The Emotional Intersection
I have a sweet little fur baby. She has big, round eyes and soft, silky ears just made for rubbing. She shamelessly offers free belly rubs to anyone who comes within 5 feet of her.
She’s supposed to be in training to become a therapy dog so she can come to work with me and be the warm, loving safe emotional connection so many of us are searching for while going through our stuff in therapy. She hasn’t quite gotten into that mindset. Instead, she appears to be quite happily cruising through life in permanent overexuberant puppy mode.
So for now, she’s MY personal therapy dog. We walk every morning around sunrise. We smell the bacon people are cooking; she hides behind my legs when the big, scary, loud school bus roars by; we truly stop to smell the roses. We see lots of animals along the way: deer, rabbits, chipmunks, owls. This morning we rounded the bend in the road and came across a hawk sitting atop a stop sign. I laughed at the irony of how he sat on the sign, both STOP and he facing drivers as they pulled up to the intersection.
The message of STOP telling drivers to not go any farther and the hawk backing up this message with his menacing glances for the small movements of prey seemed in opposition to the desire of drivers who wish to keep going towards their destination and the desire of prey to seek shelter from the predator.
Truly an intersection of opposing instincts, desires, and goals.
I see this intersection quite often as I listen to the stories of my clients and hear their frustration in feeling stuck in the same relationship cycles that play out over and over again. It’s an emotional intersection. A place where STOP and GO intersect and work against one another. A place where our logical brain tells us to follow the rules to be safe and our emotional brains tells us to do something, do anything, to make our anxiety, depression, pain go away NOW.
I ask my clients what this intersection in their lives is trying to tell them. What does this intersection want you to know? I usually get one of two reactions. One reaction is a puzzled expression followed by “I don’t understand.” The other reaction is an eye roll and an exasperated retort of “It’s saying STOP or GO. What else is there to know?”
There is something else to know. If STOP were a red light indicating to do nothing and GO were a green light indicating full speed ahead, then the something else to know is found in the yellow light sandwiched in between. It’s PAUSE. It’s the place of slowing down, becoming aware, and taking note of what is happening in the moment.
Slowing down to take in and consider all that is happening in the moment as we choose between STOP and GO is the place where we begin to grow. It’s the place we learn skills like distress tolerance, how to intentionally not use the Gottman 4 Horsemen and instead use their antidotes, learn more about the childhood traumas and patterns whose impact causes us to react in flight, fight, or freeze mode; how to just sit in the moment and take it all in without feeling pressured to act. The yellow light in between is the place where we begin breaking our past cycles and begin making new choices.
My puppy jumped back when she saw the hawk there. Her instinct told her to be cautious. I watched her stop, tilt her head, and observe the hawk for his reaction. He never glanced in her direction. One quick shake of the ears by her and we were off again. Her pause had allowed her to recognize she was safe and could move forward with confidence.
The emotional intersection. Instinct tells us to become emotionally safe by STOP or GO. PAUSE tells us to slow down, become aware, gather information, and assess the true level of emotional threat before making a decision. So try that the next time you find yourself feeling stuck choosing between STOP of GO. Slow down, look in all directions, proceed with confidence. And channel your inner puppy!
Embrace your best self! Anne