As my husband and I shouted at each other, I felt myself become a fly on the wall, asking myself, “how did it come to this?”.
My mum and dad never raised their voices at each other – throughout my childhood, I genuinely don’t ever remember a time when they argued. Of course, that’s not to say that avoiding conflict altogether is healthy.
But my husband and I don’t usually argue.
We both tend to be ‘minimisers’ rather than ‘maximisers’ when it comes to our frustration.
At that moment, it didn’t feel good to shout at each other in frustration.
I’m constantly curious about human behaviour.
How had it come to this?
What had caused us to shout at each other in this unusual and, frankly, horrible way?
It was only when I got to step away from it all that I realised.
We’d slipped into the negative normal.
The negative normal is a concept that one of my podcast guests, Jean Gomes, introduced me to.
The negative normal happens when:
- You’re overworking
- You’re not looking after your body
- You’re not taking care of your needs
- You’re in a busy period trying to juggle it all
It’s when you trade your body’s natural capacity to get things done.
You borrow your physical, mental and emotional resources to push through a busy time.
And it leaves you in a wellbeing debt.
And before you know it, you find yourself in a negative normal existence.
The problem is this adaptation to the challenges in your life tends to happen unconsciously.
We don’t have the reserves of energy to pay attention to what’s happening inside of us.
Our bodies are constantly giving us little signals that we’re going into debt, but we’re on autopilot.
Before we know it, our maladaptation becomes normal.
It feels normal to be tired all the time.
It feels normal to react in frustration with the people you care about.
It feels normal to be distracted.
It feels normal to be overloaded and overwhelmed.
Jean Gomes research shows that unchecked, this negative normal pushes us into three reactive cycles:
The first reactive cycle is depletion.
In the negative normal, when we eat poorly, move infrequently and take no recovery during the day and deprioritise sleep, we drain the foundational aspect of our wellbeing – our physical capacity.
Over time this has immediate and long-term consequences. We start to feel tired and exhausted. It negatively impacts our emotions and relationships. Over time it undermines our health.
Then, when we’re physically depleted, it increases the likelihood of our mindset becoming defensive. When we feel physically under resourced to deal with the challenges we face, we’re more likely to respond from fear, anger and defensiveness.
The more we feel these emotions, the more closed and unhelpful our thinking becomes. We are more likely to adopt flight or flight behaviours to cope, including blaming others and avoiding accountability. As a result, our awareness of ourselves and others becomes impaired.
Thirdly, Jean Gomes’s research shows that when we’re depleted and defensive, it undermines our personal and professional relationships. We’re then at risk of becoming disconnected from the people and things that matter most to us.
Our survival pattern due to this negative normal leaves us at risk of undermining our values and priorities. Becoming disconnected increases our suffering because feeling alone and isolated adds to the downward cycle. It triggers more of a stress response because, from an evolutionary perspective, being alone makes us more vulnerable.
The negative normal isn’t helped by the fact that most of us have an extraordinary capacity to disassociate ourselves from our most fundamental needs.
That’s why something like burnout can blindside us (speaking from personal experience) – we lose connection with our body and the signals that she* gives us.
So many of us feel like our wellbeing is competing with rather than fueling our relationships, work, parenting and other important aspects of our lives.
That’s why we push our body past her capacity and end up going into physical, emotional and psychological debt. Often fooling ourselves that if we do it just this week to get through the backlog, it will set us up for success the following week.
But before we know it, we’ve already slipped into the negative normal.
And we find ourselves swirling around the Depleted-Defensive-Disconnected cycle.
Luckily I recognised this with my husband and could hold compassion for us both.
So what can you do if you find yourself in the negative normal?
Give yourself the space for grace.
Know that you’re not alone.
Sadly far too many of us are stuck in the negative normal without realising it.
Once you can accept that you’re in negative normal without judgement, then it’s about tuning into what you need.
What gets us into the negative normal in the first place is not paying attention to our body’s innate needs.
What is your body telling you?
- Is she tired?
- Can you *really* prioritise sleep? With young children, I know how tough this can be. Is there the opportunity of taking a mental health day off work and giving yourself permission to curl up, read a book and snooze? As I write this, I know how many women would scorn at the thought of doing this! But that’s why far too many of us find ourselves stuck in this negative cycle.
- Is she hungry?
- We joke about the impact of being ‘hangry’ – bad-tempered or irritable due to hunger – but now many of us work through lunch to get through our to-do list?
- Is she overstimulated?
- Silly question in our modern lives! If you tend to have back-to-back meetings during your work day, this alone can create a huge build-up of stress. Not to mention the emails and WhatsApp messages that accumulate across the day. Then add in your children’s needs before and after work, and your brain is probably screaming out for some soothing.
- Is she thirsty?
- If we become dehydrated, we can’t get enough tryptophan into our brains to convert to serotonin. Dehydration also depletes the levels of other amino acids in your brain, leading to feelings of anxiety, sadness, irritability, and inadequacy.
The better we can tune into our bodies and become aware of the internal sensations and signals she gives us, the better we can regulate her. This gives us the opportunity to make micro-moments of adjustment to meet her needs.
- Perhaps a one-minute breathing exercise between meetings to reset our nervous system. Allowing ourselves to move from flight/flight back into rest/digest, allowing the stress hormones to be washed away.
- Perhaps a quick walk around the block over lunch to decompress from that long Zoom meeting.
- Perhaps a long leisurely glass of water rather than gulping down that cup of coffee before.
Here’s to us each tuning in our bodies and innate wisdom that she has for us.
Because we deserve to live more than a negative normal existence
P.S. If this has resonated with you and you want to chat, you can book time for a discovery call in my diary here – it’s an informal and confidential 30-minute chat to discuss how coaching could help you
* I like to think of my body in terms of a ‘she’ rather than ‘it’ not only does it help me to tap into my feminine wisdom, and it reminds me not to disconnect from her.