You certainly recall the phrase, ‘sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you’. Well, my life experience, and no doubt yours, has proven this wrong. Sound is as likely to cause us to fight or flee as much as placing our hand upon a hot stove. It can elicit the exact same automatic reflex. When was the last time you were awakened from sleep from an unknown bang or clap of thunder? How did you feel? Was your heart nice and calm and your limbs relaxed? Highly unlikely. And when sound comes in the form of words, it can cause great emotional pain.
The result of our brain detecting possible danger is the outpouring of a lot of electro-chemical juice. That juice gives us the typical feeling we feel when we are startled, but also can just as easily lead us to fight—anger and rage. When we hear the sounds of someone yelling at us, having a tantrum, blaming us, whatever, that sends a strong single to our brain that tells us we are being attacked and better prepare to fight or flee.
This not only applies to adults, of course. It is readily apparent in children. Often when a child tantrums, it elicits anger in the parent. And when anger appears, it always means our brain has detected a threat, because anger is a fight reaction. What is the threat? The threat is that this child will not end up being a good representative of that parent or is usurping the parent’s power (i.e. one-upping). Yes, it is that personal, although usually the threat sits below the level of awareness and manifests only as anger in the parent.
What I believe is more important to focus on are not the fighting words, but what has caused someone to utter them. In my estimation, the words are less important than the actual trigger and will hurt less if we recognize this. When someone goes on an angry rant, it is a fight reaction that is really saying, “I am scared, I am frustrated, I am insecure, I am vulnerable, I am threatened.” Does this give them a pass? No. But when you recognize this you can prevent yourself from getting triggered by it and thus continuing the fight.
Here are six ways to emerge a winner from an argument:
- Say, “It is apparent that you are upset. I need to excuse myself for a minute.” You can even use the excuse that you have to go to the bathroom!
- When removed, take ten “box breaths”. That is, inhale for a count of six, hold for a count of two, and exhale for a count of six.
- Repeat in your mind, “There is no danger, there is no threat, I am safe.”
- While away from the anger, attempt to figure out what is the true reason for this person to be so angry. For example, do they feel impotent because they don’t make enough money, or they are scared about a new opportunity, or they feel insecure about your relationship?
- Return back with peace of mind. Let them know that you are there for them, if they wish to discuss the issue civilly, without yelling. If not, leave again (this is not fleeing, but mindfully separating yourself from danger).
- Fully let go of any hurtful words and realize they are more about the other person’s sense of danger, threat, or vulnerability than something you ought to take personally. When you can do this, you have truly won.
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