At the height of Madeline’s upset, Jamie gestured with the palms of his hands in a downwards motion as he repeated these words, “Calm down”. Although his demeanour appeared to be steady, his tone was underlined with panic. Madeline’s anxiety escalated in response. Jamie repeated himself, a little more forcefully this time. Madeline, at this point, withdrew completely and the connection derailed.
This kind of approach doesn’t work and here are the reasons why:
- A person in emotional distress is unlikely to respond to pure logic
What the distressed person requires is emotional atunement from the other which engages the limbic, or emotional, part of the brain. You can instantly reach and connect with a person in emotional distress by feeling and sensing them, rather than demanding and directing them to be a certain way that is outside of their current experience. Approach it more in terms of aiming for an energetic quality or a willingness to be together with them in whatever they are experiencing. This level of enquiry and care can be hard to enact if you yourself are triggered by the intensity of emotion the distressed person is displaying.
Here are some ways Jamie could have let Madeline know he is here with her in her struggle (emotional mutuality):
“I can see you’re really upset. How can I best support you right now?”
“I’m sorry that you’re upset. Can you tell me more about that?”
“I’m here with you. I’d like to hear you and understand what’s happening for you.”
“Would you like a hug?”
“Can I hold you?”
“What would you like from me right now?”
Essentially you will both need to trust the process and ensure neither of you exit prematurely to reduce further emotional injury to either party. In the case above, Jamie has the opportunity to create an atmosphere of safety and calmness through the degree of care and atunement to Madeline that he embodies and enacts. Creating a safe container for Madeline will allow her currently overwhelming emotions to integrate and be expressed more cohesively and with a progressively lessening charge. This will serve both of them well.
2. The person saying the words “Calm Down” is usually avoiding acknowledging their own mounting fears
If you want to move through this experience in a more mature, non-abandoning, connected, non-destructive and evolving way then both parties need to be honest about what’s going on for them. The person in witness to the person in distress (Jamie) would ideally acknowledge and communicate their mounting fear or other feelings they are having in response. It’s important to communicate this in a way that doesn’t shame or invalidate the person in distress, which is what saying ‘Calm Down” usually does. Since they are already upset, then effectively shut down by words like ‘calm down’, this adds to their existing pain.
A person in distress responds well to being supported and getting an immediate sense that you are on their side. You want to show them that you genuinely care about what’s going on for them in their inner world as well as minimally expressing what might be going on for you. At this point, if you talk too much about yourself and your process, the distressed person will no longer feel you are there with them. Relationship offers the opportunity to grow into being able to tolerate not just your own emotions but to be a safe harbour for the emotions of your partner in a way where you can adjust and avail your presence to the strongest priority whilst not neglecting the marginalised one. If you find yourself attempting to shut down the distressed person’s experience by wanting them to be instantly calm (or shutting down their reality in some other fashion) so that you don’t have to feel uncomfortable, it would be wise to get some support for yourself so you can work through your own emotional resistances and explore the origin of these patterns and blocks.
Some ways Jamie could have responded without abandoning or pushing against Madeline nor abandoning himself:
“I’m starting to feel uncomfortable, which makes it really hard for me to be here for you. I’d like to take 5 minutes of time out with myself and then come back to hear you so I can be here for you. Is that okay with you?”
“I’m really scared right now. I feel helpless. I want to fix this for you and I don’t want to feel what I’m feeling but I know that’s not the way to deal with it.”
“I’m feeling overwhelmed and I want to find a way to be here for you.”
Relationship offers the opportunity to grow into being able to tolerate not just your own emotions but to be a safe harbour for the emotions of your partner in a way where you can adjust and avail your presence to the strongest priority whilst not neglecting the marginalised one.
3. Avoiding the deeper emotions can create more discord later
When someone trusts you enough to be reveal their deeper pain and hurt, it can be a tremendous opportunity to create a deeper bond. By working through the emotions you both have, which might be buried underneath the habit of denying them, you have the opportunity to do some of the most deepest healing work together, which cannot be done alone. The fact of the matter is that relational wounds require new relational experiences to rewire the old patterns that stay stored in your nervous system and physiology. Humans are driven to heal, transform and self-actualise, so why not use these relationship ruptures as a stepping stone to your own evolution and your partner’s whilst simultaneously creating secure attachment for you both. Granted, it’s not a predictable, neat process but it is immensely satisfying to know that you’ve taken yourself experientially further than you were able to go before when you were a wee, little child.