Do you remember the last time you “flipped your lid”? Or experienced it when your spouse did?
“Flipping your lid” is psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel’s term for what happens when stress shuts down part of your brain. Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman calls it “emotional flooding.” You may have described it other ways: “I tried to talk to him, but it was like he’d lost his mind.” “I was so freaked out, I just couldn’t listen.”
Did you know that when you (or your partner) feel like this, it’s actually because of a hardwired response that is activated when you feel physically or emotionally threatened?
The hand model
During The Siegel-Gottman Summit I attended last month in Seattle, Siegel explained the brain science behind “flipping your lid.” To help us understand what goes on in our brains when we “flip,” he demonstrated a hand model of the brain which you can see in the following video:
As he shows in the video, when our stress levels get too high, we’re exhausted, or we feel threatened, the primitive area of the brain geared toward survival hijacks the part of that brain that reasons, plans and makes good decisions. When you flip out, you are essentially turning on the body’s “fight or flight” response and are much more likely to behave in ways that infuriate or alienate your partner.
It’s important to remember that your partner can’t just turn off or snap out of this response. It’s also vital to understand that when your partner flips his lid, he’s not showing you his “true colors” or some side of his personality he had kept hidden. He’s just showing you that, in this particular moment, his brain is temporarily overwhelmed.
What stops working when we flip our lids?
- We can’t process information.
- Because we’re not really hearing what the other person is saying, we don’t have empathy.
- We get defensive and have difficulty being open
- We get “stuck in our story” — we keep repeating our position.
- We get tunnel vision
- We can’t effectively solve problems
Factors that increase the odds of flipping your lid
Being hungry, tired, under pressure or chronically stressed sets us up to flip our lids. That sounds a lot like a typical day in our busy, modern lives, doesn’t it? Our brains also feel very threatened when we’re on the receiving end of criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling. Gottman calls these negative behaviors “The Four Horsemen” because their chronic presence often predicts the end of a relationship. When you are flooded by overwhelming negativity from your spouse, you’re much more likely to flip out.
If you find yourself flipping your lid during an argument with your spouse, the most helpful thing you both can do is stand down for a while. You need at least 20 minutes for your nervous system to calm down so that you can be responsive to the other person. It may take longer, especially if you keep talking to yourself negatively even after you’ve stepped back from the tense situation. To keep from stewing, practice a calming activity like taking a walk or doing breathing exercises. When you’re ready, re-engage gently with your partner. Use a soft tone of voice, gentle touch and kind eye contact. But if either of you is still overwhelmed, back off again and practice more self-soothing.
It’s interesting to note that men get flooded (to use Gottman’s term) more easily and stay flooded longer. So if your partner tends to shut down and withdraw, this could be what’s going on. You may feel like chasing after your husband when he distances to try to get him to re-engage — after all, it seems like dismissive behavior if you don’t know the brain science behind it. But it’s actually better to let him pull back for a while until his brain can reset.
The right self-care habits can keep our brains running in a calmer state and make us less likely to flip our lids. Regularly practicing meditation, guided imagery or deep breathing literally changes how our brains are wired. Learning the early warning signals that either you or your husband are headed for flip out helps too. When you see that either one of you is getting overwhelmed, practice an ounce of prevention by dialing down the level of stress and keeping things as calm as possible.
More from the conference
Another fascinating topic that Siegel discussed was the adolescent brain and what we can learn from it about our own brain health. Read more on the main website for my practice.