Emotional Flooding

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: “Urgent Blowout” by Brandy

Emotional Flooding

Emotional flooding is impacting communication in your relationships — whether or not you’re consciously aware of it. Have you ever wondered why you lose it sometimes, and say things you regret later? Or why you get to a certain point with people where you just cannot talk anymore, and shut down or withdraw? These are both examples of emotional flooding: Lashing out and shutting down are two sides of the same coin. 

Flooding Psychology

Anytime we tangle with someone, we become physiologically elevated. Whether or not you’re aware of it, your body is dumping stress hormones out into your bloodstream that increase your heart rate, narrow your perspective, and energize your body to effectively fight, flee, or freeze. 

This biologically-based, completely normal reaction does strange things to your brain: It makes the “human” part stop working very well. Your compassionate, self-aware, rational, and well-spoken self gets hijacked by your entirely emotional mid-brain. That part of you gives no craps about consequences, is not particularly rational or articulate, and is here to win or die trying.

Emotional Flooding in Relationships

If you’re in a knife fight, that’s a good thing. But if it’s happening when you and your partner are trying to decide between pizza or burritos… that’s not going to bode well for your relationship. Unless! Unless you’re aware that emotional flooding is happening inside you (or your partner), and you know how to effectively manage it so that it doesn’t damage your relationship.

Everyone gets flooded emotionally, and that’s okay. The trick is to recognize when it’s happening and help everybody calm back down before things get nasty. How? That, my friend, is what we’re talking about on today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

With me is my dear friend and colleague, Lisa Jordan. Lisa is a therapist and a level two Gottman-certified marriage counselor at Growing Self. Listen to this episode to hear her insights about flooding psychology. She delves into what it means to be emotionally flooded and how it can impact relationships and discusses different manifestations of emotional flooding to help you see it coming. Her advice in keeping our emotions from overflowing will be helpful for every couple out there, and I hope you listen!

Listen to “Emotional Flooding” To…

  • Learn what emotional flooding is about.
  • Recognize when you're becoming emotionally flooded.
  • Find out the science behind being emotionally overwhelmed.
  • Understand the secret gift behind the “perpetual problems” in most relationships.
  • Discover ways of becoming emotionally healthy with your partner.
  • Realize the importance of self-compassion and emotional safety in a relationship.
  • Challenge yourself in creating a healthy space for yourself and your partner.

You can listen to this podcast episode on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts (don’t forget to subscribe!), or right here on the page. If you’re more of a reader, show notes and a full transcript are below. For more on the subject, be sure to check out this article about emotional flooding from Lisa!

Thanks for joining us today, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Emotional Flooding

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Emotional Flooding: Episode Highlights

Emotional Flooding – Defined

Many do not realize that they are emotionally flooded. When people get involved in a conflict, each escalation contributes to a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Emotional flooding is a mix of the biology and chemistry happening in the brain when stress transitions into conflict. It is a physiological activation that occurs in a fight. It escalates rapidly, which disables you from thinking rationally and communicating with your partner.

Emotional flooding can make small things feel so big. We tend to say and do things haphazardly when in a state of overwhelm. Words can become like knives thrown to assert dominance in an argument. The sad thing about this is that we may not even remember why there was a conflict in the first place. We continue to fight since we feel threatened by our partner. However, as everything intensifies, we don't notice the rift that slowly develops in the relationship. Over time, being in constant emotional flood leads to irreparable damage to trust and emotional safety. Emotional flooding can cause relationships to seriously go downhill.

Draining The Emotional Flood

When two people in a conflict are both emotionally flooded, both lose the capacity to back down. The self-awareness to know when you are emotionally flooded will help you get on top of things and understand the situation. Recognizing emotional flooding can even help couples recover faster from the aftermath of the conflict. Additionally, having the heart to apologize is also key to keeping a long-standing, healthy relationship.

Taking breaks is essential for de-escalating emotions. Physical checks (e.g., heart pounding, shortness of breath, rising blood pressure) can help you to recognize if it's a good time to rest and drain the flood. Taking a break is not just time off. It's “bringing yourself back to a place of calm.”

Instead of being busy planning on your rebuttal, take the time to listen to your partner. Think first: “Is there anything that you can acknowledge for your partner that they have a legitimate point about?”

Spending your time listening, focusing, and being with them is a way to both stop and even prevent both of you from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

Fight or Flight Response In Marriage

Our limbic system has been with us for millions of years. It has accompanied us as an adaptive tool responsible for the fight or flight response: We needed it to survive. But now, in modern times, we rarely have situations that require us to fight or flee. The brain, however, still makes use of our survival instincts. The rational part of the brain can still go offline, leaving us overwhelmed. The brain translates the things our partner says or does as something dangerous, which shuts down our rationality and leads to emotional flooding.

