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A Simple Practice with Reactivity

It seems the mind has a default to focus on pain.  You can be hiking through a beautiful forest, sun shining, your beloved beside you, feeling blissful, and suddenly all your awareness is drawn to a tiny pebble in your boot.

It takes a fair amount of mindfulness to keep your awareness broad and take in the totality of your experience in a given moment.  This mindfulness can be relationship saving.

It's easy in a moment when you are triggered with someone close to you, to find your mind going right to that pebble.  In the face of perceived blame, you want to fight for yourself and tell the story of all the terrible things they have done in the past.  The strength of this habit energy is part of what makes it difficult to use your awareness and skills in Compassionate Communication.

Recently I watched this dynamic in a couple with whom I was working.  As I listened to Kate, I watched her partner Dan tighten his jaw, look down and away, and fold his arms over his chest.  He was hearing blame and being pulled in by his own reactivity.  When I checked in with him, he lifted his hand and began to count on his fingers the good things he had done in their relationship.  We had entered the courtroom in which each partner presents their case.  Not such an effective strategy for connection.

With mindfulness of his reaction and clarity about his intention to connect, next time Dan can use his reactivity as an alarm indicating that he needs more connection.  From this aware place he can make a request for more connection and say, "Kate, I want to hear you and feel connected and instead I think I am hearing blame.  Could you tell me what exactly you are wanting me to understand from what you're saying?"

Not getting swept in the tide of reactivity requires consistent mindfulness practice.  To start to develop this mindfulness of reactivity you can ask yourself this question as many times a day as possible:

"Right now, am I feeling contracted or expansive. If contracted, can I breath into it and release it?"

This week practice with this question.  Ask this question of yourself at least ten times each day.  You can help yourself remember to do the practice in a number of ways: -set an hourly alarm on your watch, write it on the back of your hand, write the question on post-it notes and put them every where your eyes land, create a pop up on your computer with this question, do the practice with someone else and agree to check in about it at the end of each day

*click here for a list of feelings and universal needs

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Talking about the Past
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A Positive Relationship with Reactivity

2 Responses

  1. Apr 30, 2016

    Thank-you for the article. I recently lost my cat to cancer and find myself "default[ing] to focus on pain" in my relationship and other aspects of my life.

    Before I found out my cat had cancer, I talked to my partner about my concerns with my cat's health. I told him that my cat wasn't eating that much and I had to keep switching foods to find something he'd enjoy. My partner said, "Let him starve" as a joke about him being picky. After we discovered my cat had cancer, he apologized for the joke. He has since expressed remorse and apologized multiple times, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since my cat died.

    I subscribe to your newsletter and value your perspective. Let me know what you think if you have the time.

  2. May 07, 2016

    Dear Rachel,

    I am sorry to hear of your painful loss and the suffering of you cat.

    I wonder about reflecting on the needs that weren't met when your partner made that comment. Perhaps empathy and some request around those needs would be helpful.

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