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A Simple Guide to Damage Control When You're About to "Lose it"

Winnicott, a famous psychoanalyst, taught me that people don’t have to be perfect they have to be “good enough.” Phew! That was a relief to learn.

But what does it mean to be "good enough?"

The good-enough parent, according to Winnicott, is one who tolerates their child's emotions, as well as their own. Above all and even during life's most difficult moments, the good-enough parent strives to never emotionally abandon or retaliate.

Don't abandon or retaliate. I find this simple statement to hold powerful wisdom not only for parenting guidance but for all interactions and relationships.

In an emotion-phobic society like ours, where schools fail to provide an education in how emotions work and what to do with them, staying positively connected during heated situations is no easy task. We desperately need information, tools, and skills to help us feel and deal better with our emotions!

The mantra: Don’t abandon and don't retaliate offers a simple guide to damage control when you're about to "lose it.”

Don’t abandon and don't retaliate. I say these words to myself when I am in a heated disagreement or argument with my loved ones. I use them to evaluate my words and actions before I speak or act. No matter my role as a mother, friend, colleague, or daughter, I repeat to myself - Don’t abandon or retaliate. When I sense my anger, frustration, anxiety, tension, need to control, or other defensive impulses rising, I remind myself: do not abandon or retaliate.

What are some examples of emotional abandonment?

  • Ignoring someone.

  • Giving a cold shoulder.

  • Shutting someone alone in a room.

  • Preventing loving connections with others.

  • Holding a grudge.

  • Withholding love and affection.

  • Threatening to leave the person.

  • Going limp, quiet, withdrawn, depressed, or flat.

  • __________________________________ (add your own example here.)

Of course, it’s wise to take a break when we feel too upset to have a constructive interaction. But first, we have to inform the person we are leaving because we are overwhelmed and need a break to calm down. Just as important we need to tell them we will be back to discuss/work it out later when we are calmer.

Too many of my clients have woefully shared stories of parents, who cut off connection with them if they didn't do or say what their parents wanted. Sometimes the cold shoulder lasted a day and sometimes months when the child grew to be a young adult and left home for school or work. This is emotional abandonment and it does leave scars. That's why it's a true act of love to stay positively connected.

To paraphrase Bell Hooks, the author of All About Love, love is an action that nourishes the soul.

How do we remain positively connected?

  • Listen and try to be patient.

  • Use words to express how you feel.

  • Do your best to understand the emotions, thinking, and words of others even when you think and feel radically different. Ask questions!

  • Try to connect with an open heart, a warm gaze, and expressions of interest or curiosity.

  • Talk and act like you actively care about the other.

  • Try to help and support the other even when "not feeling it."

  • Say things like: “I hear you.” “I want to understand." What can I do to support you?” “What can I do to help?” or "I disagree but it doesn't change how I feel about you." Find the words that best fit your personality that convey similar sentiments.

Having angry feelings is natural and totally okay. Emotions just are so having emotions doesn't say anything bad about you. Retaliating in anger means indulging the anger in hurtful ways. That is not okay. Channeling anger into assertion for setting limits and boundaries is making good use of anger.

What does retaliation look like?

  • To call names or insult someone.

  • To snap at someone.

  • To yell at someone.

  • To tell them to “shut up!”

  • To belittle someone.

  • To exert power or control over someone.

  • To tell someone you don't care about them or how they feel.

  • To tell someone they are "too sensitive." (Or are you too insensitive? It's relative and subjective!)

  • To tell someone they are crazy (even though they may be acting like they are crazy.)

  • To use shaming body language, especially with a harsh, judgmental look or contemptuous tone of voice.

  • To threaten punishment.

  • To physically or sexually assault someone.

Sometimes we need a break. But we can take a break the wrong way by saying, for example, “I have had it with you!” and then storm out of the house. Or we can take a break the better way by saying, for example, “I see how upset you are and I am so sorry you’re feeling so terrible. I have to take a break to calm down. Want to (sit quietly with me, go for a walk, watch some tv, bake a cake together, etc.) or should we get a little space from each other until we are both calmer and can better figure out what might help?" What would YOU rather hear?

What does it mean NOT to retaliate in anger?

  • It means you don’t say anything mean, insulting, devaluing, or belittling.

  • It means you work hard to stay present and openhearted.

  • It means you forgive the person their emotions, mood, and bad behaviors due to traumas, mistakes, immaturity, or just being human.

  • It means you always treat people with respect (even though you might not respect their behaviors).

  • It means you don’t say bad things about a person to others.

  • It means instead of acting out, you work the Change Triangle to understand and skillfully manage your emotions as they arise in real-time.

When we do NOT abandon or retaliate even though we want to, we are tasked with learning to skillfully manage our emotions. Whether we work the Change Triangle to process emotions or consult with an emotion coach or psychotherapist, we have to learn to calm emotions and process them internally without retaliating or abandoning others. Holding in emotions can make us depressed or anxious, so we need a variety of healthy outlets to release them. There are tools and techniques such as validating emotions, taking deep belly breaths, squeezing a stress ball, or processing anger using fantasy. It’s normal for the people we love to enrage us at times. It’s how we work with our anger that matters.

Don't abandon and don't retaliate is powerful guidance for us all. Although it may take a lifetime to master these words, the first step is knowing them and remembering to say them to yourself. Imagine if we silently reminded ourselves in the midst of heated moments, do not abandon, and do not retaliate. And then heeded those words. What do you think would have been different in your life?



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