Defusing yourself

Last weekend, while my husband, Andrew, was riding down Springvale Rd, he encountered a large load taking up 1.5 lanes, with an outrider with a warning sign driving slightly outside and behind it. This meant that on a quiet 2 lane road, on a Sunday, 2 lanes were blocked and moving slowly.

Andrew never objects to the opportunity to draft, so he was sitting happily behind this slow moving convoy, when a guy in a sedan started to get all stroppy with him, and muscled in to get in front of Andrew. He wasn’t going any faster, but now he was in front of the bike. This is a really common scenario – even when passing a bike won’t get you ahead, in heavy traffic or behind something slow moving, some motorists feel compelled to overtake. I would like to make some sexist comment about it being an affront to their manhood, but women do it, too. There seems to be a script in the brain that runs “Bike slow. Car fast. Must overtake bike. Ug.”

So this guy worked up a head of steam, probably shot his blood pressure sky high, and then created an ideal setting for an accident, all to follow the script and get in front of the bike. The irony is that the bike then had to overtake him again, because he was turning left, as was the convoy, while Andrew was going straight.

It made me wonder – how much of our lives, and our energy, do we waste, following scripts that don’t actually apply? If we could all take an enormous chill pill, what would the world be like?

Perceived threats cause strong physiological reactions, long before our conscious brains get involved. Hearing someone shouting, seeing someone looking angry, or perceiving a physical threat triggers what Daniel Goleman calls an “emotional hijacking”.  The subconscious begins gearing up to deal with a threat, and by the time we are capable of applying our much-vaunted powers of reason to the situation, we are strung tighter than an over tuned violin, and we are already dealing with the aftermath. Often, at this point, we are justifying the outcomes of the emotional hijacking – desperately trying to prove that we were in the right, and that chopping that guy’s head off with a machete WAS TOO a reasonable response to him looking at us in a funny way.

The interesting thing is that being prepared to handle a threat often actually precipitates a threat where there was none. A case in point is dealing with my kids. When I am expecting to find a problem, it turns out that I often create one, simply by the change in my approach to them. As I become more aggressive, more uptight, and more critical, my kids respond in kind, and we both set off chain reactions in each others’ physiology that, more often than not, leads to screaming.

This week, after reading an interesting article about the power of rituals, I have taken to reciting this little mantra to myself: “Be calm. Be Patient. Empathise.”

That’s all. That’s the only thing I have changed. I have been exhausted and grumpy all week, with a permanent headache from the aftermath of a particularly nasty virus, so conditions have been all set for the usual scream-first-ask-questions-never approach to family life. And yet there hasn’t been any screaming. By repeating that mantra, I seem to have been able to short circuit the emotional hijacking, take a deep breath and approach things differently. And it seems to me that my kids are behaving differently too, yet they don’t have the mantra.

I find that intriguing. We are surprisingly simple creatures, and remarkably easily trained. In Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about a psych experiment where, just  exposing people to words that we associate with old age, such as grey, wrinkled, and helpless, caused them to walk slower. Similarly, exposing people to words about rudeness, such as rude, aggressive, and shouting, caused people to be markedly more rude. (There is a nice summary of these experiments on psyblog.)

In light of those experiments, it’s not hard to see that my little mantra could have a surprisingly powerful effect. It remains to be seen whether it lasts, of course, but in the meantime it is helping me be more like the parent I want to be. Try it yourself. Make your own mantra, recite it several times a day, and see what happens.

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One thought on “Defusing yourself

  1. Jane

    It’s been a terrible week for us too. We knew that our 35 month old boy is desperately craving for attention due to the arrival of a younger brother. He’s been throwing so much tantrums and venting his frustrations whenever he’s neglected. Me, being high in hormones and sleep deprived have been constantly in screaming matches with him. It shocked me when my 1-2-3 tactic is at threat. When hearing me counting one, my junior told me, ‘mummy, don’t count 1’. I followed the guidelines, without too much explanations I continued to two and he told me not too count two! Hoping that he’ll back off I told him that he’s going time out on the count of three and he says, ‘mummy, don’t say time-out’. Before our newborn arrives, we’ve never seen this type of behaviour in our older son. What’s happening here? Maybe I should adopt this mantra too – be calm, be patient, emphasise and listen. I’m guilt-striken because I could not give him the attention like I used before and I seemed failing to be a good parent. Good parents produce children with good behaviour; is always what I thought.

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