REAL PEACE IN TIMES OF STRESS / RELATIONSHIPS
The Traffic Light Method
Try this mindful communication technique, says SUSAN GILLIS CHAPMAN, when you’re experiencing stress in your relationships.
is a precious but fragile gift that’s easily damaged during difficult
times. In times of stress or crisis, our survival instincts send us
mixed messages. At some level we know that our partnership is a lifeline
we need to protect. Nevertheless, it’s easy to start blaming each
other, to pull up the drawbridge and hunker down in the fortress of
“me.” Depending on which survival tactic we follow, stress can either
make or break our most important relationships. Switching tactics can
happen in a heartbeat, but the positive or destructive consequences of
that choice can last a lifetime.
a mindfulness student, tells a story about a turning point early in her
marriage. “Josh and I were arguing. We stopped the car and walked out
onto a beach, too angry to talk. I picked up a rock and held it clenched
in my fist. When I opened my hand, I saw it was shaped like a heart. I
glanced over at Josh, and without saying a word, I reconnected to him.
The little kid part of me wanted to hold on to my anger, but I knew I
had to let it go.”
the middle of a painful argument with our partner, creating some
space—creating a heart–rock moment— interrupts the momentum and allows
us to listen to the wiser part of ourselves. To create space, here are
three mindfulness techniques, using traffic signals as reminders.
situations have built-in stoplights we can learn to recognize. Start by
reconnecting with the physical environment, which Meghan and Josh did
by stopping their car and walking onto the beach. Feel the bottoms of
your feet, the weight of gravity holding you. Perhaps focus on a single
sense perception, as Meghan did with the rock in her hand. Listening to
our body can interrupt the domino effect of our reactions and bring us
back to the here and now.
Yellow: Take Care
yourself, “How am I feeling?” Take a deep breath and make room for any
vulnerable emotions that surface. Unclenching the fist of blame enables
us to hear the heart’s inner messages: I feel hurt, frustrated, sad, powerless.
Listening deeply to feelings of disappointment can illuminate our blind
spots, the unrealistic expectations we project on each other.
Compassionately relating to our own pain softens us and builds an
empathic bridge to our partner.
the middle of a stressful situation, a single thought or act of
gratitude or kindness can restore equanimity to our communication. The
uncertainty of a crisis can inspire courage and curiosity or it can
reinforce our barriers. When stress hits, claustrophobia sets in and
we’re preoccupied by a mind-set of “not enough”: Not enough money, time, or exercise. Not enough energy, attention, or sleep. Buddhist
psychology describes this state of mind as a “hungry ghost” realm. This
refers to the beings of Buddhist cosmology that have tiny mouths and
huge, starving stomachs; they try to consume but they can’t get enough
down their throats to satisfy. The hungry ghosts are miserable but
within their realm there is also a buddha, a moment of wakefulness,
showing the way out. The buddha’s hand is open in a gesture of
generosity, breaking the spell of “not enough.” We don’t have to shut
down emotionally when tension is high with our partner. Instead, we can
open fresh pathways for reconnecting by creating a gap of wakefulness.
That gap is a miracle moment, like finding a buddha in the palm of your
Susan Gillis Chapman is a marriage and family therapist and the author of The Five Keys to Mindful Communication.