The Three Things That Make You Go “APE” in Your Relationship – P is for Past

In this series of blogs, I will look explore some key aspects of healthy communication in relationships.  The first three will explore what make you go “APE” in your relationships.  The next two will look at strategies for effective sending and receiving in communication.  Learn more at my upcoming workshops & presentations.


When the amygdala sets off the flight or fight response (See last week’s blog:  A if for Amygdala), the intensity of our reaction can often seem out of proportion to the situation.  That’s because the amygdala is not acting alone, it’s working in concert with its neighbor in the limbic system, the hippocampus, the place where old memories are stored.  So the current trigger links with past experiences that have similar emotions to produce the strong reaction.

Think of it like an iceberg.  If you’ve ever seen a real iceberg, you probably had the experience that it looks huge.  But what you probably don’t realize is that 90% of it lies beneath the surface of the water.   When conflict occurs and amygdala hijack threatens to derail your relationship, the natural defensiveness prevents you from seeing beneath the surface.

What’s under the surface?  Put simply, it’s our baggage being carried by the hippocampus.  And we all carry it into our relationships.  Fears of rejection or abandonment, old hurts and disappointments, more vulnerable places.  Delve deep enough and we connect to childhood wounds.  The imprint of our childhood lurks in the depths of the brain like a hypnotic suggestion, directing our behavior in ways completely unconscious to us.

Let’s break it down a little more.  In childhood, we developed what Richard Rohr calls “emergency solutions” as a way of coping with our environment; put simply we adapted to survive, and we carry those adaptations into adulthood and our relationships.  It’s important to see that these coping mechanisms were necessary then and have compassion for ourselves now when we still try to use them.

The focus in looking at that environment tends to be on the actual events that happened.  The problem, however, is not so much what happened, but how it happened.   We tend to repeat this in how we respond to ourselves.  We repeat what we’ve learned – the criticism, the dismissal, the rejection, the abandonment – this time in our own voice, leaving our wounded child to again anxiously grasp for emergency solutions.

We have to face our past because it is alive in the present.  How we respond to it in the present can create new neural pathways in the brain that begin to reduce the limbic hijack and bring healing.  Only then will the past be truly in the past.

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