January 15, 2021

Face-to-Face With My Core Pattern (Again)

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Today, I allowed myself to get triggered.

Because I pay attention to my reliable triggers, it was obvious to me as it was happening. That doesn’t always keep me from being reactive. I watched as I moved instantly below the line. I was frustrated and righteous in my head. My heart was beating quickly.

The person on the other end of this episode is wonderful. Dedicated, kind, sharp, ambitious, thoughtful, and self-aware.

I was having my internal reaction to the triggering incident, in all its familiarity, and I paused as my blood moved at double its normal pace. I said to myself: “You are below the line. You are righteous. Anything you type right now will be abusive. Pause. You will feel differently in about 10 minutes.” I know this cycle. I’ve been working this cycle for nearly all of my years.

I lasted for a three-minute pause (progress). Then I sent a couple of texts and then picked up the phone (because I know I’m kinder on the phone than over text). As I replay the episode, I was honest about my disappointment, but I was not abusive. Still, this wonderful person also was honest. She said she was taking what I was saying personally and she felt awful.

Let me stop there for a moment to focus on what she did. She let me know how this was landing with her in a stressful moment. She revealed herself. She didn’t fold up her tent. She explained her approach, but she opened up so I could see that, even using words that were a fraction of those I once dispensed like fast-food tantrums, my disappointment was painful to her. That alone was an incredible gift. And it is an enormously sophisticated move. In the face of a battle-tested warrior, to be able to stand and acknowledge hurt takes more courage than I can even imagine as I type this sentence. And there it was.

The conversation shifted in a matter of moments. I took 100% responsibility for my actions and my reactions. She owned the one tiny thing that might have been her part. But mostly, this was all me. My lousy fear-prompts-control-especially-when-overwhelmed pattern reared its head. I felt all of the shame that shows up when I behave this way, but I shifted faster and more elegantly than I would have in years past.

Then this person, who is less than half my age, said “have you ever heard of a best-friend tiff?” In that moment, the tears on both sides fell away and were supplanted by laughter. “Yeah,” I said. “I think we just had one,” she said. And she was right. “I feel closer to you,” I said, “and I’m very sorry for my reaction.”

A mess mostly mopped up and owned in three minutes with a lot of help from both people in the conversation.

I wish like hell that I could find a means of eliminating this pattern in myself. I come to it honestly. When I was young, I wasn’t always being protected. I built my own protection system, leveraging the tools I crafted: a forceful voice, skillful argumentation, and a knack for hitting someone where it hurts most. The behavior is deeply rooted, and even if I can’t eliminate it, I can keep growing, particularly with the help of honest, caring allies bent on growing themselves.

I no longer need to fight for my safety with slings, arrows, and formidable defenses. I own it. That affords space to nurture connection and even challenge with and from those who surround me. Most of the time, I’m present enough to remember that. Yes, a few-minute conflagration followed by openness, intimacy, and feedback is a reasonable way to manage conflict. A best-friend tiff, indeed.

Still, what I’m working toward is moving even faster to connection and skipping the reactivity altogether. I’ll never be perfect, but my only shot at improving is in acknowledging this, forgiving myself (while staying open to learning), and appreciating my teacher today.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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