I was five-years-old, standing in front of the one-hundred-person congregation of Fairview United Methodist Church. Each Easter, every child would give a short Easter speech or poem, and I was ready to give mine. But my mom, evidently, did not think I was ready to give mine. She was sitting in the front row and when I started my speech, she started mouthing the words to me. I calmly stopped my speech and said to her, “Stop doing that. I want to do it all by myself.”
I started over, but when I was just a few lines back into my speech, she started mouthing the words again. Then, to use a southern phrase, I “pitched a fit.” I started crying and stomping my feet and my mom tried to “retrieve” me. But I outran her. Then my Sunday School teacher tried to catch me, but I easily juked her. BUT there was no juking my dad. He scooped me up and quickly took me out of the church. As you can imagine, I was never able to live this down. How could I? An entire church body, especially my family, refused to let me. And in all fairness, I can’t blame them. It was quite a show.
Apparently, I came into this world a very passionate, independent person. This spirit in me, this wiring, is part of why I’m able to stand in front of audiences and encourage them today. But, it is also the part of me that has led to the most embarrassing and regrettable moments of my life, marriage, and ministry. Based on my experiences, may I say to you—especially if you are quick-to-the-draw when it comes to your emotions—there is a better way. And, this better way can lead to a better life with fewer regrets.
Marriage and the Brain
As someone whose primary ministry focus has been on marriage ministry, I’ve often wondered why people- including me, who really want to be a good spouse, find themselves doing and saying again, that thing they promised they would never do or say again. In my book, Us In Mind, How Changing Your Thoughts Can Change Your Marriage, I’ve found neurological research findings to be extremely helpful in understanding the why behind regrettable reactions.
For example, the set of structures in your brain called the limbic system is where emotions begin. In the limbic system is our culprit: the amygdala. Now, in its defense, the amygdala is super helpful. The amygdala is responsible for sending us alerts letting us know when we aren’t safe. These alerts result in us taking steps to protect ourselves. So, the amygdala is a great thing. It’s the part of our brain that makes us take our hand off a hot stove without having to think about it. BUT, it’s also the amygdala that is triggered when we face conflict. When it comes to relationships, the amygdala, can be too efficient. We are hard-wired to react immediately, and while this doesn’t excuse our bad reactions, it does help explain them.
Better Than Understanding the Problem
Understanding what is going on in your brain during tension is a good thing to know—but even more powerful than knowing why something isn’t working, is knowing how to fix it. Based on the wiring of our brains, I want to give you two quick verses that tell you exactly what to do when you are triggered, found in James 1:19–20.
To set the stage, I want you to imagine, someone important to you in ministry or at home, has just triggered you. Now imagine pausing the scene.
It’s in this pause that James, the brother of Jesus, instructs us what to do.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, (James 1:19 NIV).
The natural order of things is. . .
Using James’ advice, there is a supernatural order of things which is. . .
Trigger. Pause. Response.
1. This space after being triggered is where relationships are built or broken.
The great news is we can choose a response. We can choose how to respond instead of submitting or relying on our automatic response, which may or may not be our best one. I watch countless couples at marriage retreats and events have effective conversations about tough things because they aren’t in the middle of those things. And that is because their bodies and brains are set up to win. They have inserted a pause that gives them the ability to discover how to love each other better.
Now, back to James.
2. Be Slow to Speak.
I really believe if you get this next part right, it could revolutionize your relationships. When you are triggered, don’t talk. Don’t say anything negative with your words or with your body language.
Brené Brown, behavioral researcher, goes as far as to say that when you are shamed, you shouldn’t talk, text, or type until you allow the logical part of your brain to come back online. Don’t address the situation until you have time to become calmer and to remember what you want for your relationship—not just what will serve as an emotional release in the moment.
One of the most powerful parts of pausing is that it will lead to a response versus a reaction. A response is intentional, but a reaction is automatic. If we want to avoid regret in high conflict moments, responses, not reactions, are key.
The last thing James tells us is:
3. Be Slow to Become Angry.
It must be said, anger is a normal emotion for all of us. But when we express it inappropriately, it almost always leads to things going sideways in our relationships. Anger complicates the issue. It doesn’t resolve it. Anger handled improperly leads to distance and pain. Which is why I think it’s so important to pay attention to the word James uses right before anger: become.
Pausing is so important because with no effort at all, we can allow our anger to shape us into a version of ourselves we don’t want to be. You don’t want to become the person who says whatever they want or who acts however they want when they are angry. And, as a leader you can’t afford to.
What Fills The Pause?
Okay, so we get that the pause is important. But the next question becomes, what do we do with the pause? What fills that space?
You could do any number of things and it can last any amount of time. For some of us, that pause will need to last eight seconds. For others of us, eight minutes will do the trick. For some of you eight hours or longer might be necessary. The amount of time you need will help determine how you spend that pause.
There’s a lot of things you can do here, and it might be helpful for you to keep a running list of things that work for you. For some people a pause is best filled by getting some air, taking a walk, or doing some other sort of physical exercise. Other people find that engaging in some deep, measured breathing helps. Sitting with your eyes closed, inhaling for three seconds, holding your breath, and then exhaling for three seconds can work wonders in calming down your fight, flight or freeze reflex.
Others have found prayer to be a helpful way to fill the pause. They don’t have to be fancy prayers. I’m talking about super simple and straightforward prayers like “Help me, Jesus!” “God, would You please help me to love well right now?” Or my favorite, “God, please make space for grace.”
Five Intentional Thoughts
However you choose to fill the pause, the point is the same: you will be better for it. That is why one of the 5 Intentional Thoughts I encourage people to incorporate into their marriage in Us In Mind is simply: “Pause.” This intentional thought is obviously not just good for marriage, is great for all our relationships.
So, the next time you are triggered, say to yourself, “Pause.” And then, actually do it! You are capable of inserting that simple break—however long it needs to be—to keep conflict and tension from owning you. Then, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. This isn’t easy, but it certainly makes your life easier. Because when you practice pausing there is less relational clean-up. And the truth is, you can always say something more, but you can never unsay something. So while saying you’re sorry is great, not needing to say sorry is better.
This principle is found all over Scripture. Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (NIV). That may sound like an exaggeration, but chances are, we have experienced the truth of this proverb firsthand. We know both the good and the harm words can cause. And if this is true, if words are a matter of life or death, then at the very least, it makes sense to pause and consider them. Because pausing leads to better responses and better responses lead to better leadership and relationships.
If you want to learn more about how changing your thoughts can change your marriage, order my book Us in Mind in the Orange Store today!