Impacts Of Emotional Flooding

In Lisa’s marriage counseling sessions, she’s had numerous couples share their experiences with her – with many of them having stories of emotional flooding. Many of the couples she's worked with had conflicts that lasted days. These continued to a point where they no longer communicated with each other. Lisa shares, “In my experience, when couples are escalated and they're having conflict, they may be yelling, [and] they may be saying hurtful things. They move away from each other. And both feel abandoned, but maybe for different reasons.”Couples find it difficult to finish arguments because there’s not enough safety for them to stay. However, it is vital in a relationship to address conflicts right away. These moments are when self-awareness is critical. We should assess if we are becoming overwhelmed and if we need to take a break. But we also need to be responsible enough to come back to an argument – all calm and collected. Leaving a conflict hanging can make your partner feel abandoned and invalidated.Continuously keeping conflicts unresolved may also make them think that their partner can't or won't meet their expectations and needs.

The Perpetual Problem

Even great relationships have problems and conflicts. It’s all about the attitude, trust, and commitment to the relationship that make it work. Younger couples may attach themselves to a fairytale version of what a relationship is. And experiencing it, with all its realities, can make them feel disappointed. They start losing confidence as conflicts arise, which can easily lead to being emotionally flooded.

However, disagreements will happen in a relationship — it's normal. Lisa even goes on to say that “69% of our disagreements are perpetual”. It can be lifestyle issues like one of you being a messy person while the other one is a neat person. Since things like this are hard to change, we’ll just have to be accepting.

Lisa advises, “If we know that the two-thirds of what we go through in life are the problems of just being in relation with other people, we might as well focus our attention on that 1/3 of problems that are actually solvable. Creating some space around the rest of the stuff, making it more workable, or negotiating how we want to deal with things.”

Build Up Your Relationship With Yourself

One of the most significant steps in having a healthy marriage is to have a healthy relationship with yourself. By being kind to yourself and developing that self-compassion, you can create a kind of emotional safety inside of you. When you feel emotionally safe by yourself, you become less reactive and more understanding. You become a person who can transmit emotional safety and compassion to your partner as well.

Resources: Emotional Flooding

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[Intro Song: Urgent Blowout by Brandy]

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Today, we're talking about a very important concept when it comes to relationships. But one that is not well understood by many people. That is emotional flooding and what it does to us. I tell you what, when I have worked with couples in counseling, who really get what emotional flooding is and the impact that can have on communication, so many things changed for them. This is a very important thing to understand, and that is what we're doing on today's episode of the podcast. 

I am so pleased to be talking today with my colleague, Lisa Jordan. Lisa is a couple's counselor on our team, who has a lot of training in this area. She has a ton of expertise in helping couples identify different areas of communication that are problematic and improving them, and in particular, around emotional flooding. I'm so excited to talk with her about this today and to get her to share her great advice with you. Lisa, thank you.

Lisa Jordan: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

How Hidden Emotional Flooding Is

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, I really wanted to talk with you about this. Because lately, I have been doing episodes on these. I almost think of them as like hidden rocks or obstacles. Have you ever had that experience like you're in a stream or something, and there's this stone that you don't see and that's the one that you slip on or that you bump your shin on? There are these things that happen in relationships that are kind of like that. There are these things that you don't see coming. 

I think a lot of people don't understand in the moment what is happening and the major significance of these things. Recently, I recorded an episode around invalidation and how very easy it is to respond to your partner in a way that makes them feel really bad. You don't mean to, and it can really damage trust and emotional safety over time. I think that emotional flooding is really one of those. People just don't even know that it's there and it is ruining their relationship nonetheless. 

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I do think that the emotional flooding, that whole term, and that idea, is something that people wouldn't initially think about. They just consider that they're in conflict. They don't necessarily understand how it's part of the dance that they're doing. Each person is doing something that pushes it further and further along until all of a sudden, it's something that it wasn't in the beginning.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Chairs are getting thrown out, people are screeching off in their cars very dramatically. I know. All kinds of different places. 

What Emotional Flooding Is

Dr. Lisa: To orient our listeners, because emotional flooding, I think, it is such a weird and in some ways, clinical term, emotional flooding. Let's just start with the basics. What does emotional flooding mean? What is emotional flooding?

Lisa Jordan: When I talk about emotional flooding, what I mean is that when people are engaged in something that will eventually be conflictual, it starts at a point where the emotions are not particularly involved. With each escalation, blood pressure’s going up; the heart starts pounding. That escalated state where we move into that fight, flight, or freeze, creates something that's very different. 

Whenever I'm working with a couple and they say, “We got to this place where some very mean things were said, and our feelings got hurt,” I know that we're talking about emotional flooding. Because when you're not in that state, you're not even in a position to be saying and doing the things that ultimately happen when you're elevated like that. Emotional flooding is when you think about the biology and the chemistry. It's where all that science comes in. 

Most people have heard of fight, flight. Everyone is a little bit stressed right now. So I think we're all living from time to time in fight, flight, freeze. But that's where the emotional flooding comes from. If you never are able to discharge that excess stress, and then, you move into something that's conflict with your partner, it escalates very quickly so that you're no longer using the rational, more well-thought-out part of your brain and thinking about the things that you and I are always trying to teach in couples communication, which is to talk to each other with kindness and respect.

