My girlfriend and I are running through the park yesterday on a warm, sunny, California afternoon when my partner — observing my relatively-slow jogging rate — suggests, “Ready to step up the pace?”
Nonplussed, I respond: “Give me a break! Can’t you see I’m struggling to keep up?”
Silence ensues, followed by a hurt: “I was just trying to help!”
What in the world has just happened here? One second we’re jogging along together in nature, the next we’re at each others’ throats.
Needless to say, few of us are not at our best when we’re in pain or discomfort, and I’m certainly no exception. During yesterday’s run, I was clearly not on my game. My chest was aching, my legs felt like lead, and my pace was glacial at best. Perhaps I hadn’t had enough sleep, or maybe I wasn’t yet accustomed to the arrival of the 80-degree F, springtime weather. Who knows? By contrast, my girlfriend – eternally fit –was having her usual strong day on the trails, often sprinting ahead to do push ups or sit ups while waiting for me to catch up with her. Ordinarily I would have celebrated her fantastic conditioning – heck, many times her loving prodding is what gets me out on the trails in the first place. But not yesterday. When she asked me if I was “ready to step up the pace”, all I could think of was, “Obviously I’m not going fast enough for her. She must be bored by this run and, by corollary, with me as a running mate in general. And what’s worse, now she’s trying to control me, to get HER needs met for a faster run, when obviously I’m struggling. How selfish can you get?!!”
Doesn’t this sound familiar? Don’t we all exhibit this kind of reflexive, critical behavior when we’re under stress and “running” a negative story about ourselves? After all, why point the finger at yourself when it’s so much easier to lay the blame on someone else – to “kill the messenger”, as it were?
As our run continued yesterday — in a now uncomfortable silence – I found myself afforded a few minutes to reflect on the conflict and, most importantly, on my primary role in the interaction. Gradually it dawned on me that I’d allowed myself to fall into role of the “victim”, simultaneously casting my girlfriend as the “villain”. Inevitably, when you start seeing yourself as the good guy and your “opponent” as the bad guy, the situation just escalates and escalates, into what Gary Harper calls “The Drama Triangle”. The only way out of this dead end street is to get some distance from event, to look at things from the other person’s perspective. So okay, let’s consider the possibility that maybe my girlfriend is not the villain here, concocting her own evil designs to do me wrong. What, then, might she have really been saying when she suggested we speed up? Maybe it was something like: “You’ve been telling me how you want to get in better running shape. That won’t happen if we don’t increase the intensity a bit. Let me help you achieve your stated goal.” Or perhaps: “I heard you say you’re worried about us running late for dinner with your mom this evening. Since I care about you and don’t want you to worry about tardiness, how about we jog a little faster to create some buffer time?” You get the idea. By stepping into my girlfriend’s shoes and remembering her overall best intentions towards me, I was able to start counteracting my own negative, self-focused story.
And what about my hot buttons? Surely those play into this scenario as well. Which of my old emotional wounds and injuries might my girlfriend have accidentally triggered? Well, to name just one, during my childhood my parents (in their own imperfection) didn’t always notice when I was struggling (either emotionally or physically) and lagging behind. It’s understandable, then, that I would have feelings come up if my partner failed to notice my suffering, here in the present.
Self-empowerment guru Tony Robbins once said, “All pain comes from stories that are selfishly viewed.” In other words, when you’re looking at life exclusively from your own story, your own ego, you’ll most certainly have pain and suffering. As adults, then, our job is both to notice our old hot buttons — our out-dated assumptions, interpretations and limiting beliefs — and to ask ourselves, “Is this way of thinking really serving me? Do I need to hold onto a belief system laid down when I was kid, back when I didn’t have all the resources and experience I have today?”
Happily, my jog in the park yesterday ended successfully, in the sense that 1) I ran all the way to the finish line (however slowly) and 2) my girlfriend and I hashed everything out quickly and amicably, averting much additional drama. The trick: looking at things from the other person’s perspective, acknowledging positive intentions, and taking responsibility for our own “stuff”. Conflicts rarely disappear just by ignoring them. Happily, resolution is almost always just one loving, honest conversation away.