The Mind's Traffic* l September/October 2015

It’s our fast reactions that get us into trouble: “I can’t believe you did such a stupid thing!” or “What the hell were you thinking?” or “You’re a real ____!” When words erupt quickly, it’s the emotional brain reacting, not the logical brain responding. How can we learn to slow ourselves down — and keep emotions in check — so that the logical brain has a chance to guide us toward our best selves?

One way is by developing the ability to non-judgmentally observe our thoughts and emotions as they stir. Consider this metaphor: imagine yourself sitting on a bench at the side of a busy highway. The highway is your active mind with its endless traffic — its constant flow of thoughts and feelings (emotions). Sitting atop each passing car is a sign representing your every thought and feeling. One car carries a sign indicating “Angry,” another carries “Sad,” another “Contented.” Other cars’ signs indicate “What to purchase at the grocery” and “Remember to phone the in-laws” and “Assembling the holiday gift list.” The mind’s traffic never stops — not for you, not for any of us.

Most of us spend our days as a passenger bouncing from one car to the next amid the mind’s constant traffic.

How much better we’d feel — calmer, more content — if, even occasionally, we'd step out of the traffic and move to the bench at the side of the road where we just observe the traffic. “There’s my anger … there’s my fear … there’s worrying about bills … there’s fretting over that work deadline.” It’s a very different experience to sit on the side of the highway and just be aware of the traffic rather than being stuck in it.

Sitting on the bench with awareness — it’s called mindfulness,i, the ability to observe the steady flow of thoughts and feelings passing through the mind. As we develop the mindfulness skill, we learn to observe and accept our emotions without expressing them and without judging them good or bad, right or wrong. As we learn to slow down and refrain from being in the grip of our emotions, we create the necessary space for the logical brain to step in.

After a lifetime caught up in the mind’s constant traffic, it’s hard to move to the side of the road. It takes regular mindfulness practice. Books and apps and workshops can show you the way. The smartphone app Headspace is a good place to start.

This month’s Tip addresses the question posed at the end of the last Tip: How do we slow ourselves down, so as to not react too quickly to what we hear or see?
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness for Beginners. (Sounds True, Inc: Boulder, CO). 2012.

Your Third Ear l July 2015

You’re at a party. Alcohol is flowing. After a half-hour chatting with others, you spot your partner across the room and meander over. Almost instantly, she complains that you’ve abandoned her. Her tone is surprisingly harsh. Do you hear the likely sound of alcohol influencing what she’s saying, and making it impossible — you know this from experience — to have a productive conversation?

You’re fixing dinner when your partner comes home. Immediately you sense his tenseness. Your greeting receives a short, curt reply. He asks if you’ve brought in the mail, then quickly turns away. Do you hear the likely sound of a rough day, or maybe bad commute traffic, coloring his words and tone?

The two of you are debating a decision that needs resolution by the end of the week. The conversation has deteriorated; you’re both frustrated and tired. Your partner erupts with hurtful words of criticism and anger. Do you hear the sound of her emotional brain hijacking her logical brain? (see Two Brains)

We all have a Third Ear, but we don’t always use it. The Third Ear hears beyond the surface words to a spouse’s underlying mood or emotions. With our Third Ear we’re like an audience listening while staying in our seats, never climbing onto the stage to join the drama. While hearing something potentially button-pushing, the Third Ear’s signal reminds us to refrain from taking the bait … and to aim for Being Smart instead of Being Right (see Right Versus Smart).

Here’s what listening with the Third Ear might lead us to say in the examples above:

  1. Let’s talk about this in the morning. For now, I’ll stay by your side.
  2. Do I detect difficult feelings right now? Talk to me, tell me what’s going on.
  3. We’re both worked up right now. Let’s take a break and continue the conversation after we’ve calmed down.

To listen with our Third Ear, we need to control our own emotional reactivity, our tendency to get quickly hooked by our partner’s words or tone. That can only be done by moving slowly, as it takes the Third Ear — compared to our customary hearing — a bit more time to “hear” what’s going on. In the next Couples Tip of the Month, we’ll tackle the question of how to slow ourselves down.

Unleash Vitality l May/June 2015

Is the relationship too flat and lifeless, lacking vitality? Maybe you’re not telling the truth often enough.

Most of us hate to make waves; we strive to avoid conflict, even mild friction. In our determination to keep tension to a minimum, we step away from being honest when we suspect that honesty might agitate otherwise calm waters. Here are some ways we step away from honesty:

  • Instead of talking about something troubling us, we avoid it.
  • Instead of addressing something our spouse brings to our attention, we maneuver away from the main point.
  • We conveniently omit information that would be relevant or of interest to our spouse.
  • We focus on a lesser part of an issue instead of the more serious (and difficult) part.
  • We cut short conversations by allowing our defensiveness, or our display of anger, to distract from the real issue.
  • We deliver the silent treatment to avoid dealing with something.

Even when we’re not the partner perpetrating avoidance, we may be an accomplice. When we knowingly go along with the aforementioned tactics — allowing ourselves to be distracted from the main point, ignoring our radar’s signals that something doesn’t quite feel right, failing to return to an issue after the hijacking by anger or upset — we become an accomplice to the dishonesty.

Assess the measure of honesty in your relationship. If you and your partner often step away from truth telling, ask yourselves:

  • Why aren’t we more open and honest with one another?
  • What are we afraid will happen if we were?
  • What price does our relationship pay by being less than honest?

Often the price is a kind of relationship apathy or boredom. That’s because, as all couples know, truth telling can make waves. One of us may hear something unexpected and unsettling, triggering debate or distress and sometimes frightening levels of emotion … perhaps even challenging our sense of relationship security. But making waves — when respectfuli partners spar with one another respectfully — infuses energy and aliveness. Delivering honesty can unleash the vitality that over time gets lost if we customarily settle for the calm of too-still waters.


i When lively discussion and debate typically lead to hurtful encounters, making waves may be ill-advised. Instead, review our Couples Tip archives for its communication suggestions, or seek professional counseling to develop the skills that will strengthen your partnership.