“Talk to me as though I love you, and you love me.” Those kinds of qualities have gone completely out the door. Emotional flooding is when that is gone and you don't even know who you are fighting with in that moment. It's not the same loving person that you knew when things were feeling calm.

The Importance of Self-Awareness When Being Flooded

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my God. Yeah. Can everybody relate to this? I can relate to this. I've had that experience. What you're describing is this physiological activation that happens to us in conflict. It's this fight or flight thing. Our rational, thinking brains just go out the window and we can say and do things that are shocking, even to us. 

Lisa Jordan: Yes. I think everyone has been there. Everyone has gone there. I consider in my 30-year marriage that I have a nice, good relationship. We rarely go there. Of course, we've gone there. That's why I know what it feels like to be emotionally flooded, like sitting in that moment where you're just sure that your partner is doing something that's just making it worse and worse and worse. 

If you could take away that, what's called the sympathetic nervous system, right, the one that's escalating. If you could calm that down, you would be able to let in some other possibilities, which is, “Maybe they're really not trying to do this. Maybe I'm actually not hearing this correctly. Maybe I'm not understanding well what's going on.” But when two people are emotionally flooded, neither one has the capacity to back down. That's why it's so important to become self-aware if you are emotionally flooded. Because if one or the other partner isn't getting on top of that, nobody's going to be the wise voice to bring you back down again. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, and it's so hard to do. Let's just get real for a second. We are both marriage counselors. We have both been married for a long time, overall, good relationships. Matt and I have done so much work over the years, and it's been very positive. But I will still, from time to time, have these moments where I just lose it. There's this other part of my brain like, “I'm a marriage counselor. I know all of these things.” 

There's a little part of my brain that’s like, “Don't say that. Don't do that. You're doing it.” But even in those moments, even though I have all of this information, there's this other part of your mind that is just like, “Yes, I don't care and I'm mad right now. I'm going to tell you all about it. I'm going to be mean and say all these things.” It's like, you can't help yourself. Yeah, no, it really is.

Lisa Jordan: I think it's actually a good thing because when it happens, I recognize in myself how easy it is to go there if just a couple things aren't going well. We're all that close. Maybe you and I, maybe we recover a teeny bit faster just because we're recognizing it. I don't know. But we can go there just as much as anybody, and I think it's just about having those tools. 

I will say that that optimism, that confidence that comes from long-term relationships is “Wow, we have been through this and we've weathered this, so this is very familiar. Then, we can laugh about it.” I think also having that really strong muscle to apologize. I can apologize a lot better now than I could when I was married for a year or two, and I was sure that I was right about everything. The longer I stay married, the less right I am about everything, which has been really healthy. 

Dr. Lisa: I really love it.

Lisa Jordan: To be less certain about your rightness and things is tremendously healing in a relationship.

Changes in the Brain During Mental Flooding, When Your Mind is Overwhelmed

Dr. Lisa: I couldn't agree more. I think of it as healthy humility, and I can so relate. I agree. I think I'm much better than I used to be, too. I think that self-awareness that you're describing and understanding when you are starting to get elevated is hugely helpful. I do want to talk about those strategies because I don't want to leave people with this idea that this is going to happen no matter what. It really does get better. But it's so easy, so easy to fall into. 

Going back to one of your points, because I think this is important to talk about more, is what actually changes in our brains and in our internal process. I remember once being at a training… Did I ever tell you that Matt and I, for a while, were foster parents? Did I ever tell you that? Yeah, we did it. We did it for a few years. It was an incredible experience. I remember being at this one training, which was so good, where the trainers were explaining these concepts. 

I, having been to counseling school, had learned about it in a different way. But they talked about this in such an, I think, accessible way because they were trying to educate foster parents about what happens, particularly with traumatized children who can really have big responses. I know that this is audio, but right now, I am holding up my closed fist. If you can imagine my fingers are facing Lisa, and my thumb is closed in my hand. 

What they talked about is that our lids get flipped. I just lifted up my fingers. What they were trying to illustrate is that there's actually this part of your brain, I believe, it is the amygdala. Fact check me on that. When we become in this super fight or flight space, the amygdala becomes where you're operating from, which is the seat of emotion. 

This other part of your brain, the neocortex, which is usually the part of you that is in control, it is the part of us that thinks rationally. It is the part of us that processes language. It is the part of us that is the most human part of us in some ways. It has compassion for other people. That part goes offline. It's like you're totally operating from your lizard brain, basically in that moment, and wanna kill everybody.

Lisa Jordan: That's exactly right. Because we have those different parts, that whole limbic system that's there, the survival piece of us that for millions and millions of years has been there, when we had to flee from the saber-toothed tiger, we needed to have that fight/flight response, or we wouldn't survive. It's adaptive. 

