Let’s cut right to the chase.
The answer: The most important mistake you’re making when you fight with your family member is…
…being lost in your own protective emotions, many of which reliably keep your attention aimed on the other person. You get sucked into protecting yourself, defending yourself, explaining yourself, or maybe even numbing yourself. Does this fit with your experience?
There is a way to wake up from this mistake, again, and again. And it requires? … you guessed it; Awareness of your feelings. It also requires the courage to keep your attention curiously set on what is arising inside of you, before focusing back on the other person.
Here’s what happens to me.
I get lost in my anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, shame, guilt, disgust, you name it. And the trap that you, I, and everyone we know perpetually fall into is that we act out our feelings without pausing to notice what’s happening inside of us. The moment we act out our feelings, our attention becomes outwardly focused. And fair enough, because we have learned that we need to pay attention to what is happening outside of our bodies in order to protect our bodies from potential danger, be it physical or emotional.
When you are in conflict with a loved one, the majority of your attention tends to focus on what they are saying about you. Right? Or what they are saying about themselves (such as how hurt their feelings are) that ultimately implicates you. Is this right? Then, the human ego complex does what it does best: It takes it personally. Our defensive reactions are born out of us hopelessly falling into the same conditioned habit of mind that we’ve done our whole entire lives.
Once you get this, it is like the most wonderful superpower you can imagine.
Here’s an alternative to making this mistake:
We pause. (Because, of course. It always starts with a pause, right?)
And this time, instead of getting lost in the emotion, or possessed by the emotion, or – in the meditation community’s terminology – becoming identified with the emotion…this time, let’s notice how different it feels to identify the emotion.
Let’s practice together with a brief experiment to illustrate the point.
We’re going to practice noticing the difference between the felt sensations of being identified with an emotion and separately witnessing the emotion as an experience that is being noticed by the Self, the one we call “I”.
Now, silently say to yourself as you feel this emotion:
“I am angry.”
And just for a moment, fully feel what that’s like to feel this emotion and be completely blended with it.
Don’t read ahead. Allow yourself to actually practice this right now.
Notice any thoughts, images, and sensations in the body as you softly whisper with the voice of your mind:
“I am angry.”
…What did you notice?
And now, shift your relationship to the emotion by saying this, silently to yourself:
“I feel anger.”
…And just notice this slight, subtle shift of relationship to the feeling. Feeling this difference, fully, for just a moment.
And now shift once again. Silently saying to yourself:
“I am aware of feeling anger.”
…And fully experience this shift in relationship to awareness, feeling, and emotion.
…And now shift into being this awareness that’s feeling the emotion.
Pro tip: Being the awareness means being fully separated from the emotion, so that instead of feeling blended with the anger, you’re experiencing calm, curious, compassion for the anger.
So, now, from this calm, curious, compassionate state of being, silently say to yourself:
“Anger is welcome.”
And just feel what it’s like as calm, curious, compassionate awareness witnessing and welcoming the anger.
This is the alternative to being lost in an emotion. You can witness and allow the fullness of the emotion, with more clarity.
Practice this, until you experience what these different states feel like. Once you get this, it is like the most wonderful superpower you can imagine. Chances are, almost everyone you know does not know how to do this. And yet, I am 100% confident that you will be able to. Because all it takes is practice.
Once you get good at becoming calm, curious, and compassionate about your own inner experiences, this will translate to becoming a wonderfully accepting and compassionate person in the presence of even the most difficult family members.
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.