Often when I see couples for therapy, their power struggles are revealed in how they hold their hands. John Gottman’s research in the “Love Lab” suggests you can predict whether a couple will reconcile through the course of couples treatment or break-up, based on how much they physically turn towards each other and make eye contact while in the therapy room struggling through an issue.
What I notice are my client’s hands. Open hands suggest a desire to understand. When I see open hands, it tells me that my clients have an ability to self regulate and are relatively calm and open to learning about themselves. Closed hands tell me I may have my work cut out, that they may be feeling defensive and guarded.
Try it yourself. Open your hands and notice how you feel in this moment– relaxed and engaged? Now clench your fists and notice the contraction right through your body. Do you notice it is harder to breath and you feel heavier when your hands are closed? Hands can be an indicator of your mood and with personal practice a great way to strategically engage more positive capacity.
In today’s germy world you are not alone if you have made it a policy to not shake hands anymore. Although I have to say this new ‘no handshake’ practice, avoiding contact, may be turning a more virulent illness inward; loneliness is a tough shadow. When we connect with others, our body releases naturally occurring hormones such as oxytocin, (the attachment hormone) which make us feel safe. We then naturally pay more attention to positive information in our day. This then continues to build positive feelings of being in the world generally.
When I see closed hands with clients, I find myself imagining we are standing together on logs over a rushing river. Have you ever done that? When I bring that imagined context to mind I am reminded to look up and forward at the goals couples have for themselves or each other. Cutting through the power struggle, I often ask my clients, “Where are we headed with this? What is under all the frustration that is here today–the anger and resentment is tangible”. I try to externalize their feelings, like anger is a force outside of themselves that they can choose to dance with or shift into empathic understanding. It’s not easy keeping your head and heart open to mutual goals when you are angry. And it isn’t a bad thing to be angry. Anger is intimate when you are curious about it as a resource. Do you tend to shove others into the river?
Increased awareness in your body can help you from projecting historical unhappiness outwardly. Body awareness helps you build more personal insight, which will develop your capacity to be emotionally present through your next difficult conversation. When you consider your own last misunderstanding, what childhood history might have been playing out in the crossfire of that moment?
When understandings collide and confusion shows up, there tends to be a few slippery logs so to speak. Working with couples, I might say “Oh, I see she is totally uncaring and he is a complete Neanderthal.. Is that what you really think?” .. pause.. blush of the moment.. “Well no one is that uncaring or shut down”.. we laugh. Laughter can be a great way to shift stuck perspectives too. Over stating, naming or exaggerating ‘the thesis’ is a great way to clear a pattern of polarizing. He is ‘always’ wrong, she is ‘always’ critical. These overstatements overwhelm the potential to build emotional safety– a context of change.
Whether you are in a relationship or on your own, look for opportunities to laugh. If you notice a pattern of blaming, you are not alone. We all do that some of the time. It is just not going to help you gain your goal of shared understanding and positive outcome. Dr. Dan Siegal talks about taking ‘time in’, in his many books about emotional intelligence and how we can develop our mirror neurons (empathy centers) when we practice meditation. How empathic are you?
No matter what might be projecting your way through the week, look for the humanity and vulnerability in yourself and in the other person. Build your own bridge by staying open and curious.
Here are a few tips that will help you navigate your own rushing rivers of life:
- What is your body language saying?
- What are you feeling?
- What do you need?
- Is your story showing up in other parts of your life? For example, if you have been feeling under valued by your partner, do you feel that way at work too?
- What is important about changing this story? What can you do differently today?
And you may want to do your own survey of hands over the next week. Closed or Wide Open, it is your choice. When you think it, what perspective gives you your best life? What you don’t know may be worth your own discovery.