You’re out on a date, or perhaps at the gym, or maybe simply spending time together at home. The point is, you and your partner are enjoying each other’s company — the mood is easy, the conversation is flowing when suddenly you find yourself in the middle of an argument. Things get ugly. When the argument is over, you look around at the rubble and wonder what happened.

Sound familiar?

Everyone becomes offended or angry from time to time, but for many of us this scenario happens time after time. Ask yourself: How many times have I become upset, hurt, angry, uncomfortable — or any other negative emotion — because of what someone said to me?

And then consider this: Maybe it wasn’t because of what they said. Perhaps it was the way they said it.

Conflicts like this are often misunderstandings that occur because we are not listening to what people are saying. Instead, we are paying attention to their physiology: their facial expression, their tone of voice, or their body language. Our wounded or angered feelings have been triggered by a look, a rise or fall in vocal pitch, or a physical gesture.

These triggers are often rooted in negative experiences from our past. When we see something in our partner that reminds us of something that did not make us feel good earlier in life, we react. But the effect of this is to keep us living in the past, controlled by emotions that are familiar but which no longer serve us, blocked from hearing the messages being conveyed today.

Understanding that our feelings about what happened then have nothing to do with what is happening now can make a positive difference in our relationships. But to turn this understanding into action, we must become aware of our triggers.

Maybe this is not making sense to you. Perhaps you believe you have no direction over your feelings. Try thinking of your emotions as shoes in a department store. If you are accustomed to purchasing salon shoes, then that is where you’ll go; if you buy in the juniors section that is where you’ll be. If you always shop the sale section, that’s where you’ll gravitate. Just as we select the shoes that we feel most comfortable wearing, so do we become used to going to our emotional store and selecting the same emotions that we’ve selected for years.

Why? Because these are the feelings to which we have given meaning and they meet a need. And until you understand you can select any emotion you want to feel, you will be reliving your old, unproductive story.

According to Strategic Interventionist, Cloe’ Madanes, there are six human needs that help us to lead fulfilling lives and relationships. They are: 1) Ccertainty, 2) Uuncertainty/Rrisk, 3) Ssignificance, 4) Llove/cConnection, 5) Ggrowth, and 6) Ccontribution. We find ways to meet these needs, whether positive or negative.

When we become knowledgeable about the six human needs, and that we are meeting one or a few of them with each emotion we select, we will begin to realize we have control over our emotions and that we have nothing to do with our partner’s physiology – their facial expressions, tone of voice or body language. How another person responds to us is about them, not about us. Don’t take it personally.

Reasons why we overreact:

1) Being triggered. When we are triggered, we have allowed a negative past experience to come into our current relationship. As our past experiences are overlaid onto our current relationship, our present and future pay the price.

2) Bringing the past into the present. When we do this, we interpret our current partners in a context that has nothing to do with them.

3) Unawareness of our ability to select our emotions. This leaves us vulnerable to choose the same familiar emotions that no longer work for us.

Realizing that many times we miss the important message intended for us because we have allowed our negative past experiences to affect things in our current relationship, will help us to assess our triggers. Don’t overlay your past onto you present relationship.

Three tips to help you hear the message being conveyed:

1) Listen to the words being said to you by your partner, not their physiology. When we actually look beyond facial expressions, voice tone or body language we will hear the true message meant for you.

2) Live in your current experience. Do not bring your past where it does not belong.

3) Choose an emotion that offers a better feeling. Just think of something that makes you feel good.

Dr. Lateefah Wielenga works as a life and relationship coach and is also an ordained minister. She has a private practice in Long Beach. Call 895-0516 or visit for details.

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