The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There: Emotional Intensity and its Crucial Place in Relationships

Authored by Kelly Matthews-Pluta, M.S.W.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” John Muir

Human life is a complicated business.  We are connected to the world around us in every way imaginable.  Some of that connection is within our conscious awareness and much is outside of it. The relationships we have with family are how most of us work out the complicated nature of being humans in this universe. Often important relationships become intense and heavy with worry and anxiety. Strong emotions generated in relationships require us to respond. Often how we respond seems less like a choice and more automatic.  Intensity is playing us, so to speak.  In calm situations we can think more clearly, and can choose our responses more thoughtfully, while when intensity is high, we may find ourselves thinking, talking, and acting in ways that are unhelpful and may prolong or intensify the situation further.

If we are connected to the world largely through relationships, and at times these relationships can be emotionally intense, then how do we manage?  Disconnecting from the world is not a good choice.  We have many examples of people doing just that and it usually ends badly.  Often clients want to discuss the action they are considering to decrease the uncomfortable emotions that relationship intensity brings. “What do I DO?”  This is a natural, automatic response that generates from the fight or flight system. Action and doing is how humans stay alive.  The organism is uncomfortable and wants to do something to regain comfort.  The challenge is that emotional intensity is not always coming from an acute life-threatening situation, which should trigger the automatic flight or fight response. When the situation is emotionally intense, but not a matter of life and death, it requires a thoughtful response. However, the impulse to act and do often shuts down the thinking process needed for thoughtfully navigating a non-life-threatening relationship issue.  Our brains cannot sustain strong emotion and good, clear thinking at the same time.

Thinking, not acting, is where the process has to begin if we want to decrease emotional intensity. Thinking first, in emotionally intense situations, can be very difficult.  It can be helpful to guide clients through reflecting on times when acting before thinking lead to less functional outcomes.  It may take some time to rework the process.  Humans are biologically driven to act.  Thinking comes into play later.  How often do we see a serious, worrisome issue much differently after a night’s sleep?  Or, how different does the situation look after we have gathered all the relevant facts. This illustrates the pause needed to move from reacting automatically to thinking thoroughly.  If we can dissect our thinking process, we can begin to untangle how we are responding to ourselves and important others.  Ultimately, less intense responses, to ourselves and others, allow us choices and flexibility in our connections to the universe and all its complicated creatures.



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