“The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” – Shirley MacLaine
My boyfriend, Rich, has always been a stickler for a clean kitchen, which, of course, is a wonderful quality to find in a man. He meticulously prepares the dishes for the dishwasher, which involves scrubbing the pots and pans until, in my opinion, they look clean enough to put back in the cabinet. But, recently when Rich mentioned that it was time to get a new kitchen sponge, and, while we were at it, we “should really get steel wool” I have to admit I froze for just a bit. Remember how the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding put Windex on everything in order to cure it? Well, my mother was just like that – but with steel wool. She would eye any burned, charred, melted or stuck food on any metal pan and then triumphantly proclaim, “We’ll get the steel wool!”. It was a somewhat endearing – and yet annoying – part of her obsessive personality.
The anxious and reptilian part of my brain has a logic that went something like this. Psst! Did you hear that!? Rich loves steel wool too! Your mother loved steel wool and was really obsessive about a lot of things. Therefore, you have found a partner who is just like your mother and you will have the same relationship with Rich as you did with her! Oh nooooo!!! Thoughts like these can still go through my brain even after almost four years of having a relationship with Rich that definitely does not resemble anything like the one I had with my mother.
OK, breathe in. Breathe out. Have you ever had that experience? It is difficult to settle into and enjoy a fantastic, loving and very functional relationship while obsessively scanning for any sign – no matter how small – of the dysfunctional relationship that you may have experienced with someone else. Unfortunately, we should never underestimate the ability of our fearful minds to convince us that there is actually something to worry about. Much of the power behind any anxiety is our belief that the anxiety we feel is actually a confirmation that our deepest fears are true. Fortunately, they are not. Anxiety is just that – a feeling and nothing more.
Operating from a base of fear and survival is sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain”. This label is meant to remind us that we humans have an animalistic side to us that can sometimes take over in times of stress. It is during these times that we disconnect from our spiritual and emotional selves and operate in survival mode. A very negative view can take over.
The reptilian brain is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it serves a very important purpose. It is our survival mechanism and its job is to warn us of potential dangers. It protects us. Sometimes, however, if we have had a bad experience in the past – like a dysfunctional relationship- this survival mechanism can get a little overstimulated. In other words, it can perceive potential danger in a situation when there is absolutely no danger present.
Back to Rich and that steel wool . The benefit of growing up in a highly dysfunctional family is that I got into therapy really early. I learned early on that the less self-aware of a person you are, the more likely you are to get into relationships that are the same as the relationships you experienced in your original family. If you grew up in a fairly functional family, this is not a big deal. If you grew up with the Munsters, however, this is a very big deal. It was always clear to me that I had to do a lot of field research amongst some pretty normal people before forming any lifetime relationships. Believe me, I have done my homework.
Nevertheless, my reptilian brain still rears its ugly head once in a while. Let’s take a situation where a lot more than obsessive cleaning was at issue. Rich and I got into an argument about something a couple of weeks ago. We talked it out and resolved it in fairly short order. I hate having arguments with Rich, since it is such a disruption from our usual harmonious and happy connection but of course, it is sometimes very necessary. Even so, it takes me a while to ease back into our normal connection. So, the morning after our argument, when Rich was really late in calling me, my reptilian brain took a little trip down Dysfunctional Relationship Memory Lane.
Now, usually Rich is great about checking in with me. He calls, consistently and predictably, when he says he will. He checked in with me from the beginning of our relationship, even though I had never asked him to do this. This practice of his makes me feel very secure and I appreciate his level of responsibility and commitment. The guy shows up. Big time. That being said, no one is perfect and once in a while he’ll be late or forget his phone somewhere. On this particular morning, his tennis schedule was changed around so I didn’t receive his call when I normally would expect to.
Dysfunctional Relationship Memory Lane brought me back to how my mother would react after an argument. She would say very little during the argument, but at some point afterward – you never really knew when or where – she would do something really vindictive. It was kind of like those mob movies where the good guy is innocently walking down the street and the bad guy is hiding in the alleyway with a shovel. This is not exactly a functional way to resolve conflict. Now, I know Rich doesn’t have a vindictive bone in his body. However, the hypervigilance I developed as a kid, which protected me very well from getting hit in the head with the proverbial shovel, was on high alert. Could it be that Rich was deliberately neglecting to call me out of revenge for our argument the night before? My rational self said of course not. My reptilian brain wasn’t so sure, however.
Separating the past from the present can be hard to do in the midst of stress. The right relationship is one in which all those wounds can come out from their hiding places in order to be healed. They are experienced with a person who is very different from the person who was the source of the wounds. Repeated experiences and reassurances with the new person, with whom we experience a very safe and healthy relationship, enables us to calm the reptilian brain and assure it that it need not be on high alert anymore.
We pick people for the right reasons, if we pick them consciously and with a great deal of self-awareness. Trusting ourselves that we have done the work enables us to settle in to enjoy the hard work that results in a harmonious, joyful relationship. But it can take time and patience. The next time you find yourself assuming that your partner, co-worker, friend, neighbor or child has a malicious intent, be sure to check that your reptilian brain isn’t doing the thinking.
“Use no relationship to hold you to the past, but with each one each day be born again.” – A Course in Miracles