Why Taking a Break Will Help You Avoid Breaking Up
Like Many Things That Go Wrong, the Beginning is Usually OK
I was driving from Philly to a holistic retreat center in the Berkshires, where I was taking a weeklong training to teach a specific positive psychology course. Typically, it’s a little more than a four-hour ride, most of it through beautiful scenery. Having made this trip several times before, I was looking forward to tearing up the road in my Mini Cooper Roadster, blasting music without concern for anyone else’s eardrums or musical taste, and taking in the beauty of the dazzling New England fall foliage.
I didn’t know it at the time, but a hurricane was unleashing havoc all along the northeastern corridor. I couldn’t listen to music, because to add sound on top of the noise of the rain hitting my windshield would have made the din unbearable. I couldn’t see the fall scenery because I couldn’t see any trees. The cold rain hitting the warm air created a fog so thick that I could barely even see the road, and I drove by following the taillights of the car in front of me. To make matters worse, each gust of wind and wave of water created from the passing trucks and SUVs shook and rattled my little toy car.
I couldn’t help but think about two members of my family who had died in tragic vehicular accidents. There is a saying that things that are wired together fire together, and I started to panic. OMG, I thought, I’m going to die. On my way to a course—in happiness, of all things! This is not funny!
Trip to Crazytown
After a grueling six-hour drive, all the while pumping stress and fear hormones, my hands aching from gripping the steering wheel and my neck muscles clenched in knots, I couldn’t emotionally transition to the reality of being okay. Even though I arrived at my destination safely, my brain didn’t catch up with this fact, and was still processing reality as if I were still in danger mode.
And so, nothing seemed right; people seemed weird and annoying, and I was seriously questioning why I had even come. Until my sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) could calm down, my cognition was distorted, even conjuring up paranoid and absurd dangers. Was it okay for my room to be so near ground level, in case some unhinged maniac who may have been rebuffed by a yoga instructor had finally snapped and wanted revenge? I was in crazytown.
Who Was That Person?
By the morning, the rain had stopped. I opened the window to breathe in the pristine mountain air, and saw awe-inspiring natural beauty. I was fine. No, I was more than fine. No longer hijacked by stress, my rational brain was back online. I was calm, happy, and appreciative to be there. I felt a kindred connection to everyone I saw, a sense of belonging, and I was open and eager to participate in the training.
A Tale of Two Brothers
In Vayishlach, we read of the famous account of Jacob wrestling with the angel through the night before encountering his brother, Esau. The one saving grace about Esau was his supposed devotion to his father, Isaac. Yet when he learned of the deception surrounding the blessings, he yearned for his father’s death so that he would be free to kill his brother. In short, Esau was in “crazytown,” and no one can function well or process reality benevolently from that place.
Whatever the nature of a conflict, it is not the objective facts that drive it, but our thoughts that create the story around it. When we get emotionally triggered—when our hot buttons are pushed, when we feel threatened, unsafe and hooked by drama—then bam! We become flooded, and our thinking process emanates from our primitive reptilian brain. In that state, even loved ones can become “the enemy,” as we objectify and demonize them.
We interpret their behavior in the most negative light, imputing the worst motives at every turn. We magnify threats, turning barbs into ballistic missiles, or we misperceive innocent remarks as attempts to cut us to the quick. Our inner lizard fears becoming someone’s lunch, and so, as a protective measure, it becomes a destructive fire-breathing dragon.
Most of us don’t recognize this process for what it is. We believe the stories we spin, and then we perpetuate them. We live from that reality, and we attempt to rope in others to our way of seeing things—sometimes to the point of creating loyalty tests. This wreaks havoc, sometimes permanently on our relationships and on our psyche.
Getting Out of Crazytown
So first you need to recognize the signs of being emotionally flooded. We have telltale signs in our bodies (shallow breathing, muscular tension and pain), our emotions (anger, fear, feeling unsafe, overwhelmed) and our thoughts (blame projected outward, negativity bias, magnifying faults, linking prior events and other people to the present). It is crucial to know when you or someone else is in this state because there is no one rationally at home. As such, a constructive conversation cannot happen. There needs to be some space and distance to allow things to normalize—for the hot buttons to cool down and goodwill to return.
It is critical to use this period of cooling down with the intention to allow things to heal. If we use time apart to ruminate, obsesses self-righteously about the perceived faults of others, vent to others and escalate the tension, it will only cause further polarization. Instead, use the time to turn things around to the positive by cultivating gratitude for the person, considering the validity of other viewpoints, acknowledging your part in creating the conflict, being receptive to any bids for reconnection, and not holding on to who you think should make the first move.
While Jacob and Esau finally did reconcile, it took 34 years for that to occur, and it was only temporary. Moreover, the struggle between them was more complex, having cosmic repercussions until the messianic era, with Esau being controlled by vile and evil instincts rather than just overwhelmed by his emotions.
Nevertheless, we can learn that when it comes to ourselves, we must allow ourselves enough time to calm down, but don’t wait unnecessarily long to get your relationships back on track. It may be too late.