What Does It Mean To “Hold Steady?”

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.

Asexuality and Labels, Part One

After my most recent blog post about asexuality, a colleague wrote to me to ask a question about the topic. She was interested in my thoughts about young people who identify as asexual–whether it’s possible to know that you’re asexual from a young age, without having had much relationship experience, and whether it can be unhelpful to lock yourself into an identity early on. 

I thought that her question was quite valuable and interesting, as well as being a fairly common one, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share my response here, for all of you who may be wondering something along the same lines.

There are three overlapping issues in this question: 

  1. What is the utility of labels?
  2. What about fluidity over the lifespan? Do we lock ourselves in or limit our options by identifying in a particular way?
  3. What about youth and identity? What can young people know about, in particular, orientations such as gay, lesbian, bi, pan, or asexuality? 

As you can see, my colleague’s question got me thinking about some interesting, meaty, complicated topics–too much for a single blog post, so I decided to split my response into two. I’ll tackle the first two questions in this post, and next week I’ll share my thoughts about the third–as well as a few stories from my own youth that might help illuminate my perspective. 

Regarding Labels

No label can perfectly express the complexity of a whole human being, or even come close. But labels can be useful nevertheless. They can serve a purpose in helping us communicate with each other. Labelling yourself “bisexual,” for instance, is unlikely to capture the nuances of how you experience attraction, what kind of person you happen to be drawn to, what intimacy means to you, or who you are currently intimate with–how could it? But it can serve as a little signpost, guiding the person you’re speaking to a little closer to understanding an important aspect of you. 

Because labels are both useful and imperfect, everyone has to make their own decisions about how to navigate the relationship between the fullness of the experiences and the somewhat limited information captured by the label. 

So when someone tells you that they’re asexual, we know it probably won’t capture the full nuance and fluidity of their inner world, just as with any label. But it does point you in the right direction, towards an important aspect of themselves that they want to express to you. 

Seen like this, an identity label is a shorthand form of communication. One way to respond would be to get curious, and let them know you are interested enough to invite them to go beyond shorthand–not because you want to argue with them or because you doubt them, but because you care about them and want to know them. You can simply say, “Tell me more about that, and what it means to you.” Your goal is to better understand what they are trying to communicate about themselves.

Regarding Fluidity

It is certainly true that identities can be fluid, and that people’s perceptions of themselves can shift a whole lot over the course of a lifespan. Things change. But does having an identity and using a label limit the range a person might experience? 

My thoughts about this are informed by my own development. I was attracted to boys when I was a teen, and definitely identified as straight. But when I moved to Seattle in my early 20s, I came out as a lesbian. There were a couple of years in between, when I knew that shift was coming, but I had no idea what was ahead for me when I was in middle school and high school. 

Nobody considers telling a straight-identified youth they shouldn’t limit their options by identifying as straight. But I’m imagining right now what it would have been like for me if someone had. I don’t think it would have been helpful. In fact, anyone voicing any opinion at all about my identity would probably have made me dig in more, and show some resistance to change, out of sheer rebellion. In my case, I think it would have complicated my coming out process. That’s because, in addition to a lot of other things I was already grappling with, I would have had to figure out how I felt about capitulating to whomever had voiced the opinion that I might change in the future.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of someone locking themselves into a label, then, consider the possibility that, if you put them on the defensive, you might increase the likelihood of that happening. Sexual identity and experience are so individual and unique that, to an extent, we all have to walk our path and figure things out on our own. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is show up with a warm heart and a curious mind. 

Next week I’ll tackle the second half of this question, youth and identity, so stay tuned!

Leaving the Honeymoon

In my last post, I wrote about some reasons romantic sparks flicker out, and how that shift relates to the natural evolution of relationships, as the early crushy, head-over-heels symbiotic stage gives  way to a more mature phase of the relationship. 

This week, I’m discussing a related question: How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?

It’s important to recognize that nobody can, or should, live in the honeymoon phase forever. At some point other commitments and connections will need some attention. In order to reconnect with friends, hold down a job, and engage in solo pursuits as well as mundane tasks, we have to go to bed and wake up on time, focus on something other than the new love, and resume building and maintaining a stable life. 

The reality of this might feel a bit melancholy–falling in love is magical, after all–but falling in love can also be immensely destabilizing. Also, let’s be honest, it’s not the state from which to make major life decisions (for instance, marriage) since the rose-colored glasses are too thick for flawless judgement. If you tell yourself that you are losing out as the honeymoon phase fades, you are doing yourself a disservice. Instead, I recommend focusing on what you gain through developing further. 

I can speak from experience here. I’ve had several failed relationships, as many of us have, so I understand how difficult it can be to move from symbiosis into a more differentiated relational state. But I also have a 25-year-long resounding relationship success. I can honestly say that my long-term relationship definitely has much more depth, intimacy, and rich connection than any honeymoon phase I have ever had. 

That richness comes with being very realistic about who we are, rather than trying to change one another, or pretend to be someone we really aren’t. We each believe in personal growth, and take our own growth and development seriously, but we don’t try to change each other. Change is an individual project, and how my partner changes (or doesn’t) is something I can influence at most–not something I can control. There is a powerful intimacy that comes with knowing and being known deeply, accepting the truth of your challenges as well as your strengths, and working together to maximize your potential and support your dreams and growth over time. 

The art of creating synergistic relationships, strongly interconnected yet independent, involves some very specific skills, including: 

  • Being able to identify what you think, feel, and want, separate from what anyone else might want for you or from you
  • Being able to get grounded and share that information even if you think the other person will feel uncomfortable hearing it
  • Staying balanced when your partner tells you something you are not entirely comfortable hearing. 

For more on this, check out my blog series about differentiation of self.  

Part of the process of moving out of symbiosis and towards a more differentiated relationship involves seeing our partner more fully, flaws and all. That will involve acknowledging some differences that probably got obscured in the excitement of the early relationship. It may be that you expect a very different level of cleanliness in the house, or you have very different levels of desire for sex, or one of you is a homebody and the other wants to go out almost every night. 

To strengthen your connection while acknowledging differences like these, you first need to approach relationships with the philosophy that difference is acceptable, even enriching. This is quite different from the “Disney Relationship Model” in which two halves of the same soul meld and complete one another, happily ever after. This shift requires you to look at your belief systems about relationships. Shifting toward celebrating differences requires that we neither take these differences personally, nor catastrophize them. 

Cultivating curiosity about your partner is one of the most important skills for navigating differences: “I would love to know more about why you feel that way, because it will help me deepen my understanding of you, my love.” That can feel like a stretch when it comes to a thorny topic with strong feelings attached. But keep in mind that if the two of you stagnate in a state of too-much-the-same, it will certainly kill the spark. Learning to find the spicy, somewhat sexy aspect of even very inconvenient differences will help motivate you to get curious. 

No matter how long you’ve been together, no matter how well you know each other, there’s always room for discovery–and that discovery can be thrilling. Maybe the spark from the honeymoon period can’t last, but there’s another kind of spark that comes with watching the person you love evolve and reveal new dimensions over time.