Now, in modern times, we rarely have situations where we have to flee. But our brains are still doing it. They're still going there. As you say, the prefrontal cortex, that part that is developed that is rational, it really goes offline, and we're left with overwhelm. When that flooding happens, our brains are searching for the danger. The danger, unfortunately, gets interpreted as being, sometimes, what my partner is saying, or doing, or not feeling safe in the relationship at that moment. 

Gottman Flooding and Shutting Down When Overwhelmed

Lisa Jordan: I think one thing that I didn't mention about flooding is that it's not always looking like escalating conflict. We have people who dissociate, who become so shut down that they can't speak at all. That also is escalating for the partner who wants to fight more. It's not just that there's escalation and both people are name-calling and becoming hurt, it's that one person is starting to shut down, and the other partner is thinking, “You're doing that on purpose. You're abandoning me.” That is a very triggering thing as well. 

You're right. It's chemistry. It's biology. We've got all this operating at the same time. Based on what one's reaction is, when you go out of that resilient zone, up above it, you may get panic attacks, or anxiety, or extreme anger. If you get bumped out, down the other way, for some people, that looks more like depression, or dissociation, or not really being able to engage at all in conversation. People are shut down in different ways.

Dr. Lisa: That's interesting. I think, if I'm remembering correctly, you would probably have a lot of insight into this because I know that you're a Gottman-certified couples counselor. For our listeners who may not be familiar with their work, the Gottmans have done just an enormous amount of research into relationships and healthy relationships versus the kinds of behaviors or ways of communicating in relationships that are known to create issues

Can you speak a little bit… I believe that they did some research around the impact of emotional flooding in those relationships, and particularly, in the piece of shutting down that some people really, when they start to experience this internal flooding, just stop interacting. Can you talk more about that and what you've seen happen with that and your couples?

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, so it's not unusual that when a client, partner, and a couple is talking about what happens to them when there's a lot of conflict, is that they will say, “I get to the point where I can't talk anymore, and I go away. I don't come back for three, four days.” They're just not speaking to their partner for days. They don't know how to reconnect. They get lost in finding their way back. 

I think what the Gottmans did so well and gave us all these tools to help couples with, is how to find your way back without using the strategy that you have because it's the only one you've got and using something else so that you don't have to suffer. Because the relationships are suffering so much from that kind of shutdown or moving away from each other. 

In my experience, when couples are escalated, and they're having conflict, they may be yelling. They may be saying hurtful things. They move away from each other. Both feel abandoned but maybe for different reasons. One, because there's just not enough safety in the relationship to stay present. They have to check out. The other, because their partner walks out of the room and won't stay to, as they say, finish the argument. But worse, what does that mean to finish the argument? 

The Gottmans talked about having a blood pressure cuff so that you could be tracking your own blood pressure if you became aware of the fact that though that was the way that you became overwhelmed, and we know if your heart rate is going up and your blood pressure is raising and your tone of voice, the volume of your voice is going up, is that you're getting overwhelmed. 

That's for someone who moves in that direction, that kind of fight direction, is to be self-aware, and then, take responsibility for taking a break, or saying like, “Okay, I'm getting overwhelmed. I know this is when we get into some trouble. So I'm going to take an hour off and I will come back to you.” You don't get to just walk away, and then, it's all over. You have to come back at a certain time or else your partner still feels abandoned. But it's then their responsibility to go away and do self-care, self-soothing. 

I know you're talking about tools and tips and what can we help people to do. That's specifically what they need to do is to each take care of themselves in whatever ways are appropriate to help them soothe themselves so that they can come back together when that prefrontal cortex and the cortex is online and functioning, and they're back in what we think of as more of their adult self, the self that loves the partner and wants to make amends and reconnect and create that safety again.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Just a quick aside, you've used the word safety a couple of times in this conversation. What I hear when you say that, we're talking about emotional safety right now and the kind of conflict that comes when people are upset with each other that we can all relate to. Physical safety is a different animal, so just wanted to make that super clear. 

Because if you are actually literally unsafe in your relationship, I always advise to go over to a really great website. There's a resource. It's called thehotline.org. All one word, thehotline.org. It's completely free. You can connect with local resources, safe houses, domestic-violence counselors, even in your area. If somebody is actually in danger, please take care of yourself. Lisa and I are talking about that emotional safety, which is very common.

How to Diffuse Physiological Arousal in Emotional Flooding

Dr. Lisa: Just as you're talking, I think so many people can relate to this experience. I think it's so interesting to consider that some people, when emotional flooding happens, they become escalated. They get yell-y. They say mean things, and other people really withdraw into themselves. But what is fascinating is just what you brought up about the Gottmans actually making people wear blood pressure cuffs. 

Because what it implies is that people don't actually recognize how physiologically elevated they are becoming without that data, like, “Oh, my blood pressure is 140 over 90 right now.” Is that what they're doing with that? That the people needed to see that? Because they didn't know it was happening? Tell me more about that.

Lisa Jordan: I think that's a reflection of how we're not as self-aware as we may hope we are. 

