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What Were You Thinking? (under fire, part 2)

What Were You Thinking? (under fire, part 2)
What Were You Thinking? (under fire, part 2)

Last week was part one of Talking Under Fire. I explained how to empathize, disarm and negotiate. If you had a disagreement, I hope you tried it out. It takes practice, keep at it.

Today I want to talk about what to do in between fights so that you can be more effective next time, i.e. fight less frequently and less painfully. Let’s start with a rewind. This is how to regroup after an argument. This is prep work.

You will be much more able to handle criticism if you can learn from your past arguments.

Think Back

I want you to think back to the last time your partner (or anyone else) criticized you. Maybe it was a coworker or boss. Any time you felt under fire will do. I want you to think back. How did you feel? What were your automatic thoughts? Generally, we humans, not only experience something, we also create an entire narrative around it. So, if someone is criticizing you, you might have thoughts like these- “She hates me. We are probably going to break up.” “My boss thinks I am incompetent.” “He thinks I am stupid.” “Nothing I do is good enough for her.” “He doesn’t care about me at all.”

Is That True?

Now it’s your turn. Think back to the last time you were criticized. What were your thoughts? You probably had some kind of monologue going about how your partner is a jerk, or how unfair things are or how your partner doesn’t appreciate everything you do or all of your stresses. The thing is, our thoughts always make sense at the time, but they are not always helpful or even very realistic.

So, now that you have identified those thoughts, I want you to evaluate them and then, if necessary, make them more realistic. The questions I usually ask about each thought are, “What is the evidence to support this thought” and “Is there another way of looking at it?”

Look at it Another Way

Here’s what I mean. “She hates me. We are probably going to break up,” Well, she is mad at me and feels like I was insensitive (evidence) but we have fought before and we haven’t broken up yet. It will probably be ok this time too. (Alternate way of looking at it) Using this technique, the thought, “My boss thinks I am incompetent,” becomes “even though I made this mistake, there are plenty of things I do well. She doesn’t expect me to be perfect.”

“He thinks I am stupid,” becomes “he wants to make sure I do it right, but that doesn’t mean he thinks I am stupid.”

“Nothing I do is good enough for her,” becomes “just because she doesn’t like the way I load the dishwasher, doesn’t mean she hates everything.”

See how that works? If you believe your automatic thoughts, your mood and the way you respond to your partner are very different than when you are thinking in a more balanced way. I want you to do this because this will help you see the effect that criticism has on you and realize that effect and your reactions are not set in stone. You cannot control what your partner says or how they say it, but you can start to control what you tell yourself. This will help you to be less reactive in the future. Often, we get angry because we feel that our partner is saying something that is inaccurate, like, “I DO NOT always leave dishes in the sink!”

There is this odd, unsaid belief that we must agree on exactly what happened before we can move forward. If you notice that and challenge that, moving forward becomes much easier. You might discover that you can move forward with a remedy even without complete agreement. (For more, look back to last week’s video.) Of course, we want our partners to remember it the way we do. We want to feel validated. We all want to feel love and approval, which is why criticism feels so crappy, but why do you need to feel awful for their error in thinking or remembering things? Noticing what you are telling yourself, like “she must see the truth” or “we must agree on what happened” will help you keep your cool and make it easier to move forward.

This is hard work! We are so used to believing the things that automatically pop into our heads that we rarely stop to consider if those thoughts are helpful or even if they are true. So, the next time you have been criticized, I want you to rewind those painful game tapes and see if you can tease out those thoughts and find a way to change them into ones that are more realistic and more helpful. It takes practice, lots of it, but your reward will be a much better ability to remain calm and be in control of your reactions.

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