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What Does It Mean to Do Your Own Work?

Six steps to doing your own work.

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Charlie: There is a reason why we use the phrase "doing your own work" so often. It's because of how strong the tendency is for all of us to be much more aware and reactive to what our partner is doing wrong rather than our contributions to the breakdown and what we can do to improve things. This work takes intentionality, discipline, and practice. Don't worry, there are and will be many opportunities to practice that will present themselves. Believe it or not, you may at some point get to the place where you actually see them as opportunities rather than "problems." Until you begin to see the breakdowns are opportunities, they will probably show up to you as AFGOs (another frigging growth opportunity).

These are things to keep in mind and work on that will serve you both in enhancing the quality of your relationship. Most of these recommendations apply to both of you while some may be more relevant to one or the other. A breakdown is an incident or circumstance that activates an emotional response in one of you that triggers a reaction in the other and creates an interactive defensive and/or controlling pattern that quickly spins out of control. The work is not to avoid the activation of these reactive patterns since at this point at least, that is an unrealistic expectation. That will come later. In the meantime, work to interrupt the pattern when it occurs as quickly as possible. Here's what that requires:

  1. Acknowledge that you're both in a pattern or "triggered." Either of you can do this and this recognition is often enough to begin to defuse the tension a bit. The key word here, and in most of this work is "we" (as opposed to "you"). Just using the word "you" in reference to a problem in which one of you is blaming (implicitly or explicitly) the other is usually enough to throw things into a tailspin. We are all more acutely sensitive to being blamed or judged than we realize. Keeping this in mind is helpful in that this awareness will help you to be more careful in communicating in ways that are more personally accountable ("I" statements related to feelings, rather than "you" statements that are accusatory or judgmental). It is never a good idea and rarely true that the other person is "too sensitive." We are all sensitive. That's just how we are. Most people are in fact too insensitive, largely because they have numbed themselves or checked out in various ways in order to avoid emotional pain that they have no idea how to deal with.
  2. Check in, see what you're feeling, and tell the truth, e.g. I'm feeling hurt, angry, scared, etc. Keep the focus on what you're feeling and don't stop with "mad" since anger is a secondary emotion and there is always something underneath it (usually fear or sadness). Getting to this more vulnerable layer of emotion will make it harder for your partner to maintain an aggressive or defensive posture. Try to keep in mind that it's not the other person's fault that you're feeling what you are, nor their responsibility to make you feel better. They just activated something in you that triggered that emotion. Say more about what triggered the feeling: for example, "when you said/did X, I felt Z." There is a relationship between your words and my feelings, but it's not cause and effect.
  3. Don't interrupt while your partner is expressing their feelings. Let them finish. You may have to bite your tongue, but try not to make it bleed. Keep in mind that you can't listen and try to get them to see your point simultaneously. Not only that, but until they feel truly heard by you, they will have no interest in hearing a word that you say. So it's not only a waste of time to try to get them to get your point before they feel that you've gotten theirs, but it actually will make things worse—a lot worse. Hearing and acknowledging their take on things and their experience without arguing, interrupting shaking your head, or rolling your eyes doesn't necessarily mean that you're in agreement with them. It also doesn't mean that you disagree with them. It just means that you've heard them. Big difference.
  4. When one person has had their say, it's a good idea for the other to paraphrase what they heard them say so that the speaker feels received and understood by the listener. If there is not sufficient understanding, the speaker may have to restate what s/he feels was misunderstood or not heard. When this is complete, it's a good idea to ask if there is anything else. If not, then repeat the process with roles reversed. Do this until both of you feel heard and understood.
  5. Remember to always thank or acknowledge your partner for showing up and being honest and open. This may not lead to a resolution of differences, but the outcome is actually less important than each of you having the experience of being heard and understood without interruption, defensiveness, or argument.
  6. Repeat the process 10,000 times or until the breakdowns stop coming, whichever comes first. (Just kidding, most couples only require about 9,500 repetitions).

This is (obviously) a very basic, bare-bones starter kit.

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