Picture someone stepping on your toe. You wince and might say "ouch", and the guilty party will most likely turn around and apologize profusely. How strange would it be if they didn't, or even explained to you how it wasn't their fault, it wasn't meant that way, and you shouldn't be offended.
Now you probably don't get hurt physically every day, but what about the myriad ways in which you get hurt emotionally in any given week? A skeptical look, a snide comment, a raised eyebrow, a rude email, or an irritated tone of voice can be enough to ruin the moment, make you feel embarrassed, criticized, or insecure about your relationship with that person. In a split second your mood changes and your guard goes up, and before you know it, you’re shooting something back that reciprocates the message you perceived: "What is that supposed to mean?", "What's up with you?", or, "It's not like you ever..." and off the two of you spin into a full-blown fight.
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Did you know your brain has an entire department set aside for the sole purpose of protecting your feelings from attacks by others? We usually achieve this by either shutting down or by attacking back, but both of these defenses get triggered by the more vulnerable feelings of hurt, fear, disconnection, and shame.
Emotions researcher Brene Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." She says the most common areas to feel shame about are related to appearance, family, parenting, money, work, health, addiction, sex, aging, and religion. In other words, it's really easy for us to get triggered into feeling bad about ourselves, and thus react defensively, which in turn triggers the other person's hurt, fear, disconnection, and shame.
Vulnerability goes against our grain. When we feel hurt or embarrassment, the last thing we want is the other to see this. But if you can find the courage to speak of your own experience and feeling, rather than declaring things about what your partner is doing wrong, they are much more likely to respond with empathy and care, which is what we're all longing for ultimately.
This can be hard to do in the heat of the moment, but the first step to this is slowing yourself down next time you get angry or irritated, and feel the urge to retaliate. Next, notice what bothered you, and then choose your words carefully as you disclose what hurt you to your loved one. Try saying what you would when someone steps on your toe: as soon as you realize you're hurting, simply begin by saying "ouch."
"Ouch. What you just said hurt my feelings."
"Ouch. That is difficult to hear."
"Ouch. When you squint your eyes like that, I feel..."
"Ouch. What I was actually hoping to hear was..."
These "ouch statements" are simple and easy to remember (which is good since our thinking brain actually doesn't work very well when we're upset), and they can be said authentically and with emphasis. At the same time they are classic "I-statements" that don't accuse the other and trigger the spiral of shame, but instead work to evoke empathy and understanding, and, just like with the stepped-on toe, give your partner the chance to repair the rift in real-time.
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