Have you ever noticed how easy it is to get triggered by corrections or disagreements? This is especially true if we grew up with toxic shame that sent messages that communicated, “You are bad.” Any hint from another person that sounds or feels like a toxic shame message and defenses will rise up. When that happens, the Relational Circuits are off and we are now in non-relational mode. Since we cannot relate to a defense mechanism; only to another person, it seems vital to authentic relationships that we understand some things about this dilemma. Perhaps looking at some questions will be helpful. (For more on this topic, check out this book.)
What does it mean to be in non-relational mode (Relational Circuits off)?”
When we are in a non-relational mode with our relational circuits off, we are not acting like our true selves because the defenses are up. Defense mechanisms include anger, shame, accusing, blaming, controlling, withdrawing, and redirecting. When these attitudes or actions are going on, we cannot relate because the one defending is either attacking or withdrawing. But if we do not know this, we will continue to try to get through to the person whose Relational Circuits are off. It is useless; the brain is melted down and non-relational.
Most fights/arguments develop when Relational Circuits are off and we continue trying to relate as if they were on. Whether it is a child throwing a tantrum or an adult protecting him or herself from feeling bad about themselves, Wisdom says, “Back off, calm down, and wait. I cannot relate to this defense mechanism. Maybe later. . . Maybe with a third party. . . Maybe never.”
“How do I know when Relational Circuits are off?”
It can be difficult in the heat of feeling triggered by toxic shame to recognize that our Relational Circuits, or another person’s, are off. Most of us have a lifelong habit of getting defensive. But through hard work, desire and practice, we can begin to notice that we have gone into non-relational mode. Ed Khouri and Dr. Jim Wilder have a quick checklist that can help:
“I just want to make a problem, person or feeling go away. I don’t want to listen to what others have to say. My mind is locked onto something upsetting. I don’t want to be connected to someone I usually like. I just want to get away, fight or freeze. I more aggressively interrogate, judge and fix others.”
Noticing any of these feelings/attitudes can help us stop and get our circuits on before we hurt someone we love.
“How does interacting change when someone’s Relational Circuits are off?”
People who are in non-relational mode usually react in one of two ways. In one of my small group we call them “bears” or “turtles.” At first glance we might quickly discern that it’s important in relationships to never poke the bear if there is one around. And we might see how much easier it is to be in relationship with a turtle. Taking that stance could lead us to believe that bears are “bad” and turtles are “good.” That thinking can cause some real problems since the two seem to attract each other. So I want to point out in our list above of defense mechanisms that one of them is a turtle defense—withdrawing. Turtles do not appear to be as hurtful as their counterpart–bears–but withdrawing can be a powerful weapon of defense and hurt as well. Both types of defense are non-relational mode with the Relational Circuits off.
If having authentic relationships is important, then there is nowhere in them for fear. Bears and turtles both are operating from fear: Fear of rejection, fear of confrontation, fear of hearing where they need to change, fear of feeling bad about oneself. In order to have an authentic, intimate relationship, bears and turtles need healing from their triggers, and courage to interact kindly with give and take.
“How do I get my Relational Circuits back on?”
There are physical exercises that can help get the RC’s back on. In the center of the chest on each side of the sternum, the vagus nerve (it runs parallel down the center of the body) is closest to the surface of our skin. By tapping back and forth with each hand (fingers) we can reset the brain and bring the RC’s back on. At the same time we say the verse, “Whenever I am afraid, (upset, angry, etc) I will trust in You, O Lord.” (Psalm 56:3) Thinking of something that we appreciate will also reset the RC’s. This can be anything that makes us feel warm and cozy or like saying, “Ahhh.” (See blogs in April 2011, Calming the Brain Parts 1, 2, 3)
“Can I help another get their Relational Circuits back on?”
Depending on the relationship, the maturity and the situation, if we have our RC’s on, we can gently help another. Before trying to help someone who is upset and non-relational, we have to first synchronize with them, meeting them where they are with understanding. There are times when it is best to wait until everyone is calm and then talk again. It does not help to pretend like the incident never happened. But again, there has to be some maturity and skills for repairing. Some people do not have the maturity to discuss differences without going into defense mode. If we truly want to have deep relationships we will do the hard work it takes to make that happen.
LOVE DOES NO WRONG TO A NEIGHBOR. Romans 13:10a.
THERE IS NO FEAR IN LOVE. 1 John 4:18a