Last week I was having a phone conversation with an old friend when I learned something new about myself. Hopefully it might be helpful to others, too. Let me set the stage for you.
This friendship goes back decades, although we didn’t have much contact for many years. I’ve always felt a close bond with this person, who is a bit of an intellectual provocateur, often delightfully so. One of the things that frequently characterized our interactions right from the start was that he liked to push my buttons in a good-natured way in order to shake up my sacred cows, so to speak.
Now this friend – let’s call him Mack – was always much better at spontaneous debate than I was. This hasn’t changed. I’ve always had more brain function in writing. I need to research, formulate thoughts, process feelings, edit, then present. Often I have no clue what I think, or even feel, until I see it come out the ends of my fingertips via a keyboard. He excels at verbal sparring but disputation is far from my forte.
Mack and I are on quite opposite ends of the political spectrum these days. In that phone call he wanted to talk about the protests and the riots happening in the wake of the George Floyd killing, the current administration, the "welfare state" of his perception, and all that. Neither of us was persuading the other, and while he was having fun, I was getting annoyed.
Admittedly, it’s not one of my best traits that when I get annoyed and too many of my buttons are getting pushed at once, I have a bad habit of getting quite sarcastic. And when I’m not careful, I’ll wield that sarcasm intentionally as a lash with a Scorpionic sting to it. Told you – not my most endearing personality feature.
So in this conversation with Mack, as my sarcasm was rising, I was biting my tongue not to get really mean in response. I value our relationship more than winning an argument. I think he does too. That’s when I initiated a version of the STOP technique taught in DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). Actually, I’ve never been trained in DBT, but I must have picked up this technique from my own therapist at some point.
The first step in STOP is literally to stop participating in what’s causing distress. I called a halt to the that conversation topic with Mack by jokingly saying that I was going to need a bottle of wine to recover from it. That, plus the fact that we'd been talking for almost 90 minutes, pretty much ended the phone call.
The next step is to take a break from the situation or interaction causing distress. The ended call was a natural break. This gave my emotions time to settle instead of feeling like they were rushing at me, or running me over. But now instead of being annoyed with the topic, I began to worry whether my inability to keep up in the tense debate had caused a rupture in our relationship. Seems talking politics these days has the potential to do that even between good friends.
The third STOP step is to observe how you’re feeling. I started observing through journaling what I was feeling energetically, somatically, and emotionally. I discovered a couple surprising things. The experience of the conversation was one of feeling his more than six foot tall body towering over my barely 5'6" height. I realized then that I had felt intimidated in the discussion, as if I were trapped in a corner. The sensation of “trappedness” produced a palpable physical sense of vulnerability of the sort I’d feel on a dark night walking alone in a bad part of town.
In reality, I have known since we were 5 years old that Mack would never physically hurt me, so this sense of endangerment I had subconsciously experienced in the discussion wasn't a fear of him per se. It was rather interesting to know that and to feel the somatic sense simultaneously. Holding both the knowing and the sensing at the same time allowed me to distance completely from the annoyance, and look at the experience with equanimity (non-reactiveness).
That’s when I realized that that sense of being towered over or trapped in a corner was for me the somatic sense of feeling incapable of standing up for myself when challenged. That feeling was as familiar as it was briefly distressing. And that was the second surprise – I realized that this is the subconscious sensory feeling I get when spontaneously verbally challenged and I am unprepared to hold my own with facts and figures.
To mix metaphors, in the moment of such a button pushing challenge, I also feel like I'm stepping into an abyss, like there is no ground under me, and all is dark so I don't know where I am or where I'm going.
The fourth step in STOP is to proceed mindfully. This happened several hours later when Mack contacted me to say he hoped he hadn't upset me. Another conversation ensued about how having our perceptions and beliefs challenged is good for us, that it provides the potential for learning, and thereby, sometimes even fosters growth.
Having the chance to observe on several levels what I had been experiencing that was the real cause of my distress – my own subconscious reactions, rather than the disagreements during the discussion – was instructive and enlightening. It didn’t bother me a bit to be aware of that cause, and I was actually fascinated with the awareness.
So I present this anecdote as a teaching story for anyone who finds themselves triggered in conversations about current politics. Stopping a tense moment, taking a break, observing your responses, and coming back with new awareness can be done without damaging relationships. This process can even help dissipate distress and prevent holding grudges against friends whose opinions and perceptions are different from your own.