Do you ever feel like you’re caught in a negative feedback loop? Maybe you’re having a heated conversation with someone, perhaps it’s one of your parents. Even now, when we’re just talking in the metaphorical, you know how this is going to end: with hurt feelings and a stint of awkward silence. You may even be able to recognize each stage of the conversation as it spirals out of control. First, your mom expresses concern about something in your life. Two, you feel annoyed and defensive that she’s pointing this out to you. Three, you respond by saying she doesn’t get it or is just plain wrong. Four, she feels hurt that you aren’t appreciating her advice, or else angry because she thinks you’re wrong and just refusing to acknowledge it. The argument continues on and on like this, each shifting blame to the other.
Sound familiar? It could be that, for you, this cycle happens with a romantic partner, sibling, coworker, friend, or any number of other people in your life. Probably, it’s easier to recognize these cycles when you’re not actively involved because it’s less painful to acknowledge it happening if you don’t have to take some of the blame. It’s those conversations between your best friend and her boyfriend, or your parents, or your coworker and your boss, that you hear the beginning of the disagreement and think, Here we go again…
However, one of the greatest benefits of being self-aware and conscious of these cycles is that you can choose to interrupt the continuous negativity! It’s like a slow-motion car crash where you can see it all happening — if you can do one small thing differently, you could avoid the whole horrible accident.
Let’s put this into practice. Think of an example of a negative cycle that you’re familiar with, personally or through observing it between two people who you know. Think of the troublesome conversation and begin to imagine that discussion in stages as if it were to literally unfold like clockwork. What happens at 12 o’clock that triggers the beginning of the cycle? What happens after that at one, two, three, four, five, and so on? Consider the feelings, thoughts, and actions that flare up in the heat of each of these moments. Continue this until you reach 12 o’clock again. Here’s an example:
You know those heated arguments that you can feel quickly spiraling out of control? The ones where you start arguing about X, and suddenly it’s turned into an argument about ABCD? This is one of those!
Now that we have clearly broken down the various choices and decisions that fuel these fires rather than snuff them out, let’s take a look at where the “points of no return” occur. You know, those moments when you realize the conversation is going nowhere good and likely won’t be resolved today, if ever? In our example, at 4 o’clock: “I react by criticizing his belief” is one of those moments. As you can see, the moments that led up to that include: “I feel misunderstood and judged,” then “I feel stupid,” and “I begin to doubt myself.” Man, those are awful feelings to have triggered! That’s where the real challenge of this exercise comes in: Can I be self-aware and conscious enough in these arguments to notice when that awful feeling of “I feel judged as stupid” comes up? Can I catch it before I let it trigger me to react from that place of hurt? It’s crucial to figure out a way to be able to do so because this is the first escalation from me feeling hurt to wanting to hurt his feelings!
Of course, no one is perfect. So let’s say we miss this opportunity and we continue the cycle to reach 6 o’clock. Now, in addition to feeling stupid, I’m feeling small and dismissed and sad that My Person doesn’t get me. That’s brings us to 7 o’clock, where I start to question whether he truly is the right person for me since he’s making me feel so misunderstood. That, right there, is my second opportunity to pivot a “point of no return” moment into something productive. If I can recognize that I’m jumping to conclusions because I am hurt, that awareness could prompt me to pause and say to my boyfriend, “I’m feeling hurt right now. I realize that I feel misunderstood by you and that makes me feel really sad.”
See what happened there? Something new happened! By replacing 8 o’clock with a new 12 o’clock, instead of my saying something mean that makes him feel attacked and then defensive, I started us on a new, healthier cycle by explaining exactly what was happening for me internally. And whenever we introduce something new into the cycle, we break it! It’s no longer clockwork! It’s no longer the same cycle. Who knows what will happen now, but it could be the moment we stop arguing and we start connecting. Whatever happens, that’s the exciting part! We’ve moving toward a different ending because we broke the bad cycle.
The goal of laying out these recurring cycles of negativity like clockwork is to try and break them by doing something different within those cycles going forward. Some moments might be easier to interrupt than others. But all it takes is one little change and you’re out of the cycle! Of course, it’s possible that the changes you make could create new negative cycles. The point is to keep breaking those too until you’ve created only positive cycles that reinforce the feelings you want to have with that other person.
You’ll know you’ve reprogrammed your cycle to one that is positive when, the moment either of you feel triggered, you acknowledge what it is stirring up within you and, rather than fire back, you say exactly what you’re feeling. For example, “I’m realizing that what you just said is making me feel like I’m not smart.” Then the other person has the opportunity to alleviate that concern. What is love, after all, but making one another’s insecurities smaller until they don’t exist anymore?
And remember, most of the time, the things that really get under our skin or hurt us the most have little to do with the other person. The other person just happens to trigger something, sort of like stepping over a landmine that was already there.
Which leaves us with a funny quote by Liz Gilbert, “How come your family knows how to push your buttons? Because they installed them!”