The Role of Your Nervous System In Your Relationships
There’s been a few relationship patterns that I’ve found myself stuck in over the years that despite wanting to shift it, nothing gave:
Hyper Independence (I don’t need you; I would prefer to only rely on myself)
Maddening communication loops/arguments with my husband despite using all the communication tools known to man
Anxiety with stepping into leadership positions/being seen in my power
Despite multiple decades of therapy, tons of boundary work, and loads of communication tools, being able to shift these relationship patterns didn’t happen until I understood the role my nervous system state played in my relationships and relationship patterns.
Therapy is so wonderful (in fact I still do therapy!) and has its place, but often talking about our past and coming to a cognitive understanding of why we behave the way we do isn’t enough to shift those behaviors and patterns (in fact, it’s just not the way we are wired as humans).
Lemme share a model that explains our behavior patterns that has endeared me to coaching forever and ever and can be applied to any circumstance in your life:
Brooke Castillo’s The Model:
Circumstance: Any neutral, factual thing.
Thought: A one sentence thought about your circumstance.
Emotion: A feeling you get because of the thought.
Action: The response to your feeling with any action, reaction, or non-action.
Result: The results of your actions or non-actions. The results always prove your thought.
A completely neutral circumstance gives you a thought, which gives you an emotion, which leads to an action, which then in turn leads to a result. Let me give an example to help illustrate how this plays out in relationships:
Circumstance: your partner left the dishes in the sink (this is a neutral, factual thing)
Thought: I have to do everything around here!
Action: Pick a fight with your partner
Result: More distance and stuck communication loops with your partner (which ends up proving the thought true by keeping the loop with your partner in place)
As empowering as The Model is to produce change by making us aware of how our thought is linked to our ultimate result, I want to add in the nervous system’s role in all this because without that, we are fighting against ourselves with any attempts at change we are striving for.
The nervous system’s role in all this is that our nervous system state determines our thoughts.
I’m gonna say that again because it’s so damn important:
Our nervous system state determines our thoughts!
Your thoughts are carrying out the marching orders of what your nervous system is communicating to your body, and there’s no way to “think” yourself out of it; you have to show your body that it is safe to come into a regulated state in a language that it understands: the language of sensation.
If you’re in fight or flight, your mind, body, and all of your survival instincts that have evolved to protect you are mobilizing you to fight or flee to protect yourself from a threat (which is determined by what has felt threatening in the past). This means that all of your thoughts are going to be aligned with hypervigilance, defensiveness, fighting, or avoiding.
If you’re in shutdown, your mind, body, and all of your survival instincts are geared towards numbing you from pain. Your thoughts will be aligned with this state to try to keep you numb and not feeling in order to protect you from something it doesn’t believe you can change. You’ll often have thoughts of hopelessness, “what’s the use?”, or “nothing ever changes” when you’re in this space.
In fawn, your mind, body, and your survival instincts are trying to get you to appease others and make sure they are pleased with you to ensure survival as part of the group. Your thoughts will be concerned with how others perceive you, how you need to try to portray yourself, what you need to do to gain or maintain their favor, etc.
When we are in nervous system regulation, our body knows that we are safe in the present moment. As such, our thoughts tend to be open, we feel safe to be vulnerable, able to receive help, able to communicate in a calm, grounded way without projection or blame (non-defended).
Knowing all of this, if we add in the role of the nervous systems, The Model would look something like this:
Circumstance: your partner left the dishes in the sink
[nervous system state is stuck in fight or flight]
Thought: I have to do everything around here! [this thought is determined by being in the nervous system state of fight or flight]
Action: Pick a fight with your partner
Result: More distance and stuck communication loops with your partner
Your nervous system being in fight or flight is what takes the neutral circumstance to something to be angry and fight about.
Without becoming aware of your nervous system state, trying to shift your thought, emotion, action, and result is highly unlikely because you would have to fight your survival instincts that have been designed to keep you alive that we cannot *cognitively* override!
On top of these behavior patterns that are created by your nervous system state, others also pick up on our nervous system state without us having to say a word.
“Words are not our first form of communication. First comes the gesture or the nonverbal communication, then the word is added to it. Language, our ability to name an idea, a feeling, or an object, is built on this initial stage of body/mind communication.
The subtle exchange of emotionally laden signals between people, for example, happens so quickly that we hardly know it’s occurring. Evolution has made the processing of emotions and their communication to others incredibly rapid so that we can pick up on each other’s moods and behavioral signals instantaneously. We communicate as much through our manner, tone, and body as through our words. Volumes are spoken even when few words are exchanged, and this metacommunication can be so fast that we’re hardly aware of what we are picking up on, or, for that matter, sending out.”-Tian Dayton, PhD.
In layman’s terms: you can easily pick up on someone’s “vibe”, right? Someone doesn’t even need to say a word and you just know when they had a bad day? Or have you noticed two people can be saying the exact same words, but it has a very different vibe (because of their nervous system state and how your body is registering it).
Your nervous system state can create defensiveness in the other person (even if you’re saying and doing all the “right” things) and send you off on a negative spiral of relating before you even have time to know what happened!
So, now that we know how foundational our nervous system state is to what we are experiencing in our relationships, what do we do about this?
The first step is learning to have awareness around what nervous system state you’re in.
I can’t emphasize enough that this takes practice and does not happen overnight.
Having a skilled facilitator and space holder to be able to get you in tune with your body sensations and what you’re experiencing is such a crucial step here (and is a large part of my 1:1 work with clients).
For example, I know personally when I’m in a state of fight or flight my body feels like there is a live wire stuck on my insides. My heart rate is noticeably faster, and I feel jittery and anxious. I have a lot of racing thoughts and an overactive mind in this state that tends to catastrophize.
When I’m stuck in shutdown, I feel very lethargic, and like even the simplest tasks take a lot of effort.
I’ve worked with my nervous system enough that I can pick up on what state I’m in quite quickly and work with it. The more you raise your awareness, the more quickly you’ll notice when you’re in a dysregulated state and therefore be able to get yourself back into regulation (which equals more time living in regulation).
The next step after awareness is to use nervous system regulating exercises to show your body (not tell it with your mind because it does not speak the language of the mind) that it’s safe to come back into regulation.
There are specific exercises to use for each nervous system state. Shaking and making gutteral sounds is great to move the excess energy in fight or flight. Gentle movement and mobilizing is wonderful for shutdown. Soothing touch, humming, or grounding is wonderful when in fawn.
Working with someone to help you find the most effective ways for you to first become aware of your nervous system state and then learn how to regulate them is key.
Being able to know how to work with your nervous system and regulate yourself naturally changes your thoughts, which changes your emotions, which changes your actions, which changes your result in your relationship.
Obviously you cannot control the other person, but when one person changes, the whole relationship dynamic shifts.
If you feel like you’ve been fighting against the same relationship patterns that you’ve wanted to shift for forever and nothing has quite stuck, it is very likely your nervous system trying to protect you.
Learning to shift your nervous system into regulation and create safety in your body to allow you to expand into what you’re actually wanting more of in your relationships in tolerable steps is the missing link that often gets missed.
In sharing this with you all today, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge my teachers who have helped me with this personally as well as helping me to understand this missing link that changes lives: Dr. Valerie Rein, Simone Seol, Irene Lyon, Sarah Baldwin, and my personal somatic therapist, Waller Thompson.
I’d love to know how this landed for you and any thoughts you have on it. Comment below and let me know.