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Why do so many of us have such a hard time in love? What’s getting in the way of having the relationships we really want? While our individual circumstances may be unique, the underlying issue for many of us is the same. At the core of our relationship struggles, outside of our awareness, is fear.
Our adult brains are running on outdated software developed long ago when we were children that causes us to fear being more emotionally present and authentic in our relationships—precisely what’s needed to build healthy, loving connections. Instead of being able to make good use of our feelings, we unknowingly respond to them as though they’re dangerous, and they’re not. We engage in our relationships reflexively, unknowingly controlled by our old programming, and wonder why we’re having such a hard time.
We end up repeating the same defensive patterns over and over—patterns that get us nowhere—as if we had no other option. For instance, we get caught in circular arguments with our partners, instead of taking the risk to share our hurt or fear. We minimize, deny, or hide our anger, pull away from our partners and avoid being direct, and then end up feeling resentful, disinterested, or depressed. Or, we fail to express the fullness of the love in our hearts—and then can’t understand why our partners complain about feeling frustrated, alone, and unsure of our love.
But we don’t have to remain prisoners of our past. As neuroscience shows us, we can change the way our brain is wired. The key to doing so is by developing emotional mindfulness. By focusing our attention in positive and constructive ways, we can free ourselves from old habits and fears, befriend our emotional experience, and develop new ways of relating. We can update our nervous system. We can rewire our brains to support our relationship success.
When we get triggered in our relationships, we go from stimulus to response in a nanosecond. A button gets pushed, and our default programming takes over. It all happens so quickly. But, if we could slow things down, if we could widen the gap between impulse and action, we’d afford ourselves some necessary space to be able to do things differently.
Practicing emotional mindfulness serves as an antidote to our struggles by helping us to see and shift the emotional dynamics that have been unconsciously governing our behavior more readily. It increases awareness of our feelings and our capacity to abide and work constructively with them. In turn, we’re better able to regulate our distress and objectively see and respond to what’s happening within us and before us.
One of the easiest things you can do is to practice observing your emotional experience. Throughout your day, repeatedly bring your attention to your felt experience. Take a moment to scan your body from head to toe and see what you notice. What do you feel? What sensations do you notice and where?
In addition, get into the habit of checking in with yourself emotionally when you’re interacting with your partner. Notice what’s happening internally for you. What is the energy like? What are you feeling inclined to do? Quietly note to yourself what you observe without responding too quickly. Doing so will build your awareness of, and connection to, your inner experience and your ability to be present.
By slowing down the action, you give yourself some room to consider other ways of responding to your partner. You afford yourself the opportunity to choose a course of action that is more aligned with your intentions and values. You begin to loosen the grip of old fear and chart a course toward having the relationship you really want.