By now you’ve certainly heard about Paula Deen’s recent “Foot in Mouth” incident.

Paula, like millions of people, is suffering from what I call Foot IN Mouth disease.

Could you be suffering from this same problem?

To answer this question, imagine that your friend, family member, kid or partner has miffed you to the max.

What do you do?

If you’re like most people, you let your tongue rip, saying every unedited thought that enters your brain.

If this is so, then your tongue very well may be your own worst enemy.

If your relationship is hanging in the balance because of what you have said in the heat of the moment or a relationship has already been crushed under the weight of your cruel words, don’t despair. You can  develop the skill of keeping a civil tongue in your mouth, even when you feel like biting someone’s head off.

If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that it is the norm for people to "act out" their anger in various dysfunctional ways, such as using hostile words (sarcasm, threats, yelling, name calling, verbal bashing, character assassinations) or hostile behavior (slamming doors, pushing, shoving, etc.).

While we obtain a temporary sense of satisfaction by getting our rocks off on someone who has angered us, on the rocks is where our lives and relationships end up when we let our tongues rip!

This is because emotional venting has a negative effect on the person who is being dumped on. The dumpee stores up resentment and pays the dumper back in spades.

Now the war is on and your relationship is also on…the skids!

Rather than delivering unfiltered emotional sewage on others, we all need to cultivate the skill of Partial Identification. This fancy terms means being able to put yourself on another person’s emotional side of the fence. Now I’m not talking about total merger, in which case you lose yourself entirely. Instead, I’m talking about cultivating the skill of being able to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, not denying your emotional reality, while at the same time putting yourself in another person’s shoes, so that you know ahead of time what the other person will likely feel when you say or do x, y or z.

Like all skills, this one improves with practice.

If you practice Partial Identification during moments of calm, the skill will be firmly under your psychological belt when you need it most: when you’re angry. But, make no mistake, no matter how much you have practiced, when trouble hits, you will find it very difficult to partially identify. However difficult it may be when you are confronted by your partner or anyone else who angers you, you must temporarily put between parentheses your own ideas, opinions, or emotions and make space in your mind and heart for the other person. If you succeed, your Partial Identification will express itself in sentences like: “I see what you mean” or “Yes, I can understand that you felt x, y or z when I did this, or when I said that.”

For the process to be successful, you must resist the temptation to defend yourself; you must also be willing to accept responsibility for the fact that your behavior or words have created discomfort, pain, hurt, or anger in the other.

Obviously, in order to understand what the other person feels and take responsibility for your part in creating that pain you must be sufficiently secure of your worth. You must possess a solid self-esteem.

To help yourself accept your relational shortcomings another condition must also be met. You must realize that it is not possible for your partner to accept and identify with globally negative statements. This is why global accusations, insults, and name-calling (what I call Fight Traps) are the enemies of relationship happiness. For example, “You did it again.”; “You will always be the same bastard (or the same bitch).”; “You never show me love and respect” are all difficult to accept due to their globality.

Expecting the attacked partner to identify with these across-the-board condemnations would be tantamount to requesting that person to commit psychological suicide. Similarly, the attacked partner may be tempted to use sarcastic self-deprecations, under the pretext of identifying with the accuser. (“Yes, you are right, I’m an abominable husband. Yes, I understand, I’m a beast, utterly stupid, an sob.. etc.”) When such sarcastic answers are made to an accusing partner, they cannot be sincere or express any form of identification because, who in his right mind could identify with such statements about him or herself?

In order for the confronted partner to partially identify with the confronter's statements or feelings, the confrontation must be limited to a specific aspect of behavior. For example, a statement like “When you used the word x, y, or z, I felt very hurt” is an acceptable confrontation that permits the confronted partner—through further questioning—to understand the feelings that his/her behavior created.

In essence, it is the responsibility of the confronting partner to construct a precise and focused description of the problem and to present it coolly. In so doing, the person who is on the receiving end will find it easier to partially identify with what is being said.

You need to also realize that, during a successful conflict discussion, Partial Identification is practiced by both partners. The confronting partner has two tasks: he/she must speak in a way that the mate can tolerate and must also be able to Partially Identify with his or her mate’s reactions to the confrontation. And the confronted partner must Partially Identify with the feelings that his or her mate presents. So, as you can see, both partners need to Partially Identify with each other.

How can you learn to Partially Identify with your mate? You both must open your hearts to each other and tap into your feelings of love. I can’t stress this point enough: love is the key that unlocks your heart and permits you to Partially Identify with others.

How can you access feelings of love when you are angry? A good way to do so is to recall those special moments together, those rare periods of total identification that I spoke of before. You may recall a particularly excellent sexual encounter; you might choose to recall one of your partner’s qualities that you especially love. Whatever works for you.

