Decades of research has shown that one of the most important factors in humans feeling happy and fulfilled in life is having healthy relationships. The healthiness of our relationships is extremely important, thus learning and practicing formulas of communication that lead to improved relationships can be one of the best investments you ever make. In this article, I’ll give a step by step review of one of the most effective formulas that leads to relationships filled with more love, respect, compassion, emotional safety and connection.
It might sound demeaning to learn how to give yourself a time out as an adult, but bear with me, if you try it you will see the massive benefit of this interpersonal effectiveness skill.
It’s important to understand the basics of the brain. The brain is made up of three layers: the brain stem at the bottom, the limbic system (aka the “emotional brain”), and the neocortex (aka the “thinking brain”). These layers of brain were developed over the last 2 million years with the oldest part of the brain being the brainstem and the newest part of the brain, the neocortex. The brainstem develops in utero until about age 2, the limbic system develops from in utero until about age 8, and the neocortex develops from about age 8 until about 24 for women and up to 30 years old for men. The brainstem is in charge of unconscious survival drives like hunger, thirst, safety, keeping your heart beating, breathing, lust, rage and fear. The limbic system is where your primary emotions originate, your attachment drives to care for babies, fall in love, and in combination with the brainstem, it generates the “fight or flight” reaction. These more primal brain sytems are much older and more powerful than the neocortex when they are triggered. The neocortex is where executive functioning occurs, which includes planning, decision making, negotiation, problem solving, time management, language, and healthy respectful communication. The problem is, when we are feeling threatened (whether a real threat or a perceived threat- meaning whether it is a lion chasing you or your fear of embarrassment or of losing your job if you show up late to a meeting), then our old brain systems take over and we are no longer in a place where healthy communication can occur. When this happens we feel it: our heart rate goes up, body tenses, and we may start to have much more negative thoughts, black and white or all or nothing thinking, or worst case scenario thoughts. In its extreme, thoughts of suicide can arise.
Once your limbic system has hijacked the brain, the neocortex is no longer in control and is “off-line.” In this state, our ability to think rationally, negotiate and communicate effectively has gone out the window. At this point in time the Adult Time Out is your best option. What is an adult time out? It is giving yourself the time needed to get your neocortex back online. Only when the neocortex is in the driver’s seat can you have healthy communication with your partner, loved one, or co-worker.
As you go through the rest of this article, I suggest having a place to write or type your personalized steps to an adult time out.
Step 1: Recognize that you need a time out. Write down what you experience when your neocortex has been hijacked by the limbic system. If this is hard to identify, think of the last time you started feeling intense anxiety and having negative thoughts. Write down what you experienced both physically in your body and in your mind. What did you think, what did you feel, and what did you physically experience. What are the symptoms you will experience that let you know you need to take action to get your thinking brain back in control? At what level of anger on a 1-10 scale should you use an adult time out?
Now you know the symptoms to look for when you need an adult time out.
Step 2: Announce the time out. This is one of the most important steps and the most often forgotten. If you are upset with someone and leave the room without saying anything (even if you know in your head that the purpose is to come back and find a healthy resolution) then it is considered a form of emotional abuse. Think of the last time you were really upset with someone and imagine that without saying anything they just walked out. How would that feel? It would likely feel horrible, that’s because leaving without saying anything is a Power and Control move (even if unintentional) and is emotionally harmful to the other person. So pick something that feels comfortable for you to say, such as “I need to cool down,” “I need a break,” or “I need a time out.” The key is to talk to your partner ahead of time so you have a plan. If you are in a new situation (a new co-worker for example) you can say, “I need to take a break and will come back to this later after I have time to think about it.”
Write down what sounds like a good fit for you to say when you need a time out.
Step 3: Leave I don’t care where you go, just get out of that space. Of course, if you are in a situation where this would leave a child, dependent or elderly person in danger do not do this. Instead, try to find a way to use your calming skills while making sure they are safe and cared for. This might be a conversation ahead of time with your spouse on how you can work together to support each other’s new emotion regulation skills. Ideally, if you can go outside or to a calm space that is best.
Write down ideas of where you can go in different situations (work, home, home with and without kids) when you might need a timeout.
NOTE, DO NOT: drive, drink, or do drugs – all of these exacerbate the situation and increase the risk of harm to yourself and others.
