The Lower Brain: Stressing the Communication Breakdown

Waist photo of man and woman holding hands on a couch. Davin G Photography (Getty)

Dear Sara:

I have a great relationship with my girlfriend, but one thing keeps getting in the way: fear. As in, I always feel like I’m about to get in trouble for something, or she’s going to yell at me for something, or I’ve let her down in some way. I know this isn’t grounded in reality. She’s not a yeller, and she’s not passive-aggressive with me either. If I do something and she doesn’t like it, she’s straightforward about it.

But what happens is that I react to criticism by freaking out. I’m afraid that because I messed up with one thing, she hates me and wants to dump me.  And then I isolate myself out of fear and won’t answer texts or calls. Which obviously doesn’t help. So she told me now she’s afraid to bring up issues because she knows I’ll get upset.

I know I’m crazy. What is going on with me?

Freaking Out All The Time

Before we answer: Lower Brain: Is #MeToo Out to Get You?

Dear FOATT:

Hey, you’re not crazy. And crazy is a pretty unhelpful word in this case, right? It’s a mean thing to say about yourself! You sound like a very sane, caring dude who is struggling with something. I realized recently that when I say, “Oh, she’s crazy,” what I usually mean is  that she’s nasty, rude, inconsiderate, selfish or some other negative thing. But it sounds like I’m impugning somebody’s mental stability, which is a fucked up thing to do. And when I say, “I’m crazy” I’m being self-deprecating in a way that discounts my intelligence and ability to assess a situation.

You and I are not crazy. We just have some shit to work on.

Now, I have no idea if you are dealing with a mental health issue that would benefit from medical intervention. I’m not a doctor, obviously. However, you are certainly dealing with some intense anxiety! And it might help you to talk to somebody who specializes in this kind of thing.

Some couples benefit greatly from couples counseling, and that may be a route for you and your girlfriend to take. But I think solo counseling is the more important move, even if you just go for a few months to figure out where this anxiety bubbles up, and why. Because whether you stay with this gal or you eventually part ways, you’ve got to live inside your own brain. And if this was an issue in your relationship with her, it may very well have happened to you with other girls before – or friends, coworkers, etc.

Let’s put more effective tools in your toolkit when it comes to dealing with conflict with your girlfriend. And those tools will most likely assist you in your relationships with others. One thing I’ve learned from quitting booze and starting to work on my life more is that when I learn how to communicate better in one area of my life, it often applies to others.

Now, I say this as a fearful person who had to recently run a text message past three friends in order to feel okay and safe to send it! I had to address an issue with someone I had been seeing, and since they weren’t picking up the phone – phone or face-to-face is always best for communication, but not always possible – I decided to send a text. It was a really polite, non-condescending, sensible text, nothing nasty or dramatic. But I was so worried about upsetting this person. In the past, I would’ve avoided the potential conflict and it would’ve gotten worse. But what I’ve learned is that I’ve got to be upfront about these things. And he appreciated it! It actually led to a pretty good conversation.

More ‘Lower Brain’: Stop Feeding The Dating Drama

So I’d say you should research some social workers, counselors, therapists, and/or psychologists in your area. Some people will even write about their therapist on Yelp, but going through a friend or your medical doctor is another way to figure out who might be right for you. I describe looking for a therapist as being like car shopping: take a few for a test drive before deciding where to invest. The right professional may be able to help you see how you may react to your girlfriend’s anger or displeasure in a very old way. Could be something you learned in childhood. Could be something you learned during adolescence. Or it could be that there are some underlying problems in your relationship that need addressing.

I have a few more recommendations for you. First, my friend Sabrina told me about a book called The Art of Communicating. It’s by Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk who taught religion at Princeton and Columbia, as well as all over the world. He lives and works in France, and travels frequently to lecture on Buddhism and peace. You may find the book particularly helpful in learning to address persons with whom you disagree. I’m not all the way through it yet, but it’s good. I got the audiobook because sometimes I absorb information better that way, so that’s an option if you don’t feel like reading.

I also use the Headspace app every day for meditation. And I like Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living – it teaches a lot about stress reduction.

I hope all this helps. Pick one thing – researching therapists; buying a good book; downloading an app – and do it today. See how that feels. You may wish to begin recording your daily thoughts and experiences in a journal (this can also be a password-protected document or something only you can access) as this information may help you see patterns of behavior in a new way. Good luck! You can change if you put the effort in and keep trying.