What a Messy Space Reveals About Relationships, Part 2

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Doctor Neha: Welcome to Talk Rx with Doctor Neha. I have a special guest, Tom, who I’ve known actually for a few years. He was gracious enough to say that he would come and ask his communication question so all of you can learn as he does as well. Welcome, Tom.

Tom: You’re welcome. Thank you, great to see you.

Doctor Neha: I did some communication work with you a while ago.

Tom: You did.

Doctor Neha: So you’re a little familiar with all of this. Tell me, what communication question are you thinking about?

Tom: The communication I have is with my wife. It’s just the two of us; we don’t have any children. The communication problem I have is to be able to communicate when I have a disagreement with my wife or I don’t like what she does. She doesn’t like the way I say it. I’ve tried every different approach, and I’ve pretty much given up.  So I just say, “Yes dear” most of the time now.

Doctor Neha: But that’s not what you’re feeling inside?

Tom: No, because little things just kind of build and build and build, then all of a sudden—boom!—it’s like, “You didn’t do this, and you didn’t do this,” and then we don’t speak for the evening.

Doctor Neha: You give the whole list of all the things she didn’t do.

Tom: Exactly.

Doctor Neha: It’s not so effective.

Tom: No, no, no.

Doctor Neha: How about we work through a way that you can do it differently?

Tom: Do you have a magic wand?

Doctor Neha: It’s called the magic communication wand. First, tell me how you know something bothers you. What is it that would bother you? Give me an example.

Tom: The mail piling up on the kitchen counter, day after day, after day, after day.

Doctor Neha: Give me another example.

Tom: In the same theme, papers and magazines—things just don’t get thrown away in the house, and I don’t understand it. I’m very much an orderly, neat person. I want all the little ducks to be in the row all the time—there are too many ducks and they’re all kind of climbing on top of each other.

Doctor Neha: How long have you been married?

Tom: We’ve been married 20 years.

Doctor Neha: So you’re a veteran at this, right?

Tom: Yes.

Doctor Neha: So one of the things you struggle most with is when you see a physical mess outside, right? Something in your environment triggers a reaction inside you? Give me your physical sensations. How do you know it’s bothering you and you start thinking, Here we go again.

Tom: I think I take a deep breath.

Doctor Neha: Before you know you need to take a deep breath, tell me what you’re experiencing.

Tom: Frustration.

Doctor Neha: How do you know in your body, physically, that you’re frustrated? Like heart racing, stomach turning, tight muscles.

Tom: I think it’s just tense; everything is tense.

Doctor Neha: So you get really tense inside?

Tom: Right.

Doctor Neha: And in that moment it’s going to be hard to take a soft deep breath when you’re so tense.

Tom: Right, I try it though.

Doctor Neha: All right, so next time, do three breaths, okay?

Tom: Okay.

Doctor Neha: Not short shallow breaths. Soften your abdomen and let gravity pull your shoulders down. Then expand your abdomen; when you soften the muscles of your abdomen the rest of your muscles relax. One thing that might be happening is each time you come to your wife even in different ways you’re still coming with that constricted tension, so no matter what comes out of your mouth, it’s going to be tough to receive.

Tom: Pretty much.

Doctor Neha:The first thing is noticing the tense muscles; the second is to relax into it and take a deep breath.

Now, tell me who was messy in your life growing up? Was there anyone you thought keep their room messy or someone who didn’t keep things in order?

Tom: No, our house was very orderly growing up. With my father, all his ducks were in a row. I grew up in New York so we had basements. And if you went down there all the dishes and things on the shelves in the basement were aligned right in a row. Everything was picked up, and we were always cleaning in our house growing up. On the weekends we had to clean. We had to pick up. We were always doing cleaning. That’s a really interesting question. Everything was always orderly.

Doctor Neha: Did you like that growing up? Did you love cleaning all the time, even on the weekends?

Tom: I can’t say I didn’t or did.

Doctor Neha: You don’t remember?

Tom: No, I don’t remember.

Doctor Neha: What did it provide you?

Tom: Order.

Doctor Neha: So safety probably?

Tom: Probably safety, yes.

Doctor Neha: How emotionally connected did you feel to your dad and to your mom?

Tom: Well, I’m one of six kids so we weren’t all that close. The mentality was just that this is what you do.

