Do you ever get surprised by how you react in certain situations? If so, are you curious about what may have caused those reactions? Rich was well into his healing journey when he unexpectedly exploded at his daughter for drinking out of his water bottle. While he wasn’t wrong to want her to use her water bottle instead of his, the intensity of his reaction surprised him. However, instead of either condemning himself for being selfish or justifying his emotional outburst, Rich understood that his extreme reaction was a road sign on his healing journey. As he sat quietly, he heard a small voice in his head complaining: “Why can’t I ever have anything for myself?” Ah…this was the clue he was looking for.
Rich recognized the complaint that emerged from deep in his heart expressed his weariness at being a lifelong people pleaser. He was tired of always taking care of others at his expense. Why was he such a people pleaser, though? As he struggled with this question, he understood that deep down, he feared he would be abandoned. While his conscious, adult brain knew this fear was not rational, the root of that fear had been planted in his subconscious when Rich was a tiny child. Although he had been making steady progress on his healing journey, it was not until he connected the water bottle incident with his fear of abandonment that he began to understand how deeply rooted his hurts were. There were multiple levels to his behavior, and it was not until he got to the bottom that he could start healing.
When Rich was asked why he would want to explore his childhood pain, he offered a simple explanation: “Pain is driving my behavior now, and those behaviors are not in line with who I want to be as a husband and father.” Wow. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Our wounds drive our behavior.
In last week’s blog, I wrote that in marriage (or any relationship), many of us are content to merely deal with the symptoms of our pain rather than deal with the root problem. If Rich hadn’t decided to start paying attention to his emotions and dig through multiple levels of “why,” he might have devised a band-aid solution to the water bottle blow-up. Demanding that his daughter stop drinking from his water bottle wouldn’t have addressed the psychological exhaustion he was experiencing. If he had not asked himself, “Why am I a people pleaser?” he would not have connected to his deep-rooted fear of abandonment. Setting up rules like “no one is allowed to use my water bottle” is like battling the leaves of a problem “tree” while ignoring the roots. Rules only work until you get triggered in a different way; then, you need a new rule. It’s an exhausting way to live. I know this to be true in my own life. I wonder if it is true in yours.
“He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.” Psalm 1:3
Jeff and I had finished eating dinner when our daughter called. Although our plates and glasses were empty, Jeff began to pour himself a glass of wine as soon as I picked up the phone. I shot him a look, prompting him to pour the wine back into the bottle, and he sat back down at the table. Almost immediately, I felt a very familiar constriction in my stomach. I worried that I upset him and feared that an argument would follow. Although I reminded myself I was not responsible for his emotions, I wasn’t sure how this would play out. You see, we had been down this road before.
This whole scenario felt like an old and well-played tape in our relationship. The pattern begins with me questioning something he’s doing in a manner that causes him to feel attacked and become defensive. I then feel guilty for questioning him, so I respond by either 1) shutting down or 2) accusing him of responding in a passive-aggressive manner. Conflict usually follows. Thankfully, this particular scenario didn’t end as it has in the past. Because we have been working hard to notice our emotions and understand our triggers, we managed to deal with the roots of our reactions instead of battling the leaves. The result was profound.
When I asked Jeff what emotion he felt when he poured the wine back into the bottle, he acknowledged he was angry. Since I am highly attuned to picking up anger in other people, I wasn’t surprised at this response. However, I knew we were still not at the root of the issue. When it was my turn to express my feelings, I admitted that I felt fear when I saw him pour the wine; my “look” was an attempt to dissipate my fear by controlling his behavior. Although this revelation brought us closer to getting to the root of our problem, I sensed we still had a way to go. It took courage and patience to get to the next layer.
As we continued to talk about what was happening for each of us in the moment, I recognized that when Jeff poured the wine, I was afraid he would check out of the conversation. I subconsciously thought that if I could get him to forego the glass of wine, he wouldn’t check out of the conversation and leave me alone. Finally, I could see the root of my behavior: Being ignored triggers the pain that comes from not being seen and from being alone. (Remember, our wounds inform our behavior.) This revelation helped me to understand why I felt fear when Jeff poured the wine. However, I still wondered why he poured the glass of wine to begin with. We still had digging to do.
As we lingered with the question of what prompted him to pour a glass of wine, Jeff finally responded: “I suppose I often feel left out of the conversation, which only highlights my loneliness.” I was stunned. I had no idea my husband felt lonely. He always seemed to relish activities that are done in isolation. I hadn’t considered that perhaps some of the time he spent in isolation was to protect himself from pain. Imagine that. Thirty-seven years in, and I am still learning new things about my husband. I felt we had just stepped into a different realm in our relationship.
You see, by taking time to dig beneath the surface of our behaviors and emotional triggers, we were able to step into a tender place of intimacy and connection. Although I don’t expect that uncovering roots will immediately resolve ingrained triggers or transform dysfunctional habit patterns, this process has given us a deep empathy for one another that wasn’t previously there. For this, I am grateful…
If this post has prompted you to consider the roots of your reactive behaviors, I suggest you begin by inviting God to join you as you dig. The nature of a reaction is that you act before you are consciously aware of your feelings, so ask God for His revelation and insight as you explore. (Remember, I reacted to Jeff pouring wine before I consciously felt the fear. I had to slow way down and allow my emotions to surface to understand what was going on.) It’s helpful to ask a trusted friend or a professional to join you on your journey. Contact me if you want help.