Step 4: Calm down In order to clam down, it is crucial that you do NOT THINK ABOUT THE SITUATION. Your only task is to calm your body down, meaning get your heart rate down. Use distraction skills and self soothing. If you try to think about the situation before you are fully calm, you will only come up with solutions you will later regret. This is when your limbic system is still in control, so all your solutions will be extreme and survival based. To calm down, try: going for a walk or any other kind of exercise (bi-pedal movement has been shown to rapidly decrease stress hormones), play a video game, read a book, watch a tv show, listen to a guided meditation, do a Sudoko puzzle, listen to music, play music, write music, practice belly breathing, call a friend and ask how they are doing (do not talk about your problem at this stage- or if you do at all say you don’t want to talk about it), watch Youtube videos you’ve been wanting to watch that are distracting, take a shower, play with your pet, etc. I think you get the point. Get your mind off the upsetting situation to give your body time to stop producing stress hormones so your neocortex can get back to full functioning.
Write down a list of what might work for you in different situations (ex: work, home, relative’s house)
Step 5: Reflect and think about what just happened. Now that you are calm, sit down and journal about what happened. It is key to write this out; putting things down on paper helps us to process and clarify our thoughts and feelings. Here is a format to help you:
- Situation: write down the facts to the situation as if you were a fly on the wall watching it, no inferences or opinions, just the facts of what happened (example “I walked in the house and she stated “Did you pick up the milk”, NOT I walked in and she started nagging me right off the bat, FACTS only)
- Feelings: what did you feel, both physical and emotional. Physical sensations can include increased heart rate, tightness in chest, clenched fists. Emotions are one word answers: sad, hurt, angry, frustrated, upset, inadequate
- Thoughts: examine the thoughts that were going through your head, as if you were a cartoon and there were a bubble above your head that read what the words in your brain were saying, write these down. Example “she always nags me” is a thought – an unhelpful thought that led to the negative emotional experience. I list emotions above thoughts because those are easier to recognize, but the reality is that often thoughts precede emotions unless it is a learned emotional response to a situation such as jumping every time you hear a loud noise if you have been in a combat. (for extra credit you can Google search cognitive distortions and label the thoughts as well)
- Urges: what were the urges you had? These are the negative automatic urges of fight or flight that come from the old brain systems. Just because we have them doesn’t make them real or valid, they are just urges and we get to choose the meaning we give to them.
- Actions: write down what actions you actually took (hopefully a time out!)
- Think about what outcome you would like that would help resolve the negative feelings around this issue. What is it that you specifically want to ask of your partner/co-worker?
Step 6: Most Important Step!!!! Final Step!!! You MUST go back and talk about the issue and resolve it. A recommended amount of time for a time out is 1 hour. If the emotional upset was more minor, then a 20 minute time out might work. The key to this working is you go back and resolve the conflict. You can start by using the “I statements” formula.
- When ______________________ happened, (fill in with the facts of the situation)
- I felt _______________________ (fill in with what emotion(s) you felt, one word answers only, NO “I feel like” or “I feel that”, which automatically turns it into a thought, not a feeling) For beginners starting with I feel ______ when_________ can be more helpful. Try it out, it will be messy and awkward at first as all new things are, but keep at it!
- Then check in with your partner. If they are able to reflect the basic message back in their own words that you are wanting to get across then go onto the next step. If they misinterpreted what you said then try again until they understand and you are on the same page.
- Because ___________________________________ (this is where you put your thoughts, interpretations, beliefs, and fears in)
- So what I think would help now and/or in the future is _____________________
Here’s a full example:
I felt frustrated when I came home and the first thing you said to me was “Did you pick up the milk”
What did you hear me say? Partner reflects it back accurately
Because it makes me feel unappreciated and disconnected from you and defensive right when I see you
What I think would help is if in the future we greet each other with hugs, kisses and a warm hello before asking about whether tasks got done or not. I think it might also help if when I do remember to get stuff there is appreciation shown. I know I can work on that too.
I encourage anyone looking to improve their relationships and quality of life to keep working on themselves and seek the experience and knowledge of a professional if you feel stuck on your own. Communication skills are just one of many areas of improvement that a skilled therapist can help you with. The actions we choose define who we are, not our thoughts. And with work and practice, you can change your response to conflicts to be more positive and loving.