Doctor Neha: You were told.

Tom: Yes, we were told.

Doctor Neha: What’s interesting is the physical order of the house was in order?

Tom: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It was.

Doctor Neha: But the emotional piece of that?

Tom: It was not.

Doctor Neha: It was not addressed?

Tom: No. It’s going to be tough to go back.

Doctor Neha: Guess what, there’s no hope of a better past.

Tom: No, there is no hope of that.

Doctor Neha: There’s a lot of hope to create a better future. Now if order used to create safety, a mess would create chaos.

Tom: Exactly, those were the words I was thinking.

Doctor Neha: Not only that, emotions can be a little ambiguous. They can be volatile, they can be explosive, and they can be intense—that could be considered messy. And in your house everything needs to be in order?

Tom: Exactly.

Doctor Neha: So when you see that physical mess externally, it’s actually not about the physical mess. It triggers an emotional chaos inside you, and you don’t know how to get that in order, so what you do is you want to make the things outside that trigger that go away. Does that make sense?

Tom: It does.

Doctor Neha: That is an endless game because you’ve been married to this amazing women for 20 years.

Tom: I have. This is one of the very few things that bug me. I’m really lucky.

Doctor Neha: What if this experience can help you figure out how to embark on taking care of the emotional piece inside you?

Tom: You mean a paper shredder right by the front door wouldn’t help?

Doctor Neha: That would temporarily alleviate your experience of feeling uncomfortable, but the real work is how you start navigating your emotions in a way that’s clear and clean and in partnership. Make sense?

Tom: It does make sense.

Doctor Neha: As long as you make her action of putting the mail in a pile or leaving papers as the problem, this will never be resolved.

Tom: Can you repeat that?

Doctor Neha: As long as you make her piling up the papers or leaving a mess as the problem this will never get resolved.

Tom: I got it.

Doctor Neha: As soon as you say, “Hey Honey, I notice that what happens when I see this external mess is that it triggers emotional chaos for me. Then I interact with you in a way where I feel a little crazy, like I’m reacting and I can’t communicate with this woman I love—and it creates turmoil between us. Help me understand how we can do this in a way that works for both of us. I’d love for you to give me feedback, and I’m going to start working on how to navigate my emotions.” Does this sound reasonable?

Tom: Very reasonable.

Doctor Neha: I’ll give you a copy of my book Talk Rx before you leave because the middle five chapters are dedicated to emotions and how to manage them in ourselves and in the face of others. Sound like a deal?

Tom: It sounds like a deal.

Doctor Neha: Tell me your takeaways?

Tom: I really need to take the three deep breaths and relax when I feel this tension building in me. Then I have to have a conversation with my wife not about the physical mess but the emotional one. I need to tell her the physical mess is triggering an emotion in me and I have to work on that. I’ll say, “Hey, we’re getting along great can you help me with that?”

Doctor Neha: And ask, “Can you give me feedback? I’m going to try things a little bit differently. In my household everything being neat and orderly meant everything was safe. So there’s this way I go into a place of not feeling safe and uncontrolled in the moment that I react. That’s what I want to help working on.” I think if she understood that, she would be willing to work with you.

Tom: I hope so.

Doctor Neha: Thank you so much.

Tom: Thank you so much, it’s so good to see you.

Doctor Neha: For all of you at home, if you know that things getting messy in your physical world triggers you inside, ask yourself, “What does it mean to have things all nice, and neat, and orderly?” And most important, consider whether the external mess might be dividing you from people that you love because the truth is that external trigger creates an internal emotional chaos that you’re unable to deal with; therefore, you focus on somebody else’s physical mess.

Send me your questions — drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha or write your question and comments down below.

Awareness Prescription

  1. When you are triggered by a physical mess,
  2. Pause
  3. Identify your physical signals (sweating, tight muscles, etc.)
  4. Take three deep breaths to ease the physical discomfort
  5. Ask yourself, “What does this mess mean about me or my relationship?”
  6. What stories do you have about cleanliness and order? What rules did you learn from your family growing up?
  7. Is there a correlation between the physical mess you see and the emotional turmoil inside you?
  8. Communicate what occurs for you when you see an external mess and stay curious about the ways you can both heal around this experience.

To clearing the air,

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