Personal partnerships are fertile grounds for miscommunication. We’re told to communicate, we’re told (kind of) how we should be communicating, and we’re told that successful marriages and partnerships are made up of people who communicate effectively (whatever that means.) So, if the case for communication makes so much sense, why can’t you do it? Humans are reasonable beings! So, why are you so unreasonable?
It’s simple. Humans are only partially reasonable beings.
When something traumatic happens to you, regardless of how “major” your rational brain determines it to be, your Limbic System stores the trauma as an emotional memory. Your emotional memories are not fully processed, nor are they sent to the brain’s cortical areas. Instead, they are stored in the Limbic System.
So, what does this mean? It means that these unprocessed memories and feelings are not yet rational. These significant memories can make you emotionally reactive and, more importantly to your relationships, can cause you to have great difficulty with interpersonal communication. How do you know when you’ve dipped into the Limbic area of your brain? In any instance where you have a strong emotional response, you are dealing with information stored within the Limbic System. Once information moves to cortical areas of your brain, it is no longer emotionally triggering.
Since being totally rational is unattainable, what does good communication look like? Trying to be a totally rational communicator, especially when it comes to personal relationships, is a pointless pursuit. There are a few things that you can do, though, to better communicate with your partner and loved ones.
1. Being irrational is not abnormal
Accept that emotional reactivity and irrationality is natural, for you and others. When it comes down to it, simply understanding that you aren’t losing your mind can be incredibly powerful. Feeling like your experience is unnatural or pathological can lead to feelings of isolation and self-esteem issues.
2. Identify things that make you emotionally reactive
Understand what in your life makes you feel emotionally reactive. It’s important to watch your reactions and become acquainted with what brings up strong emotional responses. Maybe it’s the judgments of other parents. Maybe you feel emotionally reactive when your spouse says they’ll take out the trash and forgets. Remember, the least productive thing that you can do is to judge yourself for your reactive feelings. Observe your emotional response with non-judgment, and allow it to flow through you like a temporary thunderstorm.
3. Be compassionate and understanding
Be compassionate with others, as they experience emotional reactivity. When someone is in a place of emotional reactivity, it’s virtually impossible for them to make a logical argument. The Limbic System will draw a person’s entire attention to the visceral experience of trauma, and little attention is left to make rational sense within the cortical areas. When you see this happening, it’s important to slow down and give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Be compassionate and understanding, as someone who also is triggered by past memories stored in your own Limbic System. These moments of understanding and compassion can be strong building blocks for a more trusting and loving relationship.
4. Excuse yourself when you feel triggered
Set boundaries for yourself, so that you can excuse yourself when you’re feeling triggered. Your partner may be a safe person with whom you can be triggered. However, perhaps your in-laws or your partner’s ex isn’t as safe. This is why it’s important to understand your triggers and determine how to get yourself an outlet when you’re triggered in an unsafe environment. Maybe you excuse yourself to go to the restroom, so that you can give yourself time to allow the reaction to flow through you fully. Also, note that the more you practice being mindfully aware of your experiences with your triggers, the less time it will take for those reactive moments to pass.
5. Talk to your partner about your irrational behavior
Talk about your triggers with your partner, and own that this part of you is irrational and due to unprocessed traumas. “Irrational” is only a bad word if you let it be one. Owning your irrational experiences, and explaining these concepts to your partner, can cut through many feelings of being misunderstood or confused. Much of our experience is irrational. In order for your partner to understand you, as a person, they must acknowledge and honor the part of you that is not a rational thinking and communicator. They must also accept that they are not a totally rational being, either.
6. Seek help
If you are feeling significantly impacted by past memories or emotional distress, it’s advisable for you to seek out help from a licensed mental health provider. Some of the best ways to access Limbic System information are EMDR, Neurofeedback, and Mindfulness-Based Therapies. Regular talk therapies can face significant hurdles in accessing memories and emotions stored in the Limbic System. This is largely because talk therapy attempts to access the Limbic System through the Pre-Frontal Cortex. The therapies listed above, which have been proven to effectively and efficiently calm an overactive Limbic System, are essential to promoting healthy processing of traumatic past experiences.
A disagreement with your partner can make you feel misunderstood. When you feel as if you have been irrational, you can feel downright isolated and confused. With the proper vocabulary and intentions of non-judgment, a committed partnership is an excellent environment for interactive Limbic healing. Through the sharing of those experiences that are beyond words, we can begin to move past labels like “irrational” and “Illogical” to a place of shared non-verbal emotional experience.