Fight or flight.
This phrase is often used to describe our possible reactions to some sort of threatening situation – either we stay and fight the threat, or we turn tail and take flight. These are instincts that have been instilled in us over thousands of generations, instincts that helped our ancestors to survive in a world that was harsh and full of predators. Unfortunately, these same instincts can do a lot of damage when they come into play during our personal relationships and often lead to an inability to communicate deeply or a desire to cut and run whenever things get difficult.
Now obviously, there are some threats we should definitely run away from, which is why we have these instincts in the first place – tigers that are hunting us, volcanic explosions, hippos that escaped from the zoo.
But most of us are not confronted with these kinds of threats on a daily basis (if you are, please email me, I’m super curious what your life is like). Usually when we feel the urge to fight or run away, it is when faced with some sort of modern-day threat; a threat to our ego, to our feelings of security, to our sense of self-worth. What if we learned to use these threats as opportunities for growth and adventure, instead of obstacles we needed to avoid completely?
As humans, we have become so good at protecting ourselves by avoiding conflict, uncertainty, and discomfort that we are often completely unprepared to deal with these things in a healthy way when they come up. We are constantly either running away from these feelings, or exhausting ourselves by fighting them, trying to somehow “win out” over our emotional struggles, aiming to exert strict control over every situation.
Either way, fight or flight, neither of these actions involves us inviting uncertainty into our lives, being open to difficult conversations with the people we love, observing and accepting the emotions we experience, and exploring the discomfort we feel when faced with threats to our ego. When we constantly avoid these kinds of situations, we shut ourselves off from an entire facet of the human experience that offers an incredible opportunity for growth and self-exploration.
Have you ever been trying to have a conversation with a loved one about something that is important to you and they get frustrated and either leave the room or say “I don’t want to talk about this anymore”? How infuriating is that!? (I should admit that I am have been totally guilty of both of these things). Sometimes the person just needs some time to cool off and think it over because their ego is all up in knots and needs a moment to settle down – this has certainly been the case for me. If a difficult conversation is going nowhere, it can sometimes be helpful to give each person space and come back to it at a time when you’ve both had a chance to think about it on your own.
But that coming back part is really important, because if the conversation is simply shut down and never revisited, it will continue to fester for both people, knowing that the issue is unresolved. These are the kinds of things that build and build over time, eventually erupting in a volcanic explosion (cue: an appropriate running away response!).
Our school system isn’t designed to teach us how to have difficult conversations and many of us are not taught this by our parents. We don’t receive classes on empathic listening, or vulnerability, or learning how to be honest even when you know it might hurt someone’s feelings. Even though these skills are essential to building healthy relationships, romantic or otherwise, our education system unfortunately is not set up to focus on creating strong interpersonal relationships.
Because of this, a lot of us reach adulthood with no idea how to be ok with discomfort or communicate openly and we shut down when such situations arise. This can be incredibly hurtful to the people we love, who want to connect with us in a meaningful way. Men especially are not socialized to be in touch with their emotions and are expected to live up to labels like tough, manly, stoic, making it even harder for them to reverse this conditioning when they start creating relationships in which they wish to connect deeply and share honestly.
Inviting in discomfort
So, what can we do!? How do we build the skills to face these threats head-on without fighting them or running away?
One way we can do this is by inviting discomfort into our lives on a regular basis. So much of what we fear in these interactions is the discomfort they will cause – we like to feel comfortable, safe, happy. We don’t like when things happen that we didn’t expect. Some of us are masters at putting on a mask to make the people around us feel comfortable and the thought of having a conversation or doing something that may cause ourselves or others any discomfort can be kind of terrifying. Often we choose to lie or hide our true self simply because we are more afraid of discomfort than we are of not being able to be our authentic selves!
But we can work on this by making it a daily practice to put ourselves in slightly uncomfortable situations. It doesn’t have to be anything huge or life-threatening, it can be as simple as admitting during a conversation that you aren’t familiar with the topic, being honest with a friend about why you don’t want to go out tonight, or even facing the “wrong” way at a bus stop. All these little actions can be a bit uncomfortable at first, but if you start practicing them on a daily basis, you will become less and less afraid of that feeling.
Perhaps counterintuitively, another way to improve our connections with others and lessen our fear of uncomfortable situations is through meditation. Meditation is such an amazing tool. When practiced on a regular basis, it helps us to calm the mind and be more at peace. During meditation, we are taught not to react as thoughts and feelings arise, but to observe them without judgement, simply noticing them until they pass. This carries into our daily lives and helps us to be less reactive to situations and more able to observe what is going on and be present without judging what is happening. It reduces the “fight or flight” response and lessens our need to live inside our comfort zone of what we expect to happen.
And yet another way to improve at difficult conversations is simply to practice having difficult conversations! Tell the people you love that this is something you want to work on and try bringing things up when you are both in a positive state of mind. If you work on this together when things are going well, then when shit hits the fan, you will already have a foundation of skills to use to work through your issues more effectively.
To sum it all up…
Our brains have evolved to protect us from various threats, but we don’t have to let our fight or flight response control us when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If you are used to shutting down as soon as things get difficult, do a little introspection and think about why it is that you are so uncomfortable with confrontation.
What is it that you are really afraid of happening if you open up and share with someone, or really listen to what they have to say, or if you turn out to be wrong? How could you change your behaviors to communicate more honestly and openly with others?
Instead of putting up your defenses every time emotions are involved and fighting like crazy to stay in control, try being open to vulnerability and just see what happens. Bringing down your walls will not happen overnight, but if you work at removing one brick at a time, you will eventually reach a place where deep connection and communication is possible, even if it is still uncomfortable sometimes.
Here’s the thing: discomfort is inevitable, it’s going to come knocking at your door, again and again and again. So, instead of screaming at it to go away (which it won’t) or hiding in the bedroom and pretending it isn’t still there (which it is), why not open up the door, invite it in for a cup of tea, and make the choice to learn a thing or two.