Getting Along with One Another during a Quarantine

I must admit, as much as I advise people against dwelling on the “What if…” questions that tend to drag us down, I have fallen prey to such thoughts in the midst of our ever-changing world. Staying in the present, practicing Radical Acceptance is a great way to fend off negative self-talk when dealing with the unknown. However, when the here and now includes being stuck in close quarters with family members who are usually at school or work, we may have new troubles that have us wondering how we are ever going to manage getting along with each other through the duration.

I suggest that we use some “What-ifs” to our advantage, reminding us of some basic relationship skills. Here are three of them to start with:

  • What if we acknowledge emotions?
  • What if we get extra physical energy out so that we don’t take it out on each other?
  • What if we respect others around us?

Feel all the feelings.

This is a popular phrase recently, and it warms my heart as a therapist. When emotions are shoved down, it can lead to all kinds of troubles—mental and physical. Our bodies are complex, interwoven systems. Emotions can indicate that something needs attention. Allow yourself to have a good cry when needed; if you’re angry, explore the underlying reason and find ways to express your frustrations in a healthy way. It can be helpful to find more specific words to describe your emotions. Here is a website that shows a “Feeling Wheel,” giving 72 adjectives for emotions. You may want to keep the list handy when either describing your own feelings or asking others to verbalize what is going on inside.

It is not only important for each person to express their emotions but also to validate the feelings of others. Parents, this can be difficult after hearing a child’s irritating complaints, just wanting to say, “Quit your whining!” What if you said, “I see that you are feeling upset about this. I wish I could fix it for you.” The goal is validation. (See this YouTube video that gives a summary of the book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk for more parenting tips.) And remember: Feelings are neither right nor wrong, but behaviors can be helpful or not. We need to monitor our own behaviors when emotional and hold others accountable when their emotions lead to hurtful behaviors.

Another point to consider when discussing feelings is how intensely they are shown. Think of emotion expression like turning on a water faucet. Have you ever had a faucet that just burst out, splashing water everywhere? Most situations do not call for such a show of emotions. Now, there are “fires” in our lives that call for a firehose of tears, or a show of anger. When we can step back and notice whether or not our display of emotion is proportional to the event, we may decide to turn the faucet down, or turn it off sooner. And then we can find ways to cope, such as talking things out with a friend, writing in a journal or taking a walk or run. Which leads to the next topic…

Emotions need motion.

“We often hurt the ones we love—” have you heard that expression? When we are in a comfortable relationship, we feel safe enough to let our true colors show, and sometimes those colors are not too pretty. So when our loved ones get angry toward us or we do the same to them, the first thing to recognize is that we are comfortable and feel safe with each other. The next thing to do is change our behavior! Hurting one another is not a solution, even if we are comfortable. What if there was a preventative for such reactions to stress? There is!

The chemistry in our bodies that builds up because of our fight/flight mechanism needs an outlet. When faced with stress, we tend to go to easily accessible behaviors, such as throwing the closest object or pacing the floor. Our bodies are set up for movement to manage stress. Why not prevent the negative reactions with a proactive practice of daily exercise? If we can lower the stress chemicals through exercise, we will less likely lash out toward those in our household. In a Harvard Medical School article, it states that “exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators” (Exercising to Relax, July 13, 2018). Daily physical activity will not only benefit ourselves but will also benefit those we love because we will be in a better mindset to respond to stress throughout the day. But what about those little annoyances of those around us?

Be less annoying and less annoyed.

When I was a fourth-grade teacher, I created the previous statement, believing that I’d discovered the way to world peace (or at least peace in the classroom). In my years as a teacher and school counselor, I encountered many battles between students that stemmed from basic annoyances. Yes, each of us has different behaviors that grind on each other’s nerves. How can we respond when annoyances are an issue? Here are my suggestions:

  1. Choose to respond, not react. Even though we cannot choose or change the behavior of others, we can choose how we respond. If we do not give energy back to a person who may be pushing our buttons, the situation quells down faster.
  2. Learn to laugh at yourself. If a person complains about one of your behaviors, agree with them and laugh at your quirk. For example, if a person calls you out for talking too much, laugh and say, “Guess I am a jabber-jaw!” As Oscar Wilde said, “Life’s too important to be taken seriously.”
  3. Divert to another subject or activity. This is a great parenting technique as well. Sometimes it works just to take the attention off the “hotspot.” While some situations require attention, others can just be brushed off.
  4. Walk away. If possible, find another place to go. In close quarters, this can become difficult. Trying to find a safe space for each member of the household is an important task. Going outside when possible, taking deep breaths of fresh air can clear the mind off the problems.

Respect for each other should be valued in every home. Treat each other like you would treat a friend. That seems like a no-brainer, but, as mentioned earlier, we tend to get comfortable at home, forgetting our manners. Spouses are some of the worst offenders. One of the key phrases that I’ve learned as a couples’ counselor is to approach our partner with kindness and curiosity, so that when we address our differences, we can ask, “Help me understand you better, love,” rather than, “What in the world are you doing that for?” Start from a place of love and respect and our tone/words can change.

When dealing with changing routines (such as kids and adults at home who are not usually), situations have to be navigated differently. Be patient with each other in those negotiations. Flexibility is the key in these days, with changes coming at us every day. And when you have regrettable episodes with each other, take time to repair. Use those all-important words: I’m sorry; please; and thank you. Dr. John Gottman, relationship expert, warns against four detrimental behaviors: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. The antidotes to these behaviors are: Using a gentle start-up, Accepting responsibility (even if only for part of the conflict), Stating needs respectfully, and Taking a calming-down break before returning to the conversation. These concepts are stated well in this YouTube video.

In closing,

What if we acknowledge emotions, what if we get physical energy out through exercise and what if we respect one another? My guess is that we will at least make it through another week of Staying At Home. And maybe in the long-term, we will have better relationships and happier lives.

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