When volcanic emotions erupt from seemingly nowhere--it can feel like you and your parent, your partner, your roommate, or your child have just been sucked into a fiery pit.
Everything was fine just one hot second ago!
But not now.
Now, all of a sudden, you are in what The Gottman Institute calls The Roach Motel. Suddenly, you are in a place with no exit, and nothing feels safe or real anymore.
The Amygdala Hijack
This is the land of the amygdala hijack, where your fight/flight/freeze/faint response kicks in. You are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. Now it’s a matter of survival. You no longer have the ability to think with your frontal cortex, because your whole body is screaming: This is dangerous! We need to knock this person out or run like hell.
How do we deal with this? Well--it is complex.
We want to deal with it consciously and rationally.
But this is REALLY hard to do when your brain is on fire with stress hormones!
So you need quick access to tools that you already know how to use—so you can walk away from that pit instead of falling in.
Pre-Step One: DISCERN
The very first thing first thing you want to do--way before you get into dangerous territory--is to engage in discernment. Remember: discernment is not available to you when you’re feeling attacked. Discernment has to happen when you are:
in a safe space,
have the ability to journal,
have the ability to process with a therapist,
and/or have the ability to breathe in.
Bottom line: to discern, you need space that allows you to really tune into your own truth.
Here's how it works
Back in March, I was in the room with a person who is extremely dear to me, a family member—and some explosive craziness came out of seemingly nowhere. I was literally stunned.
Now I have for many years been in discernment to understand all my family relationships.
Is this, at its base, a safe relationship?
In this case, I have landed on Yes.
Discernment is critical with all your family members and with everybody in your life.
And . . . to be clear: sometimes I'm the crazy-making person. Sometimes I'm the person who is spewing crazy words into the shared space. In this particular case, I was the recipient--but it could have been the other way.
In any case, because I had done that discernment, I knew what to do with this the sudden tsunami. I could feel my own amygdala hijack trying to emerge many, many times In the course of the next crucial 10 minutes.
Only 10 minutes?
And here’s the thing: if it had taken over, the trauma would have lasted all day long.
There would have been no further connection that day.
There would have been no opportunity for nice, safe, fun, good connection.
There would have been more hurt to deal with later. With interest.
Step One: Ground Myself and See Myself
People talk a lot about grounding.
But how do your ground yourself?
Well, I have a ton of tools for grounding. One that I often teach is alternate nostril breathing.
But you are probably not going to do alternate nostril breathing when the crazy hits!
Here's what you can do instead:
But sometimes, it is not.
This is why it's crucial to practice.
If you practice, then, when you are in the "performance," you know what to do.
The body will start to do the right things automatically.
Grounding myself is what allows me see myself.
As an observer.
As if I were someone else:
Here's this woman. Wow, this is a lot for her to take in. She's going to need some help.
I really recommend switching your self-talk to 3rd person whenever you need to see yourself and re-gain self-compassion. Because the person attacking you is not going to offer this. So go to that third person narrative. Stay in the observer position. Narrate what you "see."
This is crucial for stopping the amygdala hijack before it takes over.
Step TwO: Repeat Back
This is a game changer. It really is. And it is totally anti-intuitive. Nobody wants to do this when they are feeling attacked. It's easy to do it when you're in a place of love and compassion, but it takes real grit to do it when someone is attacking you.
But it is utterly transformative to simply repeat back, from a neutral ,grounded position, what the other person is saying.
Here's the formula:
What I hear you saying is . . .
and then you repeat back word for word what you heard.
This is hard.
No interpretations allowed.
No I don't like what I heard.
You are simply a grounded, neutral mirror of reality.
Again—this is not easy.
And this is why you want to only do this with people that you have consciously determined that you want to have in your life.
If you repeat back with a person who is narcissistic or who you have determined is not a safe person in your life--this is not going to end well for you!
You may just need to exit the situation ASAP.
Bring discernment in to determine if this person is overall is a good person. A person who usually acts in ways that are supportive of you. Is this just a one-off moment or a repetitive old wound opening up?
Step Three: See The Other PErson
Now you may actually have the capacity to actually see the other person, as you already see yourself (See STEP ONE)
And you can get curious:
Is this right, is this right?
And you mean it. You're not being sarcastic.
I really want to know if I am understanding you.
Am I getting this right?
AND stay with yourself, too!
Anytime you feel yourself ungrounded, you need to feel your feet, sense your breath.
Wow—this is a lot. This person is dealing with a LOT. Can I keep doing this?
Maybe I'm at the end of my capacity, and the amygdala hijack is taking over. I'm feeling faint. I’m feeling frozen. I feel like I can’t move. I feel like I need to fight. I feel like I need to get out of here--fast!.
That may be the place that you actually need to exit.
And that's totally fine.
As long as you make an exit promise:
I need to take a break right now. I’m in overwhelm. I can revisit this again in half an hour.
(45 minutes. Tomorrow. No later than 2 days.) I am at capacity now.
Then, you get to exit.
And you need to be okay with the reality that the other person is going to maybe have some feelings of abandonment about this.
And that sucks. It really sucks, but as long as you have done the work: "Can I stay grounded? Can I see myself? Can I see them? Is this at base a safe relationship?” you are NOT abandoning them.
All of that groundwork allows you to get to that point where you can engage in an exit that is not an amygdala-hijack flee-move.
You're not just like: I'm out of here.
And, if possible, exiting while you are more aware and less triggered--this is going to be beneficial for you, for the other person, and for the relationship.
Shifts can happen--with Skills already practiced
It was a really hard 10 minutes.
But I knew I had the skills and the capacity to handle.
And there was a shift, and it was over.
And I didn’t try to fix that I was right—though I was pretty sure I was.
I didn’t try to understand where that person was coming from
Because I couldn’t.
I was able to simply hear them out.
And that was a game changer.
Lynnea Annette is an executive life coach who supports professional women who feel the stress of working hard and being under-appreciated.