Relational Inflammation: The Value of Rest and Space

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Beth Killough

Relationships are like high contact sports. We bump into each other and sometimes knock each other down. It’s nearly impossible to have a human relationship with any kind of authenticity and not hit points of conflict and upset. You’ll know you’re having a real relationship if you feel hurt at times! It’s a side effect of caring for others and wanting others to care for you. Often unintentionally, we hurt others and when we do, it causes a kind of interpersonal inflammation. Whether we are at home or at work, the bruises and tears in our relationships need to heal. If we are intentional about HOW we heal, those sore points can actually become points of strength, bonding, and the building of trust.

Here’s the catch:  the first part of healing any kind of inflammation is rest.

When we are knee-deep in conflict, we are often emotionally reactive, meaning we have all survival systems responding to a four-alarm fire in our brains. The conflict, regardless of the content, scares us and has us responding in a fight or flight mode so we simply don’t have access to our full capacities to think through and reason toward solutions. The trouble with the human brain is that we can lose access to most of our rational thought process yet still be making thoughts and speaking words. It’s actually quite amazing!

Inside, we feel like a gazelle being chased by a cheetah and on the outside, we’re forming words, sentences, and having a conversation. It can be hard to tell that we are reactive unless we begin to cultivate more awareness around our own physiology and what reactivity looks like in others. But once we know our emotional system or someone else’s system is engulfed in flames, it just makes good sense to do one simple thing: Stop, drop, and roll. We don’t want to fan the fire!

The other day, a colleague sent an email with a question that just about sent me through the roof. I could literally feel my scalp tingle, like the top of my head was going to pop off. I was like a cartoon character with steam coming out of my ears. Emotional inflammation actually does heat up our bodies as our survival system thinks it has to increase blood flow to run or fight. I pressed reply and was about to start typing when I remembered a phrase I learned a while back: restraint of pen and tongue, referring to the process of thinking through and talking through problems before ranting at other people. I stopped. I rested. I walked. I waited. I waited some more. And as it turns out, once I had allowed my personal system to cool down, I was able to draft a very simple response that didn’t damage the relationship and didn’t interfere with my own integrity.

Where we’re in a real-time conflict and exchanging words in person or over the phone, it’s harder to take a break. Things are moving quickly and it’s a bit like trying to wash your car after you’ve already merged into the fast lane. It’s tempting and more typical that we keep talking and talking. Usually, it’s because we genuinely desire resolution or peace. Sometimes, it’s because we are dead-set on convincing someone of how right we are. We love making a point! But when relational systems are inflamed, it’s often not possible to talk things through and reach any real understanding.

This is a lot like a bodily injury. We desperately want to stay in action, to move, exercise, stay in the game. But the doctor orders: Rest. Rest. Rest. We have to let the swelling go down, allow the body to do its own healing. Then, we can start the process of rebuilding.

Last year I had to make some serious changes in a personal relationship. I had realized I had done a poor job communicating my needs and shaping the relationship in a way that worked well for me. The relationship had become very imbalanced and had become inflamed. It seemed that every time we talked or saw each other it resulted in a head-on collision. There would be a little bit of space, I would calm down, get a bit of hope, try and interact, and then there we were again, wrestling in the same ring. This went on for months.

Finally, my personal solution became clear. I need more time, more rest, more space. I hadn’t been giving myself enough time to heal. It was like starting physical therapy before getting the stitches out. It just kept tearing at the wound. So I called for a break. It was not received well! But I accepted the other person’s reaction as it was and moved on to the work of healing my own system. As the inflammation lessened, I could see more clearly what I needed to work on and how to approach the relationship differently.

The next time you feel your blood boil or you notice a friend or co-worker is about blow a gasket, consider using a few very simple tools to cool down:

  1. Stop: Simply stop what you are doing. Usually, it means you need to stop talking!
  2. Breathe: Intentional breathing for a couple minutes can do wonders.
  3. Walk: Allow your agitated body to move so the emotions have somewhere to go.
  4. Step back: Physically and mentally give yourself enough space so you can have new perspective on whatever situation you’re facing.
  5. Rest: Do something restorative and soothing to give your system a chance to calm down.

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