

Letting Go To Grow


Philippians 4:8

Finally, my sisters – whatever is true, whatever is honorable, what is right, what is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

  1. Position yourself in the future – get a positive view of the future will help you let go of a negative past. This is hard. Negative experiences just don’t fade away. Neuroscience of the brain indicates that we have an area of the brain that is called the episodic area. In this area we house events. We were created to remember so there are three things that will help with letting go of a negative past – (i) intentionally; (ii) create a vision board to assist you; (iii) set some steps. Learn to be present and stay in the present as you note your thoughts and feelings that connect you to what is good, what is lovely and what is of a good report.
  1. Discard the old – look around at your space, what reminds you of the thing, event, thought that you are trying to let go? Whatever it is start small and recreate. Redecorate a room, create piles that are keep, toss or transfer and then move forward with those things.
  1. Repair – acknowledge if what you are letting go of you played a part in the hurt, pain or disappointment. If you can, reach out to that person, have a face to face or write a letter expressing your part and your remorse. If you cannot reach out to that person, write an unmailable letter expressing your part and remorse.
  1. Rewrite your narrative – this allows you to take your power back. It places you in the position of victor and not victim. Therapist call this cognitive re-framing – God has given us the power to write our stories. Look at the loss as a release. An open door to create something new and refreshing.
  1. Forgive – discharge the debt, do what needs to be done to not have offense repeated (redefine the relationship); acknowledge the mess, the cost, the pain as well as the short and long term consequences of the offense, it is a process, not a one-time decision.

What Just Happened?: Making Sense of My Seemingly Random Reactions


Marie was feeling productive at work when she received a phone call from her mother. As soon as she saw the caller ID, she felt irritable and dismissed the call. For the rest of the day, she struggled to return her focus to her work or get anything accomplished.

Brenda was enjoying her time out to dinner at a nice restaurant with her boyfriend, Jude. However, she wanted to run out of the restaurant when Jude took his phone out of his pocket and started doing something on it. For the rest of dinner, she just answered his questions with one-word answers and couldn’t wait to get home so she could go to sleep.

Tiffani was fully engaged in the conversation at her 11:00 business meeting, which she found to be fascinating. When the colleague sitting next to her raised his hand to interrupt the discussion, she flinched and had trouble participating in the remainder of the meeting.

 

What do these women have in common?

Although at first glance, these women may seem to be drastically different from one another, when we take a moment to investigate their histories, we find similarities in their reactions in each situation. Each of these women’s reactions makes sense. Each of these women’s trauma response was triggered by the circumstances of their environments and made it difficult for her to fully engage in the present moment.

Marie grew up in a home where she never knew what she would experience when she walked in the door. Some days, her mother would be waiting to greet her with a smile and interest in what happened at school. Other days, her mother would be drunk on the couch, waiting for Marie to return from school so she could take care of her mother’s every need.

Brenda’s first marriage started off great, but after a year, her husband didn’t seem to even know she existed, that was, until he wanted something from her sexually and he could not be deterred. Brenda felt unwanted and cast-off and wasn’t surprised the day he filed for divorce because he found a “better woman.” It took a long time to feel ready to date again, but finally, she was willing to try again.

Tiffani’s step-father was scary and mean. She would hide in her closet to stay away from him when he was angry, praying that he wouldn’t find her because she was afraid that this time, he would hit her so hard she might die.

 

What is a trauma response and why does it happen?

Our brains automatically respond to dangerous, stressful, and traumatic situations by prioritizing reactions that will keep us safe; this is a very good thing, as it helps us to survive. When a person experiences these dangerous, stressful, or chaotic situations time and again, his/her brain gets really good at quickly prioritizing this survival response. Sometimes, the brain is so good at doing this, the survival response becomes the automatic and occurs even when the person is in a completely safe situation. This triggered reaction is a trauma response and it makes sense. Marie’s trauma reaction was triggered because her brain knows that sometimes when she talks to her mom, she isn’t safe. Brenda’s trauma reaction was triggered because she felt unwanted by her boyfriend when he started using his phone; she had been here before and it was not safe. Tiffani’s trauma reaction was triggered because her brain knows that sometimes, when someone near you raises his/her arm, it is to hit her. Although each of these women may not understand why she reacted in the way she did, each response makes sense in light of her past experiences and makes it difficult for her to fully engage in the present moment.

 

What can I do if I experience things like this?

First and foremost, seek support from safe and trustworthy people. Talking through your current and past experiences with a family member or friend who has consistently been safe and caring can help you express these things so you don’t have to hold them inside or on your own. Many individuals find it helpful to participate in therapy in order to have a safe place to discuss these reactions and the situations that have caused them and work towards growth and healing.

Secondly, take care of yourself when these reactions occur – maybe you need to take a break to go for a walk, grab a coffee, or take some deep breaths. Do something little and easy to help calm your brain and your body down so that you can re-engage in the present moment. Be kind to yourself by reminding yourself that this reaction was helpful for your survival at one point in time and makes sense in the current situation – there is nothing inherently wrong with your reaction and you can do something to help yourself through it.

If you would like to begin receiving professional services for reactions such as those described above, our office has therapists who have specialized training to provide services to individuals who have experienced trauma. Please click here to request an appointment.

 


*These stories are fictional and were created with the intent to illustrate triggered responses as a result of traumatic experiences in order to increase awareness, offer knowledge, and provide support for those who may be experiencing similar reactions.

Overcoming Shame From Failure

by Dr. Kara White, Psy.D. in Active, Articles, Blog, Self Improvement Comments: 0 tags: Communication

John Maxwell, in his book Failing Forward, tells the story of an experiment with a ceramics class. The teacher divided the class and assigned one half the task of spending the entire semester developing the perfect pot. The other half would be graded based on how many pots were made. It turns out, at the end of the course, the half that focused on quantity created the more perfect pot than the half focused on quality. His test proved that mastery comes with failure.

No matter where you are in your journey, moving through hurt, failure, or adversity is something we all have to embrace. When I was faced with great difficulty, I felt I had two options: be overcome with panic and despair, or find a way to go through it. My faith, support of family and friends, self-awareness, and intentional action to get help and help myself, enabled me to rise above adversity and become stronger.

In periods of difficulty, it is easy to be overwhelmed with emotion such as fear, panic, anger, confusion, and doubt. All of these emotions are difficult to feel, express, and work through to find relief. However, one emotion, that is particularly troubling in these instances, is shame. Shame, a universal experience, seems to fit in the category with embarrassment and guilt, but it is different. Brené Brown, from her book Daring Greatly, defines it as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging ” (2012, p. 69). Failure easily triggers this experience.

I know I am in shame when I am irritable, avoiding people, experiencing a low mood, and start to become critical of others. I, then, take a moment to reflect on what has happened recently, to identify my trigger. Sometimes, I feel shame related to being a wife, such as not feeling sexy enough, not connecting or communicating enough, or fearing I have done something to create emotional distance. Other times, I may feel shame about needing clarity or stability during change.

When feeling shame from failure, how can we develop resilience? Brené Brown (2007) recommends you follow these steps:

  1. Understand how shame feels on you and what triggered it
  2. Reality-check your thoughts that tell us being imperfect means being inadequate
  3. Share the story with a trusted person
  4. Talk about how you’re feeling and ask for what you need

To read more about shame resilience, go to www.brenebrown.com to find her booklist and blog.


Brown, B. (2007). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy and power. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

Maxwell, J. (2000). Failing forward: Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago