Breath, Body, Need / Communication Hack
Or How to Douse Inflamed Reactions with a Splash of Cold Water
I Facetime’d my boyfriend and told him I was upset with my dad. I started to read him the text exchange between my dear ol’ pa and I. I watched him roll his eyes on the screen at me. He said “I’m on Phil’s side on this one.” That’s the wrong response, I thought. I felt defensive and disappointed. My body deflated.
I sat this morning reading the New York Times, shadowing my fingers with ink as I flipped through page after page of pandemic reporting. I smudged my coffee mug with mortality statistics. I could feel my heartbeat close to the surface in my chest. I felt like a warm mouse being squeezed in an unsteady hand. Uncomfortable.
Self-connection practices and Non-Violent Communication offer simple strategies to process our emotional reactivity. I use these practices for two main reasons.
- As part of a choice to shift my perspective from blame towards compassion, for myself and people with whom I am in all kinds of relationships.
- In recognition that my body is an essential part of my exploration of consciousness. If I can understand and connect to my physical experience of emotion, I step towards agency and active participation in my life.
I felt frantic while I read the newspaper. My mind near-instantaneously attributed threatened language to this experience; “something is wrong.” My body was in a low-level Fight Flight or Freeze (FFF) reaction. John Kinyon’s work on Self-Connection Practice (SCP) suggests a simple exploration:
- Breath - Take a deep one, or two, or three.
- Body - locate sensation in the body. I would have described it as anxiety, and physically I noticed: tightness in my jaw, pressure across my chest, audible heartbeat.
- Need - what is the universal need / unmet need being expressed in this experience? The need for safety.
Cycle through these steps of attention until a sense of calm is restored. If your agitation does not subside, try this additional step:
- Can I hear a please? - This step asks of yourself or another person, “What is being asked of me?” It shifts the frame from judgment towards a request. In the example of my anxiety provoking news consumption, the request might be “Could you please put the newspaper down?” OR “Could you please not read the news while you caffeinate?”
What I love about this practice is that it reminds us that mindful awareness lives in the body.
What about my Facetime fumble? In real time I started to justify my anger at my dad. I tried to convince my partner of my position, for a sentence or two then: “I don’t need to explain this.” He said “Sorry. If I’m getting defensive it’s because I can see myself doing the same thing your dad did.” (too classic right? Really sticking to our roles.) We recovered quickly.
Making observations in low-stakes situations like this trains my mind for practice in deeper waters. I observe that when he said he was on my dad’s side I had an immediate physical response. What I named disappointment and defensiveness lived in my body as heaviness, sweat, and a squeezing in my throat. Could I apply the SCP steps? Am I allowed to pause in the middle of a conversation and breathe, notice my body, identify the unmet need that is causing my phsysio-emotional response and make a request of myself or my partner?
The answer is yes. What better time than a paradigm-shifting global pandemic to refuse harmful conventions, side-step habits, experiment, radicalize communication, and claim evolving ways of connecting to other human beings?
What would it look like?
I could say, “Can you hang on a minute while I take a deep breath? I feel tense.” OR “Hey I’m going to take a deep breath and calm my body down. I feel really defensive.” I alert my partner openly to my experience, giving him real time information rather than expecting him to guess at my reactivity and place the escalation squarely in the physical realm where it can be navigated.
Use your attention to engage with reactivity.
Connect your reactions to needs.
And stay curious about our experience.
As always these practices are experiential and only thus known in all of their character and utility. Be fascinated by your mind and….