During stressful times, it can be challenging to have conversations with friends and family about sensitive topics without getting uncomfortable. Think about the last time you had a difficult conversation that upset you. Did you want to just leave? Did you feel that you needed to control yourself from saying what you truly felt? Did you choose not to respond? To shut down? Did you want to avoid a fight, but then felt resentful? Did you blow up and say things that you later wished you could take back?
Flooding Leads to Stonewalling
Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that in ailing relationships there is heightened physiological arousal during conflict discussions called “flooding.” Flooding happens in other relationships with friends, coworkers, parents, siblings, in-laws, etc. For most people, when they are flooded, their heart rate rises to over 100 beats per minute. You feel overwhelmed and intensely stressed. Your capacity to hear and understand someone else is limited. In this state of mind, you are more likely to say or do something you will later regret.
Additionally, flooding isn’t good for your health. It suppresses your immune system, which makes you more susceptible to infectious illnesses. So when you find yourself flooding, it is important to take a break and self-soothe (i.e., engaging in an activity like deep breathing that takes you away from the upsetting thoughts and calms your nervous system). If you don’t do this, most likely you will end up stonewalling—disengaging and emotionally withdrawing from the interaction. You cannot have a conversation that validates and creates harmony. It is also upsetting for your loved one to speak to a stonewalling listener. Your stony silence is not neutrality or setting a boundary. It communicates disapproval and emotional distance.
How can you manage stressful conversations without stonewalling?
One helpful coping method is self-soothing. This is the antidote to stonewalling.
- Do you hold your breath when you’re upset? Make sure you’re breathing.
- Check in with yourself and validate your feelings.
- Ask yourself what you need to feel centered. Give yourself permission to go in another room to cool down or out for a walk outside.
- Let your physical senses ground you. Touch something and focus on how it feels. Sip and truly taste some tea. Listen to a calming song. Notice items in the room that you may have never observed before. Inhale through your nose and note any smells.
It takes at least 20 minutes for your physiology to return to a calm baseline state. Try not to continue thinking about the upsetting situation (especially coming up with better responses you wish you could say). This puts gasoline on your upset feelings. Breathe. Focus. Relax your tensed muscles.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, a modality developed by Steven Hayes, Ph.D.) explains the concept of “acceptance” beautifully. Acceptance means the willingness to open up and make space for uncomfortable feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions. You try not to control your inner experience or someone else’s perspective. Instead of fighting the feelings you experience internally, try to accept them without judgment as appropriate responses to these situations.
You may think that acceptance sounds like “giving up,” but it’s not. It’s merely dropping the internal struggle that causes anxiety and stress. You can still have opinions and beliefs and communicate in a way that respects your values and sets healthy boundaries.
Another concept in ACT is “committed action,” meaning you take effective action based on your values. What can you do to advocate for what you believe in? How can you communicate what’s important to you without jeopardizing your emotional wellbeing?
Be an example of what you stand for. Others are more likely to change by your example than by the arguments you “win.” By practicing acceptance before you start the conversation, you also create space where you can truly listen to someone else’s feelings and points of view.
Learn how to set conversational boundaries without stonewalling. Setting boundaries is an important aspect of establishing who you are as a person and how others are allowed to treat you. As a crucial part of mental health, it also includes learning to be kind towards yourself. As a result, you can be less reactive, since you set the rules you live by and let others know of them as well. One example is letting someone know that if they have discussions with you where they are being disrespectful, you will end the conversation because it takes a toll on you. An example of how to say this could look like:
“I’ve noticed that when we have discussions about this topic, I feel drained. I’d like to have this conversation with you, but only if you are willing not to make personal attacks. If you continue to do so, I will walk away from this conversation.”
Boundary-setting informs the other person what your limits are and then enforces them. This is an act of kindness towards yourself and someone else.
Life can be difficult. Let’s be compassionate towards ourselves and others. Let’s see the cup half full, not half empty. Even better, let’s self-soothe, practice acceptance, and communicate healthy boundaries so that our cups are full.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Gottman Institute’s blog and was reposted with permission.
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