Dr. Lisa: How dare you?

Lisa Jordan: It's just that we can get there. We can go there so quickly without self-awareness, and maybe this slows down the process enough that someone is really forced to be conscious of what's happening in their body. So many people are living in their cognitive self, the thinking brain so much of the time that the physiological piece that felt sense being back in your body. We know that for people who've had traumas that they leave their body very quickly, right? So they're out of there very fast. 

I think that the idea of a blood pressure cuff is great. I think just the suggestion of it might be enough for people to check in with themselves. “Is my heart pounding? Is my breathing short? What am I feeling?” To just really check back in with your body. What's happening in your body right now? So that, ideally, people don't have to go out and buy the blood pressure cuff. But it's enough of a suggestion to sort of say, “Hey, we're, where are you at right now, physically?” Because that's gonna have a lot to do with what comes out of your mouth next.

Dr. Lisa: Totally. That is such a great suggestion. When I even reflect back on my evolution over the years, I think that that is the biggest difference compared to when I was probably in my 20s. There would be an external circumstance that would make me feel angry or upset, and then, I would react to it and not have that self-awareness in the middle. Now, as an older person, I think what I can do is say, “I am getting really elevated, and I'm probably not in a good place to have a productive conversation right now.” 

I'm having that internal conversation with myself. I stop trusting the ideas that I'm having. I stop trusting that “Oh, I should say this” like there’s psychological distance. But not with a blood pressure cuff. Maybe I should be like, “What are you doing?” Can I throw the blood pressure cuff at him? If I get..? No, okay.

Lisa Jordan: Instead of the blood pressure cuff, what I think is like a half step in that direction is to start paying attention to what the internal narrative is. As you say, when we tell people to take a break, if you take a break, and you're planning your rebuttal, you're not actually doing any self-soothing. What are you doing? You’re trying to bring yourself back to a place of calm. 

You are committing to your partner, “That's what I'm going to go off and do. I'm going to go watch something funny on YouTube, or I'm going to read a good book. But I am not going to plan my rebuttal for what I say to you.” 

When you're used to having frequent or perpetual disagreements, and we all have them in marriage, you start to become a little bit more wise about not always defending your position because you know what the other person's position is, and you can kind of slow yourself down. I think for younger couples, as they are discovering that they have perpetual problems, they don't know that that's going to stick around. 

They think that they can fight their way through it. Teally, it's to agree that these things are going to be there. We can create a much healthier relationship with those issues. We can do it in a way that's very self-aware. Hopefully, it makes these escalations kind of diminish. That gives people confidence that it won't always be so hard.

Dealing with Perpetual Problems

Dr. Lisa: Wow. Okay, so you're talking about something so profound right now. I want to make sure that our listeners because we sort of shifted into this other really important idea that's come out of Gottman research, which is the idea that all couples, the happiest, healthiest, strongest, most brilliant couples in the universe, have perpetual problems. You can talk about it better than I can. What is a perpetual problem?

Lisa Jordan: Those are just the things that we all have in relationships. We don't think of that as what's wrong with the relationship. It's that if you're in a relationship with another human being — the Gottmans are so good at this — 69% of our disagreements are perpetual. That just runs along the lines of, “Maybe I'm a very neat person, and my partner is very messy, and we're never going to be different people. So we're always going to have that on the back burner, whether or not that's entering into our issues. We can do things about that, accepting that that may be a perpetual piece of what we're dealing with.” 

Also, have a little bit of a sense of humor around it. It's not that it works 100%. But that if we know that 2/3 of what we go through in life are the problems of just being in relation with other people, we might as well focus our attention on that 1/3 of problems that are actually solvable and create some space around the rest of the stuff and make it more workable or negotiate for how we want to deal with things. 

I tend to be very focused on the financial piece and making sure our bills are paid. All of those things that I've learned throughout the years that if I'm better at it, and I don't mind it, why don't I just do that, right? It has created such peace of mind in my household. That's what I recommend to other people is if there's something that you're good at, and you don't mind doing it, go ahead and take it because you don't have to make everything 50/50 out of this sense of obligation that we're demonstrating that everything is split down the middle.

Accepting Reality and Your Partner 

Dr. Lisa: Going to war, trying to make your partner be like you and be good at doing bills and things. This is so funny. I did a podcast episode recently that spoke about this. I think the title was How to Appreciate The Partner That You Have. It was on this topic of how do we just accept the humanity of our partners for who and what they are and learn how to appreciate it, as opposed to being angry with them for not being different. 

This is so significant. Because if 69% of all the conflict that couples have is due to these unsolvable problems, just knowing that, helps you put down the battleax and look at it differently. I just was so struck by what you said when you were like, “So many young couples think they can fight their way through that.” Would you say more about what you see happening with people who just haven't understood what's going on in the way that you see just by virtue of your wisdom and perspective?

