There I was, sitting in a parked car with Larry along a dark street at night Googling something on my phone, when a hand came out of nowhere and pounded on my window, and I screamed.
Larry and I were on a weekend getaway in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. While driving through town after dinner, we remembered something we needed to get, so we stopped the car for a short time to look for a pharmacy that was open. That’s what I was doing when out of the blue I heard three loud raps on my window.
Startled, I screamed. From the driver’s seat, Larry yelped. So did the middle-aged man who’d just knocked on my window. He leapt backwards about ten feet.
Looking upset, he motioned intently for me to open the window. In my rattled and confused state, I didn’t want to be impolite! So I did. “You scared me!” I shouted at him.
“Well, you scared me!” he yelled back. “I just wanted to see if you needed any help!” About 20 feet behind him I could see a woman (she must have been his wife) shaking her head at her all-too-well-meaning husband. He directed us to a nearby drugstore (which was already closed) and we went on our way.
The whole scene was comical in a way. We were totally safe. Yet I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel okay. “That was a really weird thing that guy did,” I told Larry. “Totally coming out of the dark and knocking on the window like that. He shouldn’t have done that.”
“Maybe they do things really differently here in Canada,” replied Larry, ever the one to try to see people in the most positive light. “But everything’s okay now” he continued, not unkindly. “Nothing bad happened.”
“I know,” I told him. But for the rest of the evening I didn’t feel right. I was out of sorts, and I didn’t know why.
An ‘irrational’ emotional reaction
What happened? I got scared. Shook up. My basic sense of safety – the most fundamental ingredient of well-being – had been punctured. Those three loud raps on the window, coming without warning from a very dark street at night and just inches from my ears, completely jangled me, disrupting my nervous system and sending adrenaline coursing through my body.
But I didn’t have the words right then to talk about it. Larry’s calm, rational response that I wasn’t in danger, though meant to be soothing, didn’t do anything for me. To my ears it sounded like he was saying, “You shouldn’t be afraid.” And rationally speaking I agreed – I shouldn’t be afraid. The window-rapper, a paunchy, balding guy, was just trying to help, and besides, by now he was miles behind us. But my body was still feeling alarmed. Yet I didn’t want to risk hearing again “you shouldn’t be afraid,” so I stayed quiet and tried to fix it inside myself, which didn’t really work.
The trouble was, while my body was feeling alarmed, my thinking brain, in its disrupted state, got stuck on whether Mr. Trying-To-Be-Helpful did something wrong. To my emotional brain, that was irrelevant, and it led the conversation with Larry away from what would have helped.
Express what you’re feeling – in the right way
So what could I have done? Since I was still feeling quite “shook up,” the best thing would have been to honor my inner experience and express what was actually happening inside me.
If I could have said to Larry, “I got so scared! I’m still feeling really shook up!” that would have done two things. First, by saying out loud the way it felt inside, it would have given an outlet to my bodily feelings. That alone would have helped ease the physiological stress.
Second, it would have elicited a more helpful response from Larry. He would have validated and empathized with how I was feeling — of course I got scared (he did too) and he would’ve understood by the way I expressed it how shook up I still felt – and, as most people would, he would’ve reflexively reached out to hug and comfort me.
That would have been exactly what I needed. Unless we have been conditioned by painful past experiences not to, we are physiologically hard-wired, when we are jolted into feeling unsafe, to want to be physically held and comforted by someone who feels safe. That would have done the most to lower my adrenaline levels and my heart rate.
This happens to us all the time. We have a strong physiological emotional reaction, and then we try to deal with it with our thoughts rather than tune into the feeling. We fear that if we actually let ourselves feel a strong feeling, we’ll get stuck in it, when in fact the opposite is true: we experience it, it passes through us and it ends. Young children instinctively know this. They get upset, they cry, they get comfort and five minutes later they’re playing again. But we grownups have forgotten how that works. As grownups, we don’t necessarily have to cry to express and release a strong emotional reaction. But we still need to feel it.
Negative emotional reactions don’t mean you’re ‘negative’
Feeling a “negative” emotion doesn’t mean we can’t have a positive belief system. Recently a very positive friend of mine living in Oakland, Calif. had the catalytic converter of her 2005 Prius stolen as it sat right in her driveway. In the following week she took care of the insurance and had it fixed. Telling me how there had been a rash of these thefts in Oakland, she said, “It’s probably amazing it hadn’t happened to me a long time ago.”
But she didn’t sound all-okay. Her voice was hurried and a bit tense. “But that’s not a small thing,” I told her. “It happened right in your driveway! You must have felt your space was violated.”
She let out a huge sigh. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said. “I did feel pretty awful when I discovered it.”
Research shows that trying to override feelings doesn’t work – physiological measures show that it only increases the stress response. But acknowledging and allowing the feeling (“I feel violated”) and then reframing or re-appraising the situation (“I’m still fortunate, I’ll get through this okay”) lowers the stress response.
Putting it into Practice
The next time you have a strong emotional reaction to an event, see if you can do this: instead of trying to fix it, change it, make it smaller or bigger than it is, or get caught up in all the whys and wherefores, just let your body feel it just the way it is. And see if you can share your experience, exactly that way, without a lot of explanation or justification. See if it doesn’t relieve the upset emotion more quickly – and maybe bring you closer to the person you’re with.