It’s a well known technique for getting things done: break a large, unmanageable job into smaller parts.
Bea was consistently struggling to care for her hair on her own, despite regular encouragement, advice and support from me. It was time to make the job easier. I cut 5 inches off the bottom and now it is a job she can manage on her own. She is elated with her new hair, brushes it without being asked (!), and everyone is happier.
Claire is never expected to learn an entire song at once on her violin. She learns one chunk at a time – clapping the rhythm, one small phrase of notes – and slowly puts them together. Only after a significant amount of practice does it come together as an entire song.
I know this. And yet, when it comes to my own struggles, emotional ones especially, I persist in trying to tackle the whole enchilada at once. All I see is a tangle of yarn, and the emotional response to that prevents me from taking a deep breath and slowly, painstakingly unwinding all the different threads. Freaking out only tugs all those knots tighter.
How can I break this huge job into smaller parts? How can we make this easier?
Full Disclosure: This is one of those posts where I am writing to figure something out for myself, not decreeing from on high. I do not do any of this perfectly. Your mileage may vary. You may have another technique. It may even involve wine and chocolate cake. That’s fine.
I am not jealous. Ok, I am. But wine and chocolate cake are out of my toolkit for the moment and I’ve got to figure something else out.
Take Time / Have an Adult Time Out
Emotional distress is so easy to sweep under the rug. Unless it’s bubbling over and spitting out like a pot of burning oatmeal, ordinary simmering distress can be somewhat ignored. It’s not that fun to deal with and there are many, many other things on the to-do list. So it gets ignored until the simmering turns into burning and spitting.
Calming down our alarmed amygdalas and identifying triggered implicit memories takes time. Lots of time. Time spent either with a patient, warm and loving Compassionate Self-Witness or an Empathy Buddy. There is no quick fix. Time is part of the process.
Pare off the excess by focusing your attention on the present moment. With eyes closed, scan your awareness over your entire body. What do you notice? Any areas of particular tightness or pain? Can you name those sensations as accurately as possible? Is it a dark, prickly pain or a hot, dull one? What colour is that sensation? Does it have an emotional quality attached to it? I do this as an activity with my kids sometimes and they draw pictures of their feelings, giving them names and pets and favourite sunglasses and everything. They usually find that by the time they have finished their drawing they are feeling much, much better.
Sometimes naming alone brings a tangled mess of a feeling into focus enough so that we can see what needs to be done next. I’ve even had naming bring a huge sigh of relief and a shift in emotional state from agitation to calmness. Name it to tame it.
What Do You Need?
Unmet needs are behind every kind of distress – from a toddler’s tantrum to a protracted international conflict. But the tricky thing about needs is that they are universal, and not bound to any one particular outcome. Here’s an example: I have a need for peace and harmony. My preferred strategy for meeting that need is for everyone else to do what I want (Ha!). But I can also get my need for peace and harmony met by going for a walk by myself in the forest, slowly teaching my children how to resolve conflicts and appreciating the peaceful, harmonious interactions I do have with other people, even a conflict still exists with someone else. Looking for the unmet needs is truly the key that unlocks conflict and transforms it from blame and anger to compassion, although it takes time and honest reflection to come to understand what the real, deep needs are for yourself and others.
Make a Request
I’ve left this one for last because it usually doesn’t work well unless you’ve gone through the rest of the process and spent some time identifying your feelings and needs, and the feelings and needs of the other people involved. But once you know what feelings and needs are alive in a certain situation, you might see a solution that will help get those particular needs met. In this case, you can make a request. Ask for something specific, something that can actually be done. “I want you to be less annoying” does not count. “Can we meet at 10am and make a list of the things that need to be done today?” does.
What did I figure out by writing this post? I wrote down every tool I could think of and then realized that I ended up with the basic framework of Non-Violent Communication: Observation (time out), Feelings, Needs, Request. Taken together, it can seem like an overwhelming process, almost as difficult to manage as the original distress. But taken separately, each step is one manageable chunk. And they will work independently, for the most part. There is value in each step, each piece of a jigsaw puzzle clicked into place, each small tangle of yarn undone. Even if the rest of the yarn is a hopeless snarl, we can use these techniques to untwist one small part at a time.