I am feeling deeply for all those who are saying, “I can’t.”
I can’t tolerate this relationship anymore, I can’t fix this, I can’t accept the way things are being done, I can’t.
I can’t is your ‘No’. Finding the courage to hear your own boundary is a huge win. It’s a place that so many of us never get to. We’re still finding ways of trying to turn things into the shape of a ‘Yes’, and so we never hear the ‘No’ that stays hidden below.
Earlier this year I spoke my ‘No’ into a situation where I usually do that exact thing I just described. I was so beat from bending myself into a shape that wasn’t me. So drained from the energy of trying to change the other person into what I needed them to be. It was exhausting, and when I had nothing left, there was the ‘No’.
My next reaction was to get the hell out of dodge. Once the Truth of the ‘No’ hit me, a part of me was like, ‘What the hell are we still hanging around here for? Let’s get to a safe place where we don’t have to deal with this anymore.’
I wanted to run away to a place where I wouldn’t be confronted with situations that I would need to say ‘No’ too. I just didn’t have the energy.
I was ‘flighting’; my word for the hard-wired fear reaction that is intended to keep us safe. Another option would be to ‘fight’. Which might look like argue my case, prove that I’m right, get them to back down and change their mind.
Since both of these options evolved as ways to protect ourselves, at first they seem perfectly normal and justified. However, when you take a step back, their true colors can be revealed; true colors of trauma-response.
Without getting into the ins and outs of trauma, I will try to simplify things.
Fear reactions can look like fight (move towards the threat), flight (move away from the threat), or freeze (don’t move at all and hope the threat doesn’t notice you.
In the wild, this is a really healthy response to keep yourself alive.
In our daily lives, we find ourselves in situations that may or may not be life threatening. In the non-life threatening situations, the fear response may still happen because we feel an emotional threat, which feels just as dangerous to us as a physical threat. Situations that feel like an emotional threat often feel like life or death when they are triggering or repeating a situation from earlier in our life when we first felt the emotional pain.
For example, maybe as a child a parent left us; either physically or emotionally. We felt abandoned. So now as an adult, any time someone doesn’t meet our need, say what they said they would do, or some other human glitch, our abandonment fear gets triggered.
Option 1: Fight: Go towards the person and try to convince them why they should stay, because you’re so amazing etc.
Option 2: Flight: Go away from the person and leave them first, don’t return their calls, etc.
Option 3: Freeze: Do nothing. Become frozen in a pool of anxiety and shameful unworthiness, where you can’t even really function in the rest of your life.
I’ve done all these things at different points of my life in different relationships, and it’s not so much the action that is the thing to try to change, but the driving force underneath it.
Choices made out of fear don’t get you anywhere different from where you are. All that happens is you keep playing out the same scenario over and over again because that’s all your nervous system knows how to do. You think you’re keeping yourself safe, and at first you probably are, or at least were. Later on, you’re doing more harm than good because you’re unknowingly stuck in a trauma vortex.
Here’s the one thing that breaks the spell: Love.
I know that’s way too oversimplified. It’s also true.
Love is what overcomes Fear. Love is what helps you take one baby step at a time out of the loop of trying to control a situation (fight), trying to avoid a situation (flight), or totally numbing out (freeze).
When I’m saying Love, I don’t mean sitting around singing Kumbaya. It takes many shapes and forms, including the bravery of engaging support, the acceptance of where things are, the permission to feel like shit, the kindness of slowing things down so your nervous system can re-regulate and catch up with you.
There are so many options when it comes to Love. And truthbomb: they are not always easy. Sometimes it is easier to stay stuck in Fear than to learn to Love.
Especially if you think the end result of the situation might end being the same. Maybe whether or not you choose Fear or Love, you still end up leaving the marriage. So why go through all the growing pains of learning to Love?
The difference is, with Love, it feels like Flow. It feels like Flow because you’re stepping into the greater Flow and letting life unfold organically and naturally, vs forcing a knee jerk reaction that circumvents the full evolution of You.
Love may still lead you to separation, or some other kind of death. And that will still feel painful. It also tends to bring a flavour of peace.
Below is a reflective practice I have used for a number of years that helps to figure out what is your fear reaction, and where is the Love. Try it for yourself the next time you come to a place of ‘I can’t’, and aren’t sure what to do next.
- What is your Desired Outcome for the situation? Eg I want him to stop doing xyz because I can’t take it anymore.
- Should check-in: What is the core belief or expectation you have about this situation? Eg I should have said something; it’s up to me to fix this.
- Inner Critic check-in: How are you judging/criticizing yourself or the other? Eg It’s my fault because…. It’s his fault because…
- Fear check-in: What are you most afraid will happen? Eg I made the wrong choice. I’ll keep making the wrong choice.
- How am I Trying to change the situation? Where am I trying to prove, fix, rescue, keep up a facade?
- How am I Hiding from my truth to save the situation? What am I not saying, running away from, avoiding?
- Truthbomb: What is actually True for me right now? Eg I’m exhausted, fed up, feel hopeless, angry, etc
- Next Right Move: What’s the most loving thing I could do right now? Eg Take a nap, call a friend, cry my eyes out, etc
Until your next right move is ‘Leave’ consider that the impulse to leave might just be a default fear response to run away and keep yourself safe. Totally valid and also it’s not the real you.
Until your next right move is ‘Go to therapy’, consider that the impulse to fix this and prove that you’re right, is another way of keeping yourself safe. Also valid, and not the whole you.
Until your next right move is, ‘Curl up in bed and read a good book’, consider that the impulse to distract yourself and avoid dealing with the situation could be your version of ‘freeze’. Legit, and it’s also as if you were playing dead.
Find your Truth. Find the Love. Those two will lead you home.