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the RELATIONSHIP dance WITH VICKI MINERVA When You Feel Personally Attacked, Maligned Y our body is in full defense mode and you’re ready to launch a counter attack. But is that really the best way to handle the situation? Your body is incredible, being built with an automatic instinct to survive with the fight or flight response. When the danger is physical, the spike in adrenaline readies your body to wrestle the bear or run for cover. Most of the threats you’ll experience these days aren’t physical attacks, but emotional or psychological ones, and this mind/ body response needs to be utilized in a different way. It’s important that you pay attention to the feeling. There is a part of your brain that picks up on nonverbal cues and processes information before the logical and verbal part of your brain has made sense of things. It may tell you “You’re safe. Proceed.” Or “Danger!” When the fight-or-flight response is happening in a relationship you care about, it can get complicated as you choose how to handle it. It tells you something is wrong, but it doesn’t guide you with how to resolve it. Researcher John Gottman has studied what people in successful relationships do, and identifies the ability to “calm down” and to “listen and respond non-defensively” as key. This is completely contrary to what your instincts tell you to do when you’re feeling threatened, but it’s essential to assess what’s wrong to do the repair and maintenance that every relationship requires. Defensiveness may be triggered by a variety of things besides your current situation. If you’ve lived with toxic shame, had previous bad experiences or are simply having a bad day, you may feel guarded and react with that fight, flight or freeze response. Others may feel that vibe and respond to you from their own activated fight or flight reaction. Without the ability to soothe yourself and choose your responses, a dissatisfying cycle of reactivity and/or escalation of fights gets set in motion. So. How can you handle it? The old adage to take a deep breath and count to ten actually helps. Deep breathing is a physiological way to signal your brain it’s ok to shut off the stress hormones. It really does help to change the biological aspects of being in fight or flight mode to take several slow, deep breaths. As simple as that sounds, it’s an important first step. Put that time that you’re counting to ten to good use: Name what you’re feeling. When you name it, you can often link it to other things you may be feeling. For example, anger is typically a secondary emotion, reacting to the deeper feelings of hurt or fear. You’ll get a much better response when you communicate about the core feelings. Remind yourself that you care about this person and the quality of relation- ship. Cheap shots are never ok. They may feel like a score in the moment, but will be destructive to your relation- ship in the long term. Trusting that you have each other’s best interest in mind is sacred and must be protected. If you need to take a break to calm down, say so. Get a drink of water, go for a walk, wash your face. If you need to write some thoughts down while you take a time out, do it. Plan to reconnect in a few minutes, or after an agreed upon time frame. If things start to get heated, do it again. This may SEEM slow and inefficient, but the ability to stay respectful and calmly work out the issues that spark the defensive reaction will save you massive amounts of time and trouble over the years. Hopefully your partner can approach a conversation without hostility. It’s when they can’t (or aren’t) that you’ll especially need to choose the non-defensive mindset. Your goal is to understand what your partner is concerned about so you can find options that work for both of you. Gottman suggests a value system, “In this relationship, we do not ignore one another’s pain. I have to understand this hurt.” That value system helps you to not take a complaint personally, recognizing that the other person is speaking about a need they have. If you care about their hurt, it isn’t about you, it’s about resolving it. Self-soothing and listening non- defensively goes against our instincts. It isn’t easy, but it’s a life skill you can learn. Get through tough conversations without the fight! Vicki Minerva has lived and worked in the South County area as a Marriage and Family Therapist for over 35 years. Her education includes a M.Div. degree from Fuller Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage, Family Counseling from Santa Clara University. Contact her at 408.848.8793 or visit My goal is to provide you with some information and help you access tools that will help you live your life and manage your relationships in healthier ways. This information is not a substitute for personal counseling and should not be taken out of context. There are many reputable therapists in the South County area should you need additional help. GILROY • MORGAN HILL • SAN MARTIN SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2017 67