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I think that we all are products of our environment, our early environment. We only know what we witnessed, what we learned. Maybe we got a few extra bits and pieces from extended family members or our best friends, hanging out in their households. But by and large, we're limited by what we've seen. We tend to employ the practices for good or otherwise of our parents and what was modeled for us. If those resources aren't really good, or if they left something to be desired, we're still operating that way. 

I find that with younger couples or couples, it's not an age thing, maybe couples who have been married a shorter period of time, there's kind of that honeymoon period. Then, there's a real disappointment. There's a real drop-off in that expectation that we fall in love, and we live happily ever after. We love a good fairy tale in this country. That's just not fair to people because that's not what real life looks like. 

Great relationships have problems and conflict. It has so much more to do with attitude and trust in the commitment that we have in relationships. I think that early, young couples or couples who have not been together as long may start to lose some of their confidence as they see some of the conflict escalating around things that feel like they are problems that have to be solved. It can be really a relief and very freeing to understand that all couples have disagreements and problems. 

It's more about the process of working through and partnering and deciding how you want to navigate, than the content itself. If you can accept that it's always going to be there, and you have a greater sense of optimism about how you navigate things, that can be really uplifting and very positive for couples who are becoming a little bit hopeless or even questioning, “Is this the right person? Did I marry the wrong person?” 

Dr. Lisa: That's what messes people up is this idea that like, “Oh, if I were with a different person, or if I was in the right ‘relationship,’ this wouldn't be happening.” I love what you're saying, Lisa. This is just so positive. I don't even think of them as problems anymore. I think of them as differences. Potentially complementary strengths, even, when I'm feeling very generous, but yeah, it's just they're these differences. This isn't a bug. It's a feature. How do we move into acceptance and finding workarounds so that we can enjoy the positive parts of each other? 

The Myth About Fight or Flight in a Relationship

Dr. Lisa: I could totally see how this ties back into what you were saying about that emotional flooding. Because before you've done that work, I think, you can interpret those differences as attacks, or being disrespected, or something very negative connotations. Is that part of what you see that makes people go into that space of elevation, that physiological flooding that is associated with danger? Is that what this is? 

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I think that that's right. That's maybe the unspoken belief that we have to fight our way through this. I can't back down, or I can't deescalate, or I'm actually not going to get my needs met, or I'm not going to have my voice heard. The way through it is, and again, this ties back to whatever you might have seen in your household growing up, is if you saw parents who fought. 

As a young child, you believe that your parents are perfect, and they're showing you perfect examples of love and what love looks like. That must be what we do to work through our differences. I think what we're there to do is to help people see, as you say, that there's a totally different way of approaching it and perceiving it. I love the idea that you described about differences because that absolutely is such a healthy way to embody what it means to be in a partnership is let's look for the positives. 

These are the very things that you fell in love with. Because these things that we sometimes get annoyed with and find ourselves in couples coaching and counseling to talk about are the very things that attracted people in the first place. Most people become aware of that when they start talking about, “Oh, yeah, really. I really love that about them.” There's no hard and fast rule about something being a problem as much as how is it playing out in our relationship and what do we want to do with this?

Dr. Lisa: I think that's a real goal that we can all work towards in our relationships. What you're describing is like that golden place that I think really healthy long-term couples do finally arrive into, or there's a space of understanding and acceptance and even appreciation for those differences. Even though our ‘perpetual conflict’ maybe is still there, it's no longer a problem because it's just who they are. I'm not going to take that personally.

There's this real shift into this more unconditional love space. But that takes time and effort to create. Along the way, emotional flooding can be a real problem for many couples, when they're going into that big emotional reaction where they're feeling disrespected, or hurt, or frustrated, or rejected even by their partners. So it's really important to have a toolset to be able to cope with those moments while you're still working on these bigger relational goals, I guess I should say. 

Self-Soothing After Self-Awareness

Dr. Lisa: I know that we have talked about a couple of tools that you recommend, when you're working with couples in counseling, and one, I think the first one that I heard was self-awareness, with or without the blood pressure cuff, but to be able to say, “Okay, I am starting to get elevated now,” or to say, “I feel like I'm so upset that I can't participate in this conversation, and I'm withdrawing now.” Have that self-awareness. 

I also heard you start to talk about self-soothing would be the next step. Once you have that self-awareness, now it is time to self-soothe. You also brought up something I thought that was so insightful, which is that many times in a conflict or after the conflict, even if we're taking a break, we are, even if we're like doing self-care behaviors, like taking a shower or going on a walk or petting your cat or whatever, we are still ruminating about what I said, what they said, and how I was right, and how they were wrong, and here's what I'm gonna say to them. 

I think that's… Because anybody, you can always take a shower, right? Do you have any insight for what to do with that cognitive component to help people really step away from…? Because that's what emotional flooding is about, is the story, right? What do you do with couples that go there?

Lisa Jordan: You're right. The piece that continues on where the flooding that perpetuates there is when we carry it forward with our own ruminating. You could take that and be far removed from the argument or the conflict and still be perseverating and really bringing that back over and over and over again, and even working yourself up and becoming more fixed in your position. Doing things to challenge that, this is very popular right now. 

