Reflections based on our podcast with JD Kalmenson and Katherine Woodward Thomas
Going through the pandemic lock-downs, being away from our school, or work environments, churches, concerts, and the many other venues for social interaction, has caused us to remember just how important our connections with others are for our overall well-being.
For the large majority of us, our relationships are key to how we feel about ourselves, our identity, and our sense of value in the world. Healthy relationships are one of the most important cornerstones of life. In this week’s Discover U podcast, JD Kalmenson speaks with Katherine Woodward Thomas about relationships, mental health, and how conflict, navigated well, can deepen and expand our connection with ourselves and others.
You can find the podcast here:
Reflections on Relationships, the topics covered in the podcast.
According to Katherine’s research, nature designed us to be interdependent. Our bodies regulate to the somatic patterns of our partners and friends. Studies have shown that when people with close emotional bonds spend time together, their heart rates, blood pressure, and even brain waves, synchronize with each other. Relationships help us to regulate our emotions. Healthy relationships can provide a sense of safety and stability in a chaotic world.
Relationships Ups and Downs
As everyone knows who’s ever had a relationship, and that’s all of us, they are not without ups and downs. When things are going well, we get to experience ourselves at our best, most generous and fun-loving. However, when we hit bumps in the road, a lot of us get reactive, defensive, and fall into negative emotional states.
Clashes of opinion do not necessarily have to lead to a disruption of the relationship or the onset of negative emotions, however. JD and Katherine talk about using conflict as a way to grow intimacy. If you habitually avoid disagreements, you will end up in a pseudo-relationship where one or both people self-abandon just to keep the cohesion. Avoidance of conflict diminishes opportunities for deepening our understanding of ourselves and others.
What often happens when someone disagrees with us, is that we project our underlying beliefs about ourselves and others onto the situation. We tend to see through lenses that were acquired in our earliest primary relationships with our caregivers and parents.
If we’ve developed a belief that we’re not good enough, for example, then we might make the assumption that other people will not respect our opinions, or that they will leave if they are displeased with us, or that if we don’t “win” the argument, we are not worthy of love, attention or understanding. If someone says something to us in a harsh tone, even if the statement itself is benign, it can trigger the memory of an old hurt that hasn’t been healed.
By paying attention to what thoughts and feelings come up when we are having a difficult reaction to something, we can expand our self-knowledge. Katherine Woodward Thomas explains that we can learn how to form a relationship with ourselves in which a part of us stands outside the big feelings and is able to observe and give a name to the feelings. Once the feelings are named, they start to be contained.
Then a person can ask how old is that feeling? Did it start at 3 years old, 16, or 22 years old?
When we are able to observe where the original wound comes from, then the more rational and adult part of us can hold and comfort the hurt younger self. This process builds self-trust and self-esteem.
Awareness is Key
Once we are able to become aware of what is truly going on inside of us, we can grow the ability to take a pause in the midst of a conflict. When we take a pause, it gives our system a chance to reset, and make a choice to change the internal place we are reacting from. For example, if our internal 14-year-old is having a rebellious tantrum in reaction to something, and we can recognize that’s what’s happening, then our adult self can step in and offer calm reassurance to the teenage self. We can then shift out of our reactivity at the moment, and continue from a more rational place.
JD observes, “disagreements become toxic when we haven’t figured ourselves out and our mental health isn’t optimized. We become defensive, take things personally, and allow our worth to be on the referendum of who wins the argument.”
One of the most important things we can do to have productive conversations when there is disagreement is to remember the context of both the conversation and the relationship. What is the goal of the conversation? Working backward from the purpose and outcome we would like to have, affirms the value of each participant.
Katherine gives the example of a discussion with an x-spouse. One could start by saying “we don’t always agree on everything, but I know we are both committed to the happiness of our kids and want them to have an example of two parents who are in integrity with each other.” This kind of statement upfront invites the other person to lean into the conversation, it lowers defenses and acknowledges the important role both people have in co-creating a beneficial conclusion.
The journey to vibrant mental health encompasses deepening our self-knowledge and self-compassion, as well as learning through relationships how to expand our views, enrich our experiences, and develop our capacities to both give and receive love.
Validating the intrinsic value of every person is a core practice in all of Montare’s programs, bringing a sense of the sacred into the everyday. Cultivating healthy relationships offers the opportunity to go beyond ourselves, where we don’t lose ourselves in the process, and at the same time, we are not limited to ourselves. Let’s make Mental Health as important as going to the gym.
Anxiety or Depression skews our views of our relationships. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out for help. A better relationship with yourself and others is a phone call away.