Naturally, in my work in divorce, I am frequently a witness to conflict. It isn’t the most pleasant place to be, but where the work is to be done. I see the failure to understand the other, the miscommunication, clash of each parent’s fears, hopes, and needs. My job, as I see it is to not arbitrate the decisions they are trying to make, but to help them manage their own fear and anger to allow them to hear the other- even if they do not agree with the other’s perspective or solutions. But in a sense, I am working with biology. The threat centers of our brain register in less that 1-20th of a second and bodies react. The thinking parts of our brains are much slower to catch up and if alarm bells are ringing, our reasoning is largely off line. We are unmoored and unable to use all our wisdom and skills. We are in effect, different people.
In our culture, we stigmatize emotion, especially fear. We believe only children need count to 10 and as adults we should have emotion mastered and contained. We may build skill in managing our emotions, but we will never, ever, eradicate the initial onslaught of hormones and neurotransmitters. No one is smart enough, mature enough or skilled enough to prevent what is an essential part of our evolutionary drive to protect ourselves. Our fight/flight/freeze reaction informs us of danger, however it does not inform us if the danger is “accurate” or reliably plot the wisest choice of action. It is the smoke alarm but not the escape plan.
The only real game changer is if we are thoughtful enough, compassionate and accepting to allow that we, at times are not fully in the drivers seat of our own decision making. This goes for everyone- the parent, but also the police officer, physician, supervisor and yes, even the therapist. We are all different people at different times, our brain operating differently when we are with our friends, at work, alone, in times of peace and times of stress. We do harm when we ignore this and make assumptions on how a person acts in one state as globally true of their character or motivations in whole. We also do harm when we assume if we feel fear then the fear is accurately representing a threat or wrong “out there”.
This is an important distinction- the fear is real, it is living in the body and not mistaken, however the source of that fear may not always be “out there” but “in here”. It is our job then, to use our brains to acknowledge the fear but to also check out if there is actually a fire or if we instead just burnt the toast. We need to check out if we are reaching back into another time and place that reminds us of a fearful event, if a vulnerable part of us that we carry has been poked. In that case, our first call of action should be to comfort ourselves rather than act out- because the hurt is in us, not facing us. There can also be a combination of the two, and in that case our job may be to recognize the difference and simultaneously advocate for ourselves, while also owning our own history and the fragile spots it created in us.
The mechanics of our reactions is indescribably complicated. However we do not need to know how the engine works in order to drive the bus. In divorce, in our daily lives, in policing and doctoring and therapizing we simply need to accept ourselves as human and sometimes fallible in sensing and assessing the source of our emotions. I routinely encourage my clients to notice and allow emotional reactions (Dan Siegels wonderful term “name it to tame it”) and challenge themselves to “own it” without shame or embarrassment. Then I suggest they openly find ways to communicate their need for a pause-a simple “hold up, I need a minute” will often suffice. Taking a moment (or more if needed) to ground yourself, breathe a bit deeper and ask yourself what you are feeling allows the body to calm, the thinking brain to catch up and gives access to all of that adult stuff you knew you had but couldn’t reach. Don't worry you don't have to understand it completely, just enough to get your bearings and put yourself back into the drivers seat. From here moving forward is considerably more productive and much less likely to cause you or others harm.
Perhaps we can push back on the idea that having emotional reactions, even fear, is contrary to being an adult, a parent or skilled professional. Perhaps it can change us for the better. I know I am better in my work not disowning my own humanness and I can’t help but hope that if enough of us start with ourselves, we might begin to do so as a community and culture. Perhaps there is hope that more families will manage divorce with less damage. Just maybe the future might see less viral videos, personal and cultural tragedies, brought on by the predictable fear of the other, if we could accept ourselves and utter “hold on, I need a minute”.