But mindfulness and meditation, can't be understated how powerful this can be. Because it's available. Mindfulness, in particular, using your five senses, getting out of your head, out of your thoughts and into your body, is an instantaneous and immediate way to just at least disconnect the circuit that's ramping you up. “What do I see in front of me? What do I hear? What do I smell, taste, touch?” All of that is neutral, right? 

If I'm looking out the window, or I'm in the shower, and I feel this nice, warm water flowing, and I can get into this sense of what that feels like in my body, I am literally putting a break on that stress, all that cortisol, that hormone that makes us feel so bad, and putting some space in there so that you can calm down, and you will, because we're built to do that. We're built to calm back down again if we only can get out of our own way and allow ourselves to do that. I think that that's something that you can do. That's that self-care outside of a disagreement. 

How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed by Emotions

Lisa Jordan: But while you're with your partner, if you notice in the beginning that you're becoming engaged, it's to really use this reflective listening that we teach couples. Because if I'm fully occupied with listening to you, I'm not busy defending or planning my next thought. What I'm doing is devoting myself 100%, empathically, to understanding how you feel and what your position is. 

That doesn't mean that I agree with you. But if I'm spending all of my attention and time and focus to really hear you, I'm not escalating an argument. I am being with you. We want people to be able to do that long before they're becoming emotionally flooded. Because if they're there, you're not going to get emotionally flooded. It's kind of a prevention routine as well.

Dr. Lisa: That's beautiful. I think that's really the beauty of what you do, Lisa, that couples counseling and relationship coaching. Because you are, I think, having experiences with couples with you, because you, your presence, you're just like this warm, comforting person. I think that that can really be the benefit of doing couples work is that you are, at first, keeping people emotionally safe with each other so that they can practice doing that. 

Like, “Okay, I'm just gonna listen to you right now.” Because when they're at home in their living room, it goes immediately into that rebuttal mode. It turns into a fight. But you're slowing it down, and helping people listen, and being able to practice doing that so that it is possible to do that before that emotional flooding place happens because it's so hard to have empathy for other people when you get to that rage-y place.

Lisa Jordan: Absolutely. It's the last place we are once we're in that heightened state. You can’t access it then. Then, it's all about self-soothing and doing things, splashing cold water on your face, or taking a warm shower. Actually, temperature changes tend to pull people out of that. 

Dr. Lisa: Interesting, temperature changes. 

Lisa Jordan: Bumping yourself back into that zone where you're not escalated, or where you're not dissociating, or highly anxious, or rageful is about doing something physically to bump you back in.  We know like singing, dancing, gargling, there's all these things that have to do with the vagus nerve. That vagus nerve is what's connected to that fight, flight, freeze. Doing things to jostle your way back out, physiologically, can help be a reset.

Dr. Lisa: That's amazing. That is such a good tip just to almost shift. Although it's so funny. As you're talking, I'm imagining in my mind, like, have you ever seen the videos of the Scandinavians jumping into the frozen water? Then, going into the sauna? I'm like, maybe that's what…

Lisa Jordan: I don't think I'd survive that one. But that sounds like a really good one for those hardy types.

Dr. Lisa: My heart would stop. But yeah, though, for other people. For other people.

Understanding Those Who Shut Down When Overwhelmed

Dr. Lisa: Now, would you say that this works best for people who go into that elevated place? Because there's also people that are shutting down. I don't know about you, but I've seen that be just as problematic is that when people go into that withdrawal? Because they think especially when their partner doesn't realize that they are actually emotionally flooding? Because from the outside, they just look like they're sitting in a chair? Like they don't… Have you seen that?

Lisa Jordan: Yes. Exactly. That can create a lot of conflict in couples. Because as you said, it looks to the outside as though it could be gaslighting, that term that we sometimes use, that “This person, my partner, is doing this to me on purpose. They're just shutting down, and they're ignoring me. They're not going to talk to me. They're not going to listen.” What we know is that people can get into that frame of mind where they no longer have words. 

They really are so overwhelmed that they cannot respond anymore. Being able to understand that that is emotional flooding as well. It just looks very different from the kind of emotional flooding that might cause someone to be rageful, or yelling, or crying. That is a very real thing. People can become so emotionally shut down or dissociate because this could be very frightening for them or just extremely uncomfortable. That's where they go, when things get emotionally flooded, is that they go offline and in that direction.

Dr. Lisa: Go offline. Wow, I think I've heard it said that that can be more common for men than women. Has that been your experience? Or have you seen it differently?

Lisa Jordan: I think it is more common for men because we do live in a culture that tends to give women a much fuller range of emotional language and expression. We kind of welcome them. We don't give men the same permission or freedom to become really good at expressing themselves verbally or emotionally. I think they can get backed into a corner, feeling like they have nowhere to go, and the words leave them. Then, the partners who are observing that will feel abandoned. So yes, I do think that happens for men a lot.

