There are a thousand and one articles out there about how the negative impacts of change in relationships. Sometimes one person changes and it pulls us in a new way or we change and push against our partners. Some changes like a breakup, relocation, or breach in trust impact how we view the other person or the relationship as a whole. No matter the relationship, one thing is always true, all things change. This here, is about the other side of that, this is about change that brings happiness. That sneaky little emotion. For some of us, there is nothing scarier than a stable loving happy place.
What is happy anyway?
In our society happiness is the assumption, the myth and the goal. Happy is rainbows and sunshine and kittens riding on unicorns. We are all told go be happy; anything else is a failure.
The truth is, if you grew up in a world that did not exude rainbows and sunshine, if you grew up walking on eggshells or worried about when the next bomb was going to go off, if you learned early on to keep you emotions locked up, you might not be “happy;” you are, however probably, a damn good survivor.
How come I struggle with “happy?”
You may have grown up learning that emotions were not to be tolerated or discussed. Maybe you were shown that life can be messy and confusing and dangerous at times. Relationships were all drama and passion until they were gone. Relationships were not to be counted on or you were told you need to be able to do it all on your own, never count on anyone else.
Your brain adapted to what it knew. That shifted your brain in ways to help you survive. On the one side you became adaptable and learned how to navigate this sort of world. That probably means you are a very competent adult who can take whatever gets thrown at them. On the other side, this life left your brain with a map of what relationships are, messy, unpredictable and unstable.
Give you a crazy chaotic hot mess to clean up and you are on it. When we live like that we learn to deal, the problem is, we start to do it too well. So, what if the danger is gone and there is no next bomb about to blow, next thing to be thrown at you? What if things were slow and happy? Happiness can be a really scary place if you don’t know how to function within it.
I have talked to more clients than I can count about this weird phenomenon that they describe of spinning out just when things get good. “I got that promotion I worked the last 5 years for but then suddenly I thought about what if I have cancer and drop dead tomorrow?” or “My stable wonderful partner wants to live with me. We are picking out picture perfect apartments. Why do I suddenly feel pure panic? I should be happy, right? Right?!”
Is it sabotage?
You’re putting the work in. As you grow and move into more stable ground, create your own relationships and families that genuinely care for you and move away from the perpetual edge, you might find that what should be a great time is actually making you more uncomfortable. The brain has been trained to watch out for the next slip up that could send us hurling over the edge and it’s freaking out because it doesn’t know how to do its job anymore. You’ve started to reduce it’s need. It’s harder to enjoy the here and now in happy town when the brains is still stuck on level red high alert.
So, what happens? You go back to what you know: chaos and mess. You start to try to protect yourself by creating conflict. This sounds counterintuitive right? You moved out of that space, fought to get away from it, and yet here it is again laying waste to happy town.
It’s that pattern of “I’m going to hurt you or run away before you can do it to me” that can really mess with our heads. Your brain is wired to keep you safe, and there is safety in what you know – good, bad or nuts – we know what we know. It was not your fault that your brain had to adapt this way. You did not choose to grow up like this, you did not choose to make this sort of map of the world. You just had to manage it all. None of it was your fault. But now you are the only one in charge of your life and choices, and you know something needs to change, but what and how?
Rewiring the Brain
We found a great relationship, we want it to continue to grow, but being happy feels too vulnerable. We know we want to change, but how? How do we avoid creating chaos or an internal mess for ourselves?
- Recognize what our brains and bodies are doing. Our brain is trying to protect us with all the what if’s. But, that can lead to lots of anxiety. We start to sweat, our heartbeats ratchet up, our minds get blurry, we start wringing our hands and pacing around. Our bodies start to act as if we are in mortal danger because our brains are up there screaming: Danger! It sets off all sorts of signals to our bodies to prepare for attack. Going, back to that old map we made of what relationships should be, we think, I can’t rely on anyone, I can’t tell them how I feel. So we react from a place of fear and insecurity. We feel as if we are about to be under attack and our brains and bodies respond accordingly.
