“Baby, what would you think about hiring a housecleaner to help you with the deep cleaning and stuff? I mean, this is a huge house, and that could free you up to focus more on your education and herbal medicine interests, right?” he inquired earnestly. “YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!!!” she screamed wildly, hurling a ceramic coffee cup at his unsuspecting face, with the intensity of a World Series fastball. “WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS CRITICIZING ME!!! I slave away every day, and nothing’s ever good enough for you!” she continued. “Why don’t you just replace me with one of those dirty little sluts that keep chasing after you! Maybe they’ll do a better job than me!” she ranted, beginning to fizzle now from his silence. “I’m so sorry Sweetie! Is your lip OK? Let me get you some ice. I just feel so guilty and insecure because of how lazy I am, and because of how bad I treat you! I’m so sorry Sweetie!” she sobbed, now bursting into tears.
A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania, conducted by Martin Seligman and his buddies, surveyed two million people, having them rank order 24 of their strengths in specific skill areas. Self control got last place (that’s right, 24th of 24), despite its ongoing cause and effect relationship with our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Since the stress of strong negative emotions literally causes our brain to shift into survival mode, limiting thoughts, perceived possibilities, and courses of action to those associated with fighting against or escaping from a threat; when in this state we may perceive and react to things very differently. This can be especially damaging when occurring in a love relationship. Our opening dialogue exemplifies how the fight response was triggered when she experienced anxiety and guilt, and then how she returned to a more aware state when she began calming down. His silence made it easier for her to vent and de-escalate. If he had said anything at all, it would have fueled the fiery rage. From my personal and professional experience, I have found it most beneficial to work on this calamitous conundrum from both sides of the proverbial coin — prevention and active management.
From Both Sides, or No Quarter
So to gain mastery over our emotional reactions, it works best if we both create the conditions of peaceful acceptance, which can prevent most incidences of loss of control; and also increase our self awareness and ability to intervene once a reaction has commenced. Most approaches I found focus on preventing loss of control through things like meditation and mindfulness, but the reality is that there will be times when we are unable to contain the dragon; so we also need to learn how to regain control over it once it has escaped its regulation. This post applies more to our self control over emotional reactions in relationships, but could also help when faced with other self control struggles (e.g. eating, drinking, impulsive indiscretion, gambling, rumination-driven anxiety, avoidance, procrastination, excessive attention seeking, etc.). So here are some things that, if practiced, could increase our self control.
1. Increase Self Awareness: Gaining a broader view of what is really going on inside of us, especially when seen in the light of higher consciousness, will increase our self awareness, self acceptance, and self control. Greater self awareness is the first step in any healing or personal growth process. Follow the steps outlined in the article link above.
2. Be Mindful: When triggered into Survival Mode, and under the influences of the brain stem (instincts) and limbic system (emotions), we can become preoccupied with guilt from the past or fears of the future. Mindfulness places the focus on the present moment, activating the cortex (thoughts) through an observational process that turns off unnecessary instincts and emotions, while switching on our rational thinking. This broadens our perspective, increases our awareness, and offers us greater freedom and self control. Consider any of the countless mindfulness methods available via youtube, smartphone apps, or google searches.
3. Meditate: Meditation creates neural pathways that contribute to greater self control. It not only gets the focus off of unwated distractions, and creates greater calmness; but it also trains the brain to deal with stress more effectively. Practicing a simple focusing meditation for five minutes each day has been shown to increase our ability to quiet our mind and gain more control over our lower brain structures (instincts and emotions). We do not feel less, we control our emotions more, so we can feel more of what we really want to feel. A simple, practical method is focusing on the breath. We can do it anywhere, and it really works.
4. Eat Slow Burn Foods: When attempting to exert self control, our brains consume vast amounts of stored glucose. When our blood sugar is low, we are much more likely to give in to destructive impulses. Sugary treats spike our glucose levels, and then quickly plummet, leaving us drained and vulnerable to unwanted reactivity. Slow burn foods like whole grain rice or meat will give us a longer period of self control.
5. Rest Well: When we are tired, our brain cells’ ability to absorb glucose is diminished. Without brain glucose, our efforts to control ourselves are futile.
6. Dance with Desire: When your desire is strong, dance with it for a while before deciding to act. Research suggests that waiting 10 minutes will greatly increase our self control and overall effectiveness.
7. Forgive: When we try to control ourselves and fail, we often end up feeling guilt or self hatred, which makes us less able to control ourselves the next time. Forgiving ourselves and starting over each time will remove this factor from the process. We are all more or less human, and that part of us will always make mistakes.
8. Exercise: Exercise releases neuro-transmitters that make it easier for us to control our unwanted impulses. If you feel like letting someone have it, jump on your trampoline instead.
Photo Credit: Zabara Alexander