Most readers of Psychology Today are a bit more in tune with that famous psychological question – how do you feel? While this question can make some people’s eyes roll to the back of their head and send them running as far away from their interrogator as possible, even the most psychologically inquisitive person who gets a thrill out of deep self-exploration can get stumped by this question when posed at certain times.
I’m here to offer a simpler solution to getting along with others without resorting to that dreaded feeling question.
Feelings can be complex. Old memories and unconscious associations can be triggered. Fear of abandonment can come up and leave someone flooded and in distress for seemingly no apparent reason. Some people—and lots of men—have been raised not to feel and are genuinely at a loss when they are asked to identify a feeling. Or worse, they have been abused for their feelings.
Therapists attempt to go around these delicate situations by asking the question differently, such as having the person identify any sensations they feel in their body or to name a color associated with their sensate state. It can be quite a lengthy fishing expedition and sometimes people just don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to it. They just want to get along and feel good (see, feeling states can’t totally be eradicated), so here’s a simpler way of connecting to your loved ones (or those pesky work people when you’re at the office).
While our feelings are complex, our primal states are simpler. We get hungry and we eat. We feel tired and we sleep. We get cold and we don more clothing. In relationships, the amygdala part of our brain processes four reactions from others and responds accordingly. You may have heard of fight, flight, or freeze when someone feels in danger. There’s also a warm loving response when someone is met with safety and love.
To further simplify the amygdala response, let’s put it in three easy motives to understand—attack, avoid or approach. People are either in attack mode (fight), avoid mode (flight or a more sinister form of attack mode), or approach (love, warmth, connection).
Here is the simple part. People tend to give what they receive. You don’t have to understand all the feelings someone else is feeling. Just ask yourself what you are giving them. Are you inadvertently avoiding or attacking them? Can you regroup and approach instead? Even if it is just energetic, try to engage via a warmer connecting approach.
Let’s think about text exchanges for a moment. Before you reply, ask if you’re attacking or approaching. Or are you blowing them off on purpose and falling into an avoidance mode?
If you are feeling attacked or ignored, can you recognize your response? Are you attacking back or playing the deadly silent treatment game? Can you redirect and offer a healthier approach?
In communicating with each other, can you talk about the attack-avoid-approach ways of responding and make an agreement to self-assess and commit to trying to approach each other over everything else. If you do get into conflict, you can now discuss these three ways you are responding to each other and hopefully re-engage with a more loving approach method for connecting.
Of course, if this conversation helps illuminate deeper feelings, like that one person feels afraid of abandonment when the other person isn’t communicating. Or that the other person has shame and feels like they’re a failure when they are met with complaints about the timeliness of their communication, well great! Insights into our behaviors can really move us forward. Or just keep it simple and recognize when you’re in attack, avoid and approach mode.