- Break down the anxiety: When you start to feel anxious you can stop for a moment and check out what anxiety is trying to tell you? Is it warning you of a real danger or a what if danger? Anxiety that arises from this old way of living, can create a lot of what if’s, because when you lived in the unstable, you needed to know what could possibly come at you next to stay safe. But now you are safe and don’t need all the what ifs. So you have to really call that anxiety out and ask “Is the what if danger a real possibility?” and then probably even “Okay but is it REALLY a real possibility?” If you still feel like anxiety is pointing out real danger or destruction then you have to look at what can be done about it.
- Communicate your experience: Naming your feelings and talking to your loved one/s about your experience helps decrease feelings of isolation and helps challenge the lies that Anxiety feeds the mind. Stating what you’re feeling without blaming can go a long way in repairing a relationship and staying connected. You may find ways to further address those feelings through intentional connecting activities.
Let’s think through a scenario. Jane’s anxiety says “Sarah is about to leave you. You need to run before she does. DANGER level 10!!” Jane takes a moment to check this out. She asks “Why is anxiety here and what is its role?”
She realizes that first, it’s getting close to Thanksgiving and that growing up this was a holiday that always lead to big blow out fights and someone storming off. Okay, so there is an old trigger for her. She thinks about last Thanksgiving and remembers how her and Sara created a new tradition of drawing and decorating hand turkeys and they had a great time. She remembers that Sara and her have been together for several years and Jane knows Sara wouldn’t just bail on her without warning. She feels a bit better. But the anxiety is still there. So she goes and checks it out again.
The Thanksgiving trigger is covered, what else is there? Well, she has felt disconnected from Sara lately because Sara just took on a new project at work and has been putting in longer hours and is more preoccupied when they are together. Anxiety kicks in here and says something really helpful like, “I bet she thinks that you are boring because she is doing well in her job and you are still just a part time blogger.” Jane’s insecurities come into play here, and she starts to feel like Anxiety is really onto something. Anxiety has this nasty way of sneaking into our brains and sounding really convincing, it’s one of the most destructive aspects of anxiety.
Anxiety starts to dance its dance and before Jane knows it, she is picking a fight with Sara later that night after Sara gets home later than expected from work. It turns into a huge fight and Jane feels further distanced from Sara.
But all hope is not lost here. Jane might go through all this and wake up the next day really hating how it all went down. Back in her old world, there might not have been any course correcting she could do at this point, she would weather the storm and hope to make it out as unscathed as possible. However, Jane can also remember that she isn’t in that old life and she doesn’t have to take it all on her own. She can reach out to Sara and talk about what happened for her. “I felt really rejected this last week after you came home and seemed to be only focused on work instead of us.”
Jane states her feelings without putting all the blame on Sara or forcing Sara into the role of fixer. Jane could go farther by saying something like, “Last night my anxiety got the best of me and I really lost my cool. I was upset about this distance between us and also my own feelings about not being where I want to be in work came out. I think I felt a bit jealous of your work at the same time. I was caught up in my own worries and wasn’t able to talk to you.” Again, just stating what she feels without blaming Sara. They agree to reinstate a date night to connect more regularly and Jane agreed to give Sara some time after work to unwind before connecting with one another.
Riding the Wave
Happy is way less scary when we know it’s not permanent, and that that, is in fact, okay. That we can be happy, then unhappy, we can go through hard times and come out the other side together is what allows our brains to change and our relationships to grow. A bad fight doesn’t mean the end of a relationship; we don’t always have to be on guard, and we can check in with the person or people that help keep us safe and stable.
The one thing about growing up in instability is that you grew up, you made it, you know how to do chaos. If needed you can deal with anything that comes your way. Right now, it’s time to just take in the happy where you can. Realize that there is vulnerability to doing this, and that vulnerability is what leads to real strength.
© Copyright 2018 FreshPathNY.com. All rights reserved. Contributed by Lynda Martin, LMFT