Ever gone for a walk in the woods and thought you saw a snake? 

If so, you likely did one of three things:

1) Stopped dead in your tracks. 

2) Shrieked and ran like a little girl!  (Okay, I admit it. That's what I did.  Maybe you're cooler under that kind of pressure.) 

3) Took a quick second look, heaved a huge sigh of relief, and said, "Whew!  That's a stick not a snake!   

Your mind turns sticks into snakes

Many readers of Psychology Today blogs already know that humans' first reactions are negative because the brain's main function is self-preservation.  To that end, sensory information is assessed in a flash for threat value.  Can you look at the picture above without thinking snake pit?  That's your mind turning sticks into snakes.  Even when you know better, you can't help thinking it. 

Negative first reactions in relationships

When first reactions are consistently negative in relationships, satisfaction suffers.  Can you look at a sink full of dirty dishes without thinking, "I'm married to a disrespectful slacker?"  Can you see your partner laughing with an attractive friend without thinking, "What if they're having an affair?"  Even when we don't want to go there, our minds perceive slackers or cheaters.

How to take command of your mind when it turns sticks into snakes

  • Understand that negative first reactions are part of being human.  And condemning yourself or your partner for negative first reactions is, well, a negative first reaction to a negative first reaction.   
  • Recognize that negative first reactions are aggressive or defensive - neither of which is favored by partners.
  • Practice calming your "fight or flight" reaction and redirecting your thoughts toward a second reaction.  Once you have redirected your thoughts, you can respond constructively.  For example: If you think that your partner might be having an affair with your friend, take a deep breath and a serious look at your own insecurities.
  • Choose constructive responses based in self-responsibility.  For example: Once you calm yourself and take a look at your own insecurities, you will likely choose not to accuse your partner or friend.  And, in this case, choosing not to be destructive is a constructive response. 
  • Practice self-responsibility.  This means managing your own expectations, negative emotions, insecurities, and dark moods.

Of course, if your second look reveals an actual snake, feel free to shriek and run like a little girl!

Several previous posts address these five points in more detail:  How to not take it personally; This is your brain on disenchantment; The One and Only Marital Obligation; Bad advice: Follow your heart; Walking the path alone: Self-responsible spouse; How to Train Your Dragon

For more about the book, visit everybodymarriesthewrongperson.com 

About the Author

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person.

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