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Losing It

Sarah Chana Radcliffe

Most of us are pleasant people — until someone starts up with us

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


only have so much patience. When my five-year-old doesn’t want to wear anything I pull out of the closet for her on Shabbos morning, I start off with sympathy and understanding. ‘You don’t like this one, honey? Okay. How about this one? No? How about that one then?’ But when I’ve gone through all the options and I’ve got other children to take care of and she’s now lying on the floor screaming, well then, I just lose it. I don’t know how to keep my cool when my kids lose theirs!”

We’re determined to stay calm even when one particular child challenges our peace of mind and our nervous system before leaving the house each morning. We’ve thought about it many times. We’ve prayed for strength. And then, sensing our resolve, this youngster scratches just a little below the surface in exactly the right spot to reduce us once again to a babbling parent-puddle despite all our foresightedness.

“Everyone knows me as a very ‘together’ person. And yet my husband can easily unhinge me. Usually it happens when I complain to him about something. Let’s say I’m annoyed because he didn’t get the kids into bed when I went out for the evening. I start off by greeting him warmly when I get back and asking him how things went (although I can figure it out from watching the kids running around half-dressed and half-eaten plates still sitting on the table and a mess of toys and books strewn everywhere). I’ll put the kids to bed myself, clean up the mess and then, around 11 p.m., when he’s reading quietly in the study, I’ll ever-so-gently ask him if I can speak to him for a moment.

“I use the ‘sandwich’ style of correction, starting off by thanking him for watching the kids and then asking him if he can please make sure they’re in bed by nine next time and then ending off with more praise and appreciation. Unfortunately, none of this ever helps. When he hears the one little complaint, he turns on me. “You don’t get them into bed by nine every night so I don’t know why you’re asking me to do it!” and so on.

“This drives me nuts and I start giving him the statistics of how many nights I do the bedtime routine and what exact percentage of days meet the 9 p.m. deadline and so on, but this only gets him going more.

“He’ll attack me for being blind to my own weaknesses, always hard on him, so unappreciative and so on. This exasperates me so much that all of a sudden I’m screaming at him that this is so unfair and I end up crying, slamming doors, and not talking to him.

“I resolve each time not to fall into this trap but something inside me snaps and I just can’t hold it together.”


Steady During the Storm

Whether we’re triggered by a spouse or a child, we feel helpless. Our cognitive strategy— planning how to respond the next time it happens — dissolves in the face of our feelings of threat. Whether those feelings come from the power signals someone is throwing our way (by yelling, diminishing us verbally, or otherwise unnerving us), or through a sense of injustice, betrayal, deep frustration, or something else, they hijack our cortex (where all our good intentions are stored) and propel us to pull out all stops to “save our lives.” Hence the meltdown.

The key is to be able to hold onto our own sense of safety when our loved ones act out of a sense of threat. What often works far better than thinking about what we’ll do next time, is seeing and practicing what we’ll do. We can imagine ourselves in various scenarios and watch ourselves, as if in a movie, staying emotionally steady and centered. Or, we can act out various scenarios, playing both parts (the intensely negative other person and us).

We hold the posture of stability, we feel our steadiness and strength; we cue this unshakable calm for the future by giving ourselves a verbal or tactile signal to call on when we need it in real life (i.e. think the word “rock,” or touch thumb and forefinger together, or both.)

Then, the next time we’re in this situation in real life, we can use these cues to help us hold our ground.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 638)

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