Getting Stuck in Non-Newtonian Emotions
I have to confess, my understanding of Newtonian versus non-Newtonian liquids is as elementary as it gets. On a scientific level, it has to do with viscosity. Newtonian fluids move and react like water. You push your hand quickly through water in the pool and you can make a nice little jet of it splash onto your playmate.
If you push your hand quickly through a non-Newtonian liquid, the liquid would actually freeze up, solidify and trap you, until you eased up your effort and then it would return to a relaxed, movable state. Better than trying to explain it, just give it a try.
To make a non-Newtonian liquid mix together (very slowly!):
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup water
The measurements are approximate. You just want to add water until the mixture is about the consistency of honey.
Once you’re there, pour some of it into your hand and notice how, like honey, it will run to the sides of your hands and even over the edge.
Now, quickly make a fist.
The liquid froze in place, didn’t it? You could have a drop about to fall from your hand and it will freeze exactly where it is… until you loosen your grip. Then, the liquid will also loosen and continue along its path off your hand.
Though the human body is roughly 60% water, human emotion is often just like the non-Newtonian stuff.
One early relationship in particular really highlights this for me with some flashy drama. Back at the end of high school, I began dating a long-time friend. It was ultimately a deeply unhealthy, even life-threatening relationship. Legit life-threatening.
There was a part of me that knew I was in over my head right at the very beginning. One night, he was mad at me and stormed off into the neighborhood where he lived. I followed and, though it was over 20 years ago now, I can remember clearly thinking about the possibility of turning around, returning to my car, extricating myself from what was clearly not a good idea. I didn’t, though. I followed him until he finally stopped at a park and allowed me to sit with him, our knees touching.
There were a half-dozen reasons why my 17-year-old self didn’t turn around, some of which are beliefs about myself and relationship that I’m still working to untangle. (Some growth challenges are lifelong.)
A sliver of it, though, had to do with my emotional non-Newtonian reaction. Adults in my life saw that it wasn’t a healthy relationship and were emphatic in letting me know just that. And the more they insisted, the more I locked in, solidified, became rigid in my pronouncements of our love and his suitability for me.
In a move that still amazes me, shortly after I ran away from home to live with this fella, my mom seemed to recognize the cause of my doubling down and she relaxed her grip. She invited me to dinners where we chatted. She called just to say hi. And in that way, I was able to relax my staunch position. Within a few months, I was not only able to admit that the relationship had gotten way out of hand but I was relaxed enough with my mom to go home to her.
Bonus points go to my mom for never once saying anything remotely akin to I told you so. Not a hint of it. Just a warm welcome.
I’d like to say that my non-Newtonian reaction was a teenage phenomenon but I can’t. Just this week, I realized I was at it again… in a couple of different relationships. Happily, I’m in no physical danger this time, and the resolution is proving to be much easier given the clarity that 20+ years offers. That the others involved are also healthy, mindful adults? Yeah, good stuff.
I wonder, though, if you can relate?
Can you recall a time when a voice within you knew someone was offering you wisdom but something about the interaction in which it was offered made you freeze up, double down, latch onto a dichotomy where the other person is wrong and you are right?
For me, the dichotomous thinking is one good clue that I’ve gotten to that place. When I’m in a place of clarity, I very rarely see right/wrong or good/bad; instead, I see difference, spectrums, various opportunities and challenges. When I’m in the grip of non-Newtonian emotion, all the shades of gray disappear.
Another clue is related to that black and white thinking: I lose touch with compassion for the person I’m reacting to, even when it’s a person I love very much. I can talk compassion but I have a hard time feeling it. Instead, I feel blame for that person and righteousness in myself. That one is particularly uncomfortable for me to admit.
R = Recognize (the emotion you’re experiencing)
A = Allow (the emotion to just be, without judgment or trying to change it)
I = Investigate (where this emotion lives in your body and the underlying message it’s giving you)
N = Nourish (by giving that reacting part of yourself the nurturing it requested during your investigation)
I can imagine that for a lot of people, the investigation part can sound and even feel kind of odd at first. I’ve been amazed to find that when I stop to notice where stress lives in my body and then give my attention to that part of myself, there is often an accompanying message, like that my reaction has to do with a desire for acceptance or love. Once I can see that, I have the option to offer myself that nourishment rather than being frustrated when I don’t get it from others.
We can’t will ourselves to transform our emotional reactions from quicksand to water. We can, however, practice noticing our non-Newtonian moments which will then create space for RAIN and awareness that will allow us to react less and connect more.
One little moment of awareness at a time.