Moving from one mindset to an alternate mindset isn’t easy, even with Zen guidance or years of psychotherapy in your repertoire. It involves shifting awareness amidst the murky waters of emotion, and often doesn’t happen as fluidly as we imagine it will.
I spend a lot of time talking with couples who have lost their way in communicating with one another, and who have come to see one another as potential threats, enemies mounting strategic defenses along some virtual perimeter from which they lob various assaults. Part of the work of coaching people through separation, divorce, and the breakup of closely held businesses involves noticing the ruptures in the fabric of the relationships, drawing attention and awareness to those tender places, and offering opportunities for repair.
When people are bent on wounding one another, repair is the last thing they focus on or think about. The pain of being torn apart, both internally and in the context of the partnership, is the focal point. The need to retaliate or defend is often the behavioral expression. Repair is generally absent from the vocabulary, often missing from the behavior, and even sometimes viewed as counter to the ’cause’.
From a neurobiological perspective, people caught up in conflict are stuck in what has come to be known as “amygdala hijack”, the overloaded, hyper-alert state of arousal of part of the limbic system in our brains. They have, literally, “flipped their lids”, and disconnected from the functioning of their pre-frontal cortexes, from which rational, goal-directed, organized thoughts and actions derive. The mindset of conflict, battle, defense, war is one driven by rupture, tearing, rending apart.
Movement from rupture to repair requires, besides good will and a basic desire for peace, a neurological shift in the synaptic conversations within our brains. The brain is the one organ in our bodies that is specifically designed to adapt in response to experience and training, and there is a reciprocal relationship between human experience, neural firing, and how neural connections are made.
Repairing small ruptures in the moment creates an opportunity for people to move forward toward a resolution of their difficulties, and toward emotional separation. Reframing the problem gives the amygdala a chance to quiet and soothe. Reframing the problem changes the brain, and sets up the movement from rupture to repair. Putting problems into words, which engages the prefrontal cortex, dampens the limbic activity and brings reason back into perspective. With the brain in balance again, there is an opening for reconsideration, alternate perspectives, options and choice.
I think it’s important for people to remember that we are wired to scan for threats and react in order to survive. It is, perhaps, even more important to be mindful of the small ruptures in our connection to one another, and to leave a space for the possibility of repair. Doing so moves us from conflict to healing, one synaptic leap at a time.