Dr. Lisa: I'm just thinking of that really classic, pursue-withdraw cycle that we talk about a lot in the context of Emotionally Focused Therapy. What often happens systemically in those moments is that if one person is withdrawing and becoming less responsive, then the other person goes into attack mode. I can just see how this would make that so much worse for somebody who's feeling overwhelmed to begin with. That's impossible at that point.

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, there's such misunderstanding taking place, and there's really nowhere to go. That's when a lot of those hurt feelings get developed. But when you hear couples talking about that, that's typically where they've gone, which is it's gone really deep, emotionally, and we need to do a little repair work around what has happened. 

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. I'm so glad that we're talking about this, Lisa. Because I could just imagine somebody hopefully hearing this and maybe understanding in a new way, what is going on for their partner in those moments, is to develop that empathy of “Oh, he's not ignoring me. He's like, so overwhelmed, he can't talk, and I need to stop.” 

Lisa Jordan: That's the first lesson I think that we teach is, “Hey, if you're going there, and you're getting that place, turn to your partner and say, ‘I'm getting overwhelmed. I really need a break. I promise I will come back.’” Right? Because that's the only risk is that you'll go away and never bring up the issue again, and it's forgotten. To say, “I need an hour to just really calm myself down. I will come back, and we're going to discuss this some more.” We want people to develop those resources, that skill to do that before they're completely overwhelmed and always shut down. To ask for what they need.

Strategies for Dealing with Emotional Flooding

Dr. Lisa: That's wonderful advice. I know that we've been talking for a while, and you're just such a joy to talk to, I could literally talk to you all day, and I wanna be respectful of your time. What are some other strategies or ideas that you have found to be important when working with your couples over the years that you might share with our listeners, so they have additional takeaways?

Lisa Jordan: I think what tends to work really well, in my experience with couples, is to see if there is a little bit of a window that we can open for questioning one's own absolute beliefs. Right? If you can, even when couples are very polarized in their beliefs about something, if you can allow yourself to think about the situation that you're in and believe for a moment that it might not be true, the way you're seeing it, that it might not be 100% accurate, that gives you this potential for softening around something that may feel completely intractable. Right? 

To work with someone around the belief that “Maybe, I'm not 100% right.” Even if you're 98% right, what's that 2% look like? Is there anything that you can acknowledge for your partner that they have a legitimate point about that immediately makes the partner feel at least heard? They have a foot in the door for negotiating. Then, to kind of take that the next step further, which is, how does it feel to think that maybe there's some rightness on both sides? Right? 

I think when couples are really entrenched, it's to work to try to create a little bit more gray area. To lessen the black and white viewing of what a problem is like and what the situation is, just to enable people to question their own beliefs. Because I think it's the things that we don't question or the things that we are not aware of that are the biggest problems in relationships. Being able to tolerate the thought that “My subjective view is not necessarily the whole truth,” gives us somewhere to go.

Dr. Lisa: It makes perfect sense. It's hard. It's hard to do this. But to be able to almost question some of your core beliefs, and maybe don't believe everything that you think, and open the door for empathy, and trying to understand someone else's perspective, that's really that heart of being able to validate the other person's point of view, and just calming everybody back down and creating safety where listening and understanding can happen again. Because it's like the opposite of emotional flooding.

Lisa Jordan: Even having that kind of ability to have that relationship with yourself, right? I also work with individuals, and people are so hard on themselves. If you can sit with the things that you do, from that vantage point of, “Why am I doing this,” there's probably a good reason why you're doing the things you're doing. Instead of just completely tearing yourself apart and beating yourself up for what your habits are, what you've done in the past, is to sort of look at that and say, how has that been a help? 

How has that been adaptive? How did that help you survive? How did that help you stay in this relationship? You may choose not to engage in that anymore. But there's something about that that helped you to get by, and so helping people to just feel more comfortable in themselves for showing up and bringing up whatever is coming up, I think that's part of the job that we do is to help people accept themselves and appreciate all the parts for being there for a reason.

Dr. Lisa: That's so beautiful that by working on yourself, and developing that self-compassion, and creating emotional safety inside of yourself, that you can become less emotionally reactive and more emotionally safe and compassionate with your partner too. 

What a beautiful idea for us to glide to a halt on today. I love it. This has been just such a great conversation. Thank you so much for just sharing not just your perspective, but your story and also so many good strategies. I hope that some of our listeners were taking notes because there's some actionable stuff I didn't know about, like changing your temperature. I mean, that's just for singing, gargling. I’m gonna try that.

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, give it a try. Well, thank you. This has been so wonderful. 

Dr. Lisa: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for being here. 

To my listeners, if you would like to learn more about Lisa or her practice and also read some of the wonderful articles that you have on our blog at growingself.com. You have so much wisdom to share, and thank you again for coming on today's show. But there's more Lisa for everyone at growingself.com if people come and read more. A wonderful idea. So thank you.

[Outro song: Urgent Blowout by Brandy]


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