It’s happened to me more than once, and I imagine you’ve experienced it too – someone hits one of my emotional trigger points, and I react.
Strongly. Unnecessarily so.
Or I step on someone else’s emotional landmine, and they react strongly.
I get a feeling of “here we go, again,” or sometimes it’s more of a sense of disorientation, physical contraction, defensiveness.
Sometimes, I trip my own triggers, reacting more to a circumstance than a particular person.
No matter how I get there, that trigger-y state of mind has taught me a lot about what it means to be in a healthy relationship, not the least of which is that the people who are most important to me are the best teachers for my own emotional intelligence growth.
It all starts with a choice.
The relationship choices we make have a lot to teach us if we’re open to learning. For decades, I chose men who were unavailable in some way–either already in a relationship or unable to show up emotionally. Once I embraced the idea that these relationships had something to teach me, I learned to set better boundaries for myself and to allow myself to raise the bar in a way that was compassionate and healthy for me. Ultimately, I found the truly awesome man to whom I’ve been married for 21 years.
Inevitably, relationships that lack a foundation of curiosity go south, and the emotional volume tends to rise with each passing year. Conflicts proliferate and escalate. We all know a couple who fights all the time, and if you’re like me, you’ve experienced at least one painful breakup with a friend after letting a decade of unhappy, unresolved feelings go by.
Choosing to be in relationships where both parties are committed to curiosity, growth, and learning is a game-changer. If you’re like most adults, your natural curiosity has been dulled by years of striving and surviving, and it may take some focused attention to bring it back. And once you do, things will improve in ways that enrich and enliven and surprise you.
So, how do I…
The most frequent questions I get as a coach begins with the phrase, “How do I…” We all want to know the formula for getting what we want in the world. And we often misunderstand exactly what we want. We think we want a healthy relationship, but what we really want is how we’ll feel when we are in one.
Let that percolate for a moment.
What we really want is how we’ll feel when our most precious relationships are clicking along–the lightness and joy, the tangible feeling of love that bursts out of us like cartoon hearts.
So, how do we get there?
It’s a journey, of course, which happens over time, and it starts (you know where I’m going with this, right?) with returning to curiosity, especially when things go sideways.
These three powerful questions are the ones I’m learning to ask myself in those moments of high emotion or conflict. They tend to be the questions that keep me from getting hooked into someone else’s emotional state, and from spilling the foul energy of my own unconscious reactions on someone who hasn’t done anything to deserve it.
You’ll notice that these questions are about being curious with myself, first, so I can make some space to be curious with them.
1. What am I experiencing right now, and what’s true about this moment?
I find that if I am able to articulate my own emotional state, I can stay in the present moment, and if I stick to what I can see with my eyes, I can avoid making up a story about how the other person has “done me wrong.” Adina gives a perfect example of this in our recent podcast when she found herself staring into the “barrel” of her daughter’s anger. She realized that she felt attacked, but rather than reacting to an attack with defensiveness or weapons of her own, Adina dropped into curiosity about what was really bugging her daughter. Clearly, her daughter was angry, but only time and further conversation would reveal the true story. She didn’t defend herself for packing the wrong sandwich into her daughter’s lunch (the ostensible reason), because Adina knew that a sandwich couldn’t be responsible for the outsized outpouring of emotion. Something else was bothering her, and Adina gave her daughter the space and time to reveal what that was. By resting in curiosity, she eventually had a conversation that brought them closer, rather than escalating into a fight that would drive them apart.
I’ve experienced this with my husband. If we notice our own emotional response to each other’s strong emotions, we have enough awareness to allow each other to express their anger, frustration, or sadness without trying to fix it, shut it down, or lapse into defensiveness. Once the emotion is fully expressed, we acknowledge it and work together to get to the real root cause.
2. What expectations haven’t been met?
Often, we launch into conflict because someone does, or doesn’t do, something we believe they should, or shouldn’t. My clients know that whenever they use the word “should,” I will stop them and ask, “Is that true? Should they?” and that’s usually enough to bring them back to the reality of what is happening, or has happened, and gently lead them away from the fantasy they’ve concocted about how the world ought to be arranged for their comfort and convenience.
Discomfort is a reliable signal that something needs attention and wants to teach us something. Getting curious about what we were hoping for can help us detach from our expectations from others, rather than punishing them for failing us in ways they weren’t even aware of. It can also encourage us to find a way to ask for what we need directly, rather than relying on the mind-reading skills of others.
3. What would be different if I believed they had positive intent?
How many times have you reacted strongly (negatively, of course) because in the fraction of a second between the moment the other person said or did the thing, you just knew that they intended to hurt you or make you feel [fill in the blank–stupid, ashamed, worthless…] in some way bad about yourself.
What if, instead, you assumed that they meant well, even if the execution was clumsy or even hurtful? How would that change your emotional state? What questions would you ask to gain clarity?
Whether it’s a romantic relationship, a close friendship, or a familial one, curiosity has the power to defuse, de-escalate, reconnect and restore, no matter what goes down. And every healthy relationship starts with the one you have with yourself because that’s the only one you can know for sure will always be there. Learning to lean into curiosity about yourself rather than defaulting to judgment may be just the game-changer you’re looking for.
Author: Amy Steindler is co-host of Courage to be Curious Podcast, founder of Ovation Coaching and Professional Perspective Shifter.