Exercises to Partially Identify with Another Person

Exercise One

In addition to accessing your feelings of love, another way to perfect your Partial Identification skills is to temporarily switch roles. Select an area of conflict and play your mate’s position, and vice versa. Make sure to play your roles believably. Feel the way you know your mate feels; state your mate’s position. If you have played your part well, you will have an easier time empathizing with your mate’s emotions. And, if you make the effort to mentally switch roles when conflicts arise in the future, you will be taking a giant step toward resolution.

Exercise Two

Sometimes, it is difficult to partially identify because you are having a hard time relating to why your mate feels the way he or she does. To get around this, forget the situation that triggered his/her feelings, and, instead, recall an instance in which you felt what your partner feels. Once you have the feelings in mind, you can more easily understand your mate, even if you can’t relate to the specific event that triggered these emotions.

To further cultivate your Partial Identification skills, it is very important to practice mindfulness so that you become aware of what you’re feeling from moment-to-moment. Without this awareness, your feelings can easily be brushed under your emotional rug, which transforms your tongue into a ticking time bomb that can explode at any moment; instead of being in charge, you are loose cannon on deck that is at risk of firing off ammunition without warning.

For most of us, we begin closing our eyes to our feelings in childhood, when we learn to swallow whatever we feel in order to avoid our parents’ anger and punishments.

Then, we develop unconscious defense mechanisms to help us keep these unwanted feelings, especially our angry feelings, under wraps.

These unconscious defense mechanisms come with a high price. For example, when we deny and avoid our feelings of anger, we can develop depression, anxiety and panic attacks, as well as physical ailments, like ulcers, headaches and colitis.

Or we may use the displacement defense mechanism to ward off anger. What happens in this case is we temporarily bury our anger, which we later dump or displace onto someone else. For example, someone who uses the displacement might yell at his/her spouse when angry with the boss.

In the case of Paula Deen, one has to wonder if her hostile, racist comment was a symptom of the displacement defense in action. Was she venting anger that had built-up from another, unrelated source? In fact, racism can be a displacement in which a person misdirects his/her anger from one person onto an entire group of people.

In addition to mastering the Partial Identification skills that I discussed above, let me share with you my 5-Step cure Foot IN Mouth Disease.

The next time you feel yourself about to blow, practice the following steps instead.    

Step One: Recognize the Warning Signs Before Shooting Off Your Mouth

When you pay attention, you will notice plenty of signs that you’re getting peeved. You may notice your respiration increases, you may start to perspire, you may feel a knot in your gut or chest. Notice these sensations.

Step Two: Hold Your Horses and Your Tongue!

When you start to feel yourself becoming annoyed, freeze in your tracks. Say and do nothing.

Step Three: Take Five

Distance yourself from whatever stimuli is triggering you. If you can go into action and launch a verbal missile, you can go into action and walk the other way. Go splash water on your face, take a walk around the block. Chill.

Step Four: Evaluate Why You’re Getting Hot

While you’re chilling, consciously identify the deepest source of your emotional distress. If you’re really hot under the collar, suspect that an Old Scar from childhood have been awakened. Old Scars are notorious for heating the emotional climate. My book Till Death Do Us Part (Unless I Kill You First) will show you how to identify these scars and heal them. When you’re healed, you will soon find that you become less easily triggered.

Step Five: Choose Your Words Consciously

When you return to the scene of the crime, make sure that you use your Partial Identification skills, seeing to it that you only say and do what you know will be helpful to not only you, but also to the other person and your relationship. 

Always remember that we are all being called in each and every moment to consciously choose to practice patience and charity with ourselves and others. All of us, including Paula, are works in progress, as we struggle daily to perfect the skill of Partial Identification. Sadly, the punitive measures that were taken against Paula are yet another example of the harshness that is running rampant in our world. She made an error. She apoligized. Is there no room for redemption?

Rather than dishing Paula a plate of her own medicine, I would rather choose to view her gaffe as an impetus for us all to redouble our efforts to work towards a global cure for Hoof IN Mouth disease.  As we all exercise control and think before we speak, consciously choosing kinder and gentler ways of communicating, especially when we're angry, each of us is doing our part to end the verbal bashing that runs rampant in society, the political arena and in our personal lives.  

Avaiable NOW on Amazon, Dr. Turndorf's new book, Kiss Your Fights Good-bye: Dr. Love's 10 Simple Steps to Cooling Conflict and Rekindling Your Relationship.

About the Author

Jamie Turndorf Ph.D.

Dr. Jamie Turndorf Ph.D., is a relationship therapist, emotional communication expert, author and advice columnist.

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