I often use the term “holding steady” in my work, and in my blog. But what is “holding steady”?
Holding steady is a key relationship skill–for all relationships, romantic and otherwise–because it is foundational to sharing your truth with others, as well as hearing someone else’s. Today I’m going to take a moment to describe what it means to hold steady, and discuss how you can build that skillset, or help your clients build it.
Have you ever overreacted in a stressful moment and said something you didn’t really mean? Or shut down completely, so that an important conversation couldn’t continue until you had recovered? Or felt emotionally ragged when things are not going according to plan? Most everyone has. Holding steady is how I describe the skill of maintaining emotional groundedness and emotional steadiness, even under stress.
Holding steady is a choice that you make in a moment of tension. It starts with paying attention to your body, mind, and stress responses. When you notice early signals of rising tension–your heartbeat quickening, your breath coming faster, your muscles tensing, your thoughts getting extreme, mean, or focused on what is wrong outside of yourself–you have a choice. You can let your physiology and self-protective brain run away with you, and probably end up getting angry or shutting down. Or you can choose to do something counter-intuitive: you can decide to purposely slow down and hold steady. This might involve slowing your breathing, slowing your heart rate, reaching for calm, and shifting how you are thinking, rather than simply reacting.
Holding steady is a skill that you get better at with practice. Lots of practice. Your body’s natural reactions to stress are deeply ingrained. Ultimately, they’re adaptive–they’re linked to the instincts our ancestors developed to stay alive in a world full of life-threatening dangers. The self-protective responses that tell us to fight, flee, or freeze occur instantaneously. This is fabulous when you need to run away from a saber-toothed tiger, but not so good for having an empathetic, emotionally-vulnerable conversation about a painful topic with a loved one.
Nobody comes into the world with the ability to hold steady through a tough conversation. We all have to work on it. But the good news is that it gets easier every time you do it. You can accustom your body and your mind to slowing down, breathing deeply, and resolving not to react too quickly. You can learn to disarm some of the intensity of the perceived threat.
I don’t want to make holding steady sound easy. It isn’t easy, not at all! It takes some serious motivation to overcome the impulse to save yourself or attack the perceived threat. Here is a short checklist of questions that can help motivate you to hold steady:
- Ask yourself, why do I want to hold steady rather than reacting automatically? List all the reasons it would benefit you, other people, and your relationships.
- Are you clear on exactly what you want to do differently? What is your first experiment with holding steady going to involve? Here’s some ideas to get you started: counting to 10, taking a walk around the block, splashing water on your face, slowly exhaling while telling yourself calming things, etc. What is your action step? It should have something to do with slowing down, and it should be specific and actionable. You should ideally be about 80% confident you can do it.
- List ways your life will be better when you have succeeded at this project. How will you feel about yourself? Your partner? Your relationships?
- Get all of this at the forefront of your mind. When you’re under stress, you will forget unless it’s front-and-center. Make up a mantra or power word, or write it on your hand. Get it to the front of your mind and keep it there.
Now that you have your motivation and strategy in place, it is time to change the thoughts that get you worked up and escalate stressful situations. Your new strategy will certainly involve slowing way down. It will be very helpful to come up with new thoughts that you can tell yourself that diminish the perception of threat and slow things down. You will be your own coach for this process, so think ahead and come up with some great self-coaching lines that will help you stay steady when intense feelings arise.
Here are some things you might try telling yourself:
- It’s okay if you don’t come to an agreement in this discussion.
- There is no rush.
- This is not actually an emergency. Look around and notice how things are basically ok. Everyone is breathing, nobody is bleeding, and the house isn’t on fire.
- If you can get curious, you might learn something interesting about how your partner sees things.
- Be a leader. Emotions are contagious, so ask yourself: which emotions do I want the other person in the discussion to catch? Calm, loving feelings, or escalating freak-outs? You choose.
- It’s okay if you don’t get all of your points across right now.
- Do you understand why the other person/people are responding as they are? Get clear on that by asking them and saying it back until you get it right.
- This can just be the first of many conversations.
- It is better to take a break than to say something damaging. Take a break if you need one.
- The stories you tell yourself when you’re feeling bad are always distorted. Wait till you are calm before drawing conclusions or making decisions.
- Do not say anything mean. I promise, it will make things far worse. Stay steady and be as kind and warm as possible.
- The most important thing is connection and respect for one another. If you maintain those things, you can resolve anything, or agree to disagree.
Holding steady through a tough conversation will allow you to go deeper into the topic, which will help you understand other people better, and give them the opportunity to understand you better. It will save you the regret of realizing you’ve said something hurtful in the heat of the moment, and the work of repairing the rift that comes with that. And it will give you the power to control your emotional responses, so that you can act as the best version of yourself in every moment.