Anne Lamott once wrote, "The great good news is that we're not all crazy at the same time." The thing is that my clients often tell me that they and their partners are always crazy at the same time. And this does, in fact, make sense because we all have "mirror neurons" in our brains.
Mirror neurons are found all over the brain. They look like other neurons but what makes them special is a web of connections that links these motor and sensory system neurons to the limbic centers that process visceral and emotional reactions.
They're responsible for a whole range of phenomena. For example, when a mother smiles at her baby and her baby smiles back, mirror neurons are at work.
They are also at work when my husband and I are talking - part of his brain organizes itself to match part of mine, and vice versa.
When he seems to appreciate everything I do, even my little foibles, this is wonderful; when he seems to be blaming me because the house is a mess, it is very challenging.
Fortunately, there is a useful technique for shielding ourselves from the unpleasant or unhappy emotions of those around us: we can come out from behind the looking-glass by training ourselves not to mirror other people's emotions.
First, try to think of a time when someone found fault with you for seemingly no reason. If no example comes to mind, you can imagine that your partner has a "tone" when he asks why there is still a stack of dirty dishes in the sink at the end of the day. Try to feel the shock, the anger, the urge to lash back.
Now picture your living room painted sunflower yellow. Then figure out whether 326 is a prime number. Focus your mind on things like these for even just a few seconds, and you'll find out that your mind lets go of emotional reactivity when it addresses visual or analytical problems.
Next, work on shifting as quickly as possible from the trigger to the calming thought. (One thing that helps is tying your exercise to a particular part of your day -- when you're leaving for work, or getting into the shower -- and leaving yourself a little note that reminds you to practice.)
Soon you will find yourself able to switch to your problem-solving, analytical mind whenever you confront the triggers that ordinarily drive you completely out of your mind.
When my husband is complaining about something and I feel myself getting upset, I try to think about how to describe the color of sunflowers -- a mix of yellow, orange, and amber -- the perfect embodiment of warm sunshine.
Or I think, What is a prime number anyway? This doesn't mean I ignore him -- quite the contrary: it means I'm better able to really listen to what he's saying and answer his concerns. Or help him laugh it off. Or whatever seems like the best response.
If you can manage not to get triggered, you will be able to use the mirroring neurons to your great advantage. You will be able to see something pleasant in your partner and mirror appreciation instead of antagonism.
You'll be able to say soft, soothing words, like "I know things seem bleak at the moment. But we're going to figure this out and everyone will get their needs met. All is well."About the Author:
Stacey Curnow works as a certified nurse-midwife in North Carolina, and over more than 15 years her career has taken her from western Indian reservations to a center-city Bronx hospital to the mountains of southwestern Mexico.
She has been an enthusiastic student of positive psychology for years and applies it to her midwifery and life coaching practices with great success. You can find out more about her services at www.midwifeforyourlife.com.
She is the creator of a thriving blog and many of her articles have been published in print magazines and online.
She lives in Asheville, NC with her husband, young son, and Ruby the wonder chicken.