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Automatic Pilot

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It all starts innocently enough. You and a friend are having a simple conversation. He tells you that something is bothering him …something you said over dinner the other evening. “Remember when you made that remark about the war in Iraq?” he asks, “well, I thought it was in bad taste.” Before you know it, you’re reeling. You feel shamed. You want to defend yourself, to explain the rationale behind your comment. You want to reiterate your position, using more eloquent language that perhaps better explains your views. You even want to apologize for offending him, after all, you never meant to insult anyone. Instead, the words fly out of your mouth faster than you can think, “Well I think you just aren’t smart enough to understand what I meant.” What??? Did you really just resort to 8 year old playground protocol? This is what I call being on automatic pilot. When feelings of shame or fear are roused within us, our rational self is comandeered by our emotions. We go into survival mode, an emotional fight-flight, and immediately want to attack or avoid the person we now perceive as a threat. This behavior is instinctive, unconscious, and as automatic as our breathing. But, unlike our breath, it does not serve us well. Often, these automatic survival responses damage our relationships in their effort to keep us feeling safe. To get off automatic pilot, we need to consciously process our feelings in the moment WITHOUT reacting, so that we may respond in a conscious manner. This involves owning the visceral sensations and emotions that arise for us, describing them, and then taking a time out before saying anything more. In the example above, for instance, you might stop and recognize the shame response as it arises. It may feel like a pit in the stomach, or a tensing of the shoulders. Next, you would identify these sensations as an experience of shame, or discomfort. A conscious response, then, would be something to the effect of, “I’m feeling uncomfortable, and a little ashamed right now that you would find my remark to be in bad taste. I’d like to talk more about this, but I need to get a handle on my feelings first.” Then, taking as much time as you need to allow the fight-flight response to pass, you could come back into your conscious processing, and then have a mature and meaningful discussion. Taking stock in your emotional process is much like noticing your level of alertness before you get behind the wheel after happy hour. Reacting while strong feelings are present is a D.U.I. – discussion under the influence of emotion. Allowing yourself sufficient time to “sober up,” lets you to take control of your responses so that you can be a rational spokesperson for your own experience. This practice allows helps you care for yourself while protecting and preserving your relationships.


By Dr. Marla Cohen 06/12/2007 05:38 PM

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