Have you ever said something that you regretted the moment it came out of your mouth? Have you ever spontaneously done something where, as soon as you started, you realized you were being an idiot?
Our brains scan the world constantly, associating on what’s happening, anticipating what’s going to happen next, and instantly (within a tenth of a second) activating habits of thinking and responding designed to take care of us and others.
Mostly, this is a wonderful thing. For instance, some version of the following story has almost certainly happened with you. I’m driving down the road and suddenly see a ball roll into the street. Before I even can think about it, my foot’s slamming on the breaks. My brain knows that kids chase balls, its time to stop right now, and my foot is stomping that break pedal before I’m consciously aware of what I’m doing.
On the other hand, I see destructive examples of instant, habitual responses every week in marriage therapy. Here’s a typical exchange between Mark and Sherry, a couple who are unfailingly kind to their two daughters and routinely hostile to each other. They come into the office, sit down, and I ask, “What kind of efforts did you make to love each other better this week?” Mark begins with, “Well, I tried to argue less and back off when I was angry more…” and Sherry rolls her eyes and sarcastically interrupts, “Really? Is that what you were doing yesterday when you yelled at me in front of the kids?”
Poor Mark was trying to be positive, but now his nervous system is threatened by Sherry’s hostility and he flashes back nastily, “You never give me credit for anything, do you? What about you telling me I was abusive in front of our friends? Bringing up divorce in front of them! You’re such a hypocrite!”
Before she can snap back, I interrupt, “Wait! Stop! Can you hear your violent tones? Are you listening to the insulting words you’re saying?” They both stop—confusion on their faces. The truth is, they aren’t listening to themselves hardly at all. Their defensive habits are talking, bad habit to bad habit. Mature Mark and Sherry—two people who never talk like this to their kids or friends—are basically off line. Defensive, hostile Mark and Sherry—who have lots of emotionally violent habits in relationship to each other—are in charge, bunkered down, thinking nasty thoughts, having nasty impulses, and saying mean things.
Our brains react like this in less than a tenth of a second.
Yes, that’s right, brains are wired to feel threat instantaneously and activate whatever habit is associated with that threat. With hostile couples, the habits involve amplified hurt/anger/fear/despair, distorted thoughts, destructive impulses, and diminished capacities for empathy and self-reflection.
When I interrupted, Mark and Sherry got confused because neither one is comfortable trashing me, and also because they’re being directed by an authority (me, their therapist) to be self-reflective. “Can you hear your violent tones? Are you listening to the insulting words you’re saying?” As they try to do what I ask, they both get brain lock. Their new intent to hear themselves clashes with their defensive habits of not paying attention—not acknowledging—trying to hurt someone they love. This is another reason couples rarely look into each other’s eyes when dissing one another. It’s much harder to turn off empathy when you’re looking into someone’s eyes. You have to be really angry or sadistic to look someone in the eyes while hurting them.
Our emotional, reactive, defensive selves are programmed into our brains to react to threat instantly.
Our mature, conscious, socially intelligent selves are based in the prefrontal cortex behind our eyes, and it takes up to a second and a half for conscious attention to catch up to the rest of us in a critical situation. That second and a half is huge.
By the time our conscious self shows up in these situations, the defensive state is already on line and wanting support. Our instinct is to come up with reasons to keep being hostile, just like Mark and Sherry are doing in the above example. We tend to support and rationalize our current states of consciousness rather than question if they are distorted or not. It’s often easier to look for more reasons to be mad or hurt than to question whether you might be over-reacting. If I had let Mark and Sherry keep talking they would have hammered away in an ugly dance of accelerating marital conflict. Cases would be made, injuries would be remembered, and accusations and insults would fly.
If we can be aware of defensive states, we can choose to slow down and not act badly.
What if in the above example Mark and Sherry were self-aware of their defensive states as soon as they were activated? It might look something like this:
They come into the office, sit down, and I ask, “What kind of efforts did you make to love each other better this week?” Mark begins with, “Well, I tried to argue less and back off when I was angry more…” and Sherry rolls her eyes and sarcastically interrupts, “Really? Is that what you were doing yesterday when you yelled at me in front of the kids?” Before Mark can snap back, she gets what she just did—she self-reflects on her defensive reaction—and says, “I’m sorry. I did it again. You were trying to be helpful and I cut you off. I get scared about trusting you, and push you back with my sarcasm. You have tried to argue less.”
This isn’t good enough for defensive Mark at first, “You’re damn right you did it again! You always…” but then he catches himself, “I’m sorry. Now I’m doing it. You apologized and I didn’t hear you. That’s great what you just did, noticing how you interrupted, and I know I can be scary. I’m trying to be safer.” Sherry looks at him with love and genuine appreciation, “Thank you! You just caught yourself. I love it when you do that.”
Therapy is very much about helping people catch that defensive state after it’s been accelerating for a second and a half (which is an eternity in brain time), and turn it into better love. We all need to get better at this, and most of do throughout our lives.
How can we get better faster? We can practice self-reflection when we’re hurt or threatened. We can meditate. We can ask others for help and guidance when in states of emotional duress. We can focus empathically on what others are feeling when we’re upset.
But, most of all, we need to recognize when our brain/body has activated a defensive response, and not indulge it. If we can instead reach for compassion and empathy, our brains harmonize towards love with others and ourselves.
Think of it as the second and half that can change everything.