When two people come together in partnership they find that their underlying drive for security consistently comes up in the form of defensiveness and reactivity.
Through a process of evolutionary development human beings have created amazing built-in survival systems to keep us safe. These responses to danger are very fast and they don’t take up a lot of energy resources. An example is jumping out of the way of an oncoming vehicle. You don’t think about it (you would already be hit if you did) and suddenly your body responds to the threat by moving out of the way.
Our primitives are also part of what is called procedural memory or body memory. What this means is that once we do something a few times we stop having to think about it and use our ambassadors. This reduces the amount of resources necessary to say, brush our teeth. If we had to think through every habitual action we take (driving, eating, putting our clothe on) we would be overwhelmed all day. So primitive take over these activities and do them for us without much thinking involved. This is really important.
So primitives protect us and they make our lives a lot easier. What’s the problem?
The problem with primitives is that they happen so quickly we often are unable to notice them. We respond with behaviors based on these primitives and end up hurting the people we love. Another way of thinking about primitives is that they are the flight/fight/freeze response to the environment. When we are in those states of nervous system activation we are not capable of thinking or relating very well.
In relationships, this type of primitive response comes up in similar ways. Your partner arrives home and appears to be in an angry mood. This kicks in your threat system. As you attempt to be in relationship there is a severe disconnect because your whole nervous system is in fight/flight response. This makes it difficult to find warm loving things to say to your partner. Instead, you may find something really annoying that your partner does and point it out. You are focusing on the things your partner is doing that are annoying because you are feeling threatened.
Our pre-frontal cortex, or human brain, are where the ambassadors live. This is the part of us that can think through things and plan for the future. It is what separates us from the rest of the animal species in the world.
Ambassadors are where we create amazing things and solve problems. Our pre-frontal cortex is where we can plan a future vacation or a wedding. We can also use our ambassadors to manage our emotional state. “Okay, Bryce…calm down that was not a big deal…deep breaths, deep breaths.”
Ambassadors track our relationships. We are paying attention to our own states and the states of those around us and deciding how we want to respond. This allows for the complexity of human relationships.
The problem with using our ambassadors is that they take a lot of resources from our bodies. This is why our nervous system tries to limit their usage. It is also why, after thinking all day long, you are often under resourced when you come home (or, as is often the case today, turn off your computer and leave the guest room). Our ambassadors don’t work very well when we are under resourced.
It is the ambassadors that are better at being in relationship. The primitives are concerned about survival while the ambassadors are concerned more about connection. When we are in our thinking brain and our nervous system is regulated (primitives are not active) it is easy to flow in our relationships, play, connect and feel like ourselves.
This doesn’t mean our ambassadors are perfect. They can be stubborn, judgmental and hostile. What it does mean is that when our nervous systems are in the best place to be in connection we are in a more regulated place with our pre-frontal cortex turned on.
The challenge in relationships is that we often do our relationship work when we are dysregulated. This means there is a conflict in the relationship. Someone is unhappy and brings up what they are concerned their partner is doing or not doing. The other partner finds this wrong or unjust and their primitives start to detect a threat. This defensive or reactive response then kicks on the primitives of the partner that was trying to talk about an issue and the couple is off to the races. Both people are dysregulated and in a a really difficult place to work through the issue.
So how do we overcome our primitive responses to our loved ones?
I think the first step is being honest about how our nervous systems respond to our partners. It is acknowledging that you have some control over things and not putting all of the responsibility on your partner/loved one. Once you are taking responsibility for your part, you can start to focus on how you can change.
When we want to change our reactive tendencies we first have to notice them. This is where our ability to be aware of our internal states can really support us. What does this mean? It means noticing the racing heart, tight chest and bulging eyes that are a part of a fight/flight state. Once you hove noticed this is what is happening in your body you have a much better chance to regulate your nervous system. This in the moment awareness, is what self-regulation is.
Self-regulation is the ability to use our body and brain to come back from hyper- and hypoactivation states. Reclaiming our ability to self-regulate liberates us from living life as if danger is lurking around every corner. Our mind-body system recovers its flexibility, health, and ability to deal with stress and the like. Self-regulation is a skill many of us need to learn (LaDyne, R, 2020).
When we are self-regulating we are actively being aware of our body/mind responses to the environment. This awareness is what helps us to calm down and stay in connection with our loved ones.
How this shows up in my own life.
In my own life I have the same reactive, annoying responses to the people that I love. My wife has to take the brunt of my lack of awareness. On a good day it goes pretty well and I’m able to respond with more awareness and manage the activation in my body. When I am aware of my primitives acting up I can slow down and respond in a pro-relationship way.
On a good day I feel the tightness in my chest and the frustration forming in my jaw. Once I notice this I’m able to slow my nervous system down and take a moment (sometimes several) so that I can engage my ambassadors for help. On a bad day I respond with either defensiveness or emotional shutdown and leave the people either literally or energetically. This leads to despair for those that I care about.
At times I feel like I’m terrible at self regulation and then there are times where I feel like I can handle an incredible amount of interpersonal distress. I know I will never be perfect at this. My work is to keep getting a little better so that I can respond in healthier ways to those that I love.
If you or someone you know wants to work on defensiveness and reactivity I encourage you to reach out.
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!
DeLyne, Rebekka. “From Extreme Stress To Relief.” The Mind-Body Stress Reset: Somatic Practices To Reduce Overwhelm and Increase Well-Being. Kindle, New Harbinger Publications, 2020, Location 455.
Edwards, Elizabeth, Livingston, Gordon.. “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now.” Kindle, Da Capo Lifelong Books. 2019. Location 221.
Watch Stan Tatkin’s Ted Talk above for more information about Primitives and Ambassadors.