How can we become more effective communicators with our loved ones? Let’s take a look at an ingredient in communication that often challenges many of the couples and families I see in therapy. We’re talking, of course, about emotional reactivity.
Emotional reactivity in relationships appears to occur when an individual experiences intense, unpleasant feelings in response to a trigger – that is, something that someone says or does. The reactivity starts within a person, and then cascades outwardly in the public space to be noticed and reacted to by others. These beginning moves can provide the basic mechanics of conflict.
Now, one way of working skillfully with emotional reactivity is to recognize the source from which it originates. You might think that reactivity originates from the trigger; However, the origin of the reaction starts with the ego. It is my hope that you will feel invited to take a second look at what the ego actually is, and become better able to recognize how it plays a role in becoming emotionally reactive. By the end of reading this, you might just have access to a new perspective on your experiences that can give you a better handle on navigating unpleasant feelings, and become a more effective communicator.
Permit me to orient you to how I even arrived at this way of relating to difficult experiences. Last year, I underwent a spiritual awakening. My adventures into the world of insight meditation – largely brought on by occupational exposures in continuing educational trainings – led me down the rabbit hole into a world that my ego was not prepared for.
Typically, when clinicians are espousing the mental health benefits of mindfulness, they are pointing to:
- Reduced rumination
- Stress reduction
- Boosts to working memory
- Better performance on measures of attention and focus
- Less emotional reactivity 😉
- More cognitive flexibility
- Relationship satisfaction
- And more
And those were all, “worth giving it a go.” But, my obsessive interest in the self-observational, contemplative practices didn’t stop there.
Several years ago I purchased the book Waking Up, by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, philosopher, and prominent member of the so-called, “New Atheists”. The book exposed me to another approach to meditation called Dzogchen, which can help to awaken to non-dual awareness. This was a different tradition from the insight, or Vipassana traditions that are commonly prescribed in psychotherapy. The main thrust of the book looks at realizing this crucial insight that the Self, with a capital “S”, is an illusion. I was hooked. I was coming across claims in the book that the “I” in this sentence is not actually real; Well … real, but not true.
Let’s come back to the story after a brief disclaimer.
Now before I go any further into this way of speaking, for the purposes of the lay audience, I should clarify something here: I’m not talking about the loss of Self that occurs in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as the “flow state … being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies…”. That loss of Self is almost always associated with pleasant sensations.
The loss of Self I’m referring to here is “permanent”. I put that word in quotes because the realization is permanent, but the ego, as it is want to do, always seems to bounce back into “control”. Experiencing depersonalization is a prominent symptom in dissociative disorders and in many non-dissociative disorders. What I’m getting at here is that this route to improving how you communicate with yourself and others is not for everyone.
“The lack of proper set and setting in the Western meditative context can lead to a dissolution of ego that is absent of the support or resources required to make sense of it. The depersonalization that occurs through meditation, drugs, or mental disorder can nudge one into a dangerous state, as occurred in the case of Sharon Stern.” – Alex Tzelnic, Zen Practitioner and Writer
Back to the story…
Please consider the analogy of two poles of a battery – the positive charge end, “Yes, there is a Self” and the negative charge end, “No, there is no Self, only the illusory appearance of a Self”. We don’t have to claim that one is true and the other isn’t. We can consider how we hold the paradox that both can be experienced, Self and No-self, depending on where our attention is at a given moment in time.
After reading Waking Up, and purchasing the corresponding meditation app of the same name, I began my Dzogchen practice, looking for my “no-self”. On the meditation app, Sam gives pointers such as, “Look for what is looking”, and “Turn attention upon itself”. Needless to say this can be very frustrating for a Self that cannot find the apparent lack of its existence. My quest to glimpse my no-self was failing.
Then, my ego and I came across a course within the app called “The Headless Way”, led by Richard Lang, a student of Douglas Harding, author of The Science of The 1st Person. This course, essentially, helps an individual conduct scientific investigations into the nature of one’s subjective conscious awareness. Well, it didn’t take 5 grams of psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – to experience ego dissolution. It just took doing the experiments.
Going through the headless way allowed me to “see” my no-head. I was now headless. But of course, technically speaking, nothing new has actually happened. It’s not as if I lost my head. I just discovered that I had never had it to begin with. Recognizing this insight has implications for how we can relate to our ego. It helps one see what’s really going on when an individual experiences emotional reactivity. Let’s place this into the context of a couples therapy session.
Let’s take a fake couple, Ariana and Dave. Ariana criticizes Dave for not sticking to his commitments. She’s tired of the empty promises and the lack of follow through. Dave hears this and immediately gets defensive, calling her a hypocrite that she makes similar promises that end up disappointing him. He also can’t believe that she doesn’t notice all of the times when he does follow through on his commitments.
What’s happening here is the battling of two egos. Ariana and Dave are the proud owners and operators of a human ego. Now, when we can recognize the lack of solidity of the ego, it allows us to relate to it, and one another differently. It allows us to avoid becoming ensnared in an ego story that gives immediate rise to emotional reactivity. When Dave gets defensive from his wife’s criticisms, he is lost in the story that his ego is telling him, “She’s being totally unreasonable here. I can’t believe she doesn’t see what a hypocrite she’s being.” He seems to be helplessly suffering from an “ego flare up”. If Dave does not recognize what exactly his ego is doing, he is doomed to get sucked into the same old conflict with his wife over and over again.
On the other hand, if Dave can witness this “flare up”, for what it really is, he can, more or less, immediately drop into an open-hearted, curious, compassionate stance with his partner without any attachment to his ego needs. As Richard Lang puts it, he can “become open space” for his partner to occupy. He takes a mental posture that is free from “taking it personally”. By re-recognizing what his ego actually is, Dave can authentically explore his partner’s side of the conflict with equanimity, genuine open-hearted curiosity, and validate her experience without any sense of betraying himself or his needs.
Emotional reactivity can only get a foothold when there is an ego that is telling a story. Your ego is an inescapable part of your humanity.
- It is also the vehicle that contains and describes your values, and how those values are rank ordered.
- It “individuates” you from other individuals.
- It tries to keep you safe from threats.
- It focuses you close in on what you desire.
- And yes, it remembers how you were injured in the past.
This methodology of improving communication skills takes some time to develop. But oh boy, is it effective once realized. Now if you’ll excuse me, my ego is telling me that I’ve been looking at this computer screen for far too long.
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.