“Thoughts fuel emotions. If you don’t like what you’re feeling, step back and examine what you’re thinking. Pain is inevitable, but you’ll suffer a lot less if you disengage from your thoughts.” ~Lori Deschene
The warm droplets from the shower are bouncing off my skin. I could be relishing in the warmth. I could be exhilarated by the cleansing power of this precious water.
Instead, I am entranced by an argument.
I’m animated and tense. Gesticulating wildly and frowning.
In the shower.
There’s no one else there. I’m not shouting or even speaking out loud. This is all happening in my mind.
Over and over, I rehash my position. Imagining my opponent’s rebuttal and conjuring up another defense. Each time I hone my argument feeling more certain that this is the winning strategy.
Finally, I realize I’ve been in the shower for far too long. So I step out and start my day, barely noticing what had just happened.
I’m driving to the shops. I could be singing along to my favorite tunes or discovering a new idea via a podcast.
Instead, I am arguing in my head again.
Yes, I’m paying attention to the road. Driving safely. Yet in the back of my mind the wheels are turning in constant mental warfare.
I’m cozy in my bed, lying next to my beloved partner. I could be enjoying his reassuring presence. I could be calmly drifting off to sleep.
Instead, I am resisting rest by mentally rehearsing conflict. Lost for minutes, hours perhaps? Time slipping away in a fog of hostility.
In these quiet moments that I could be relishing, I’m filled with stress and tension.
Who am I fighting? It doesn’t matter. It could be anyone.
These arguments could be with family members, friends, or even strangers on the internet. If someone, somewhere has said something I disagree with, the mental argument is on!
It took me years to realize how much my mental energy I wasted this way. And once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
When I realized that these subconscious arguments were occurring, I began to see how frequent they were.
Endless opportunities for calm and clarity were stolen by arguing with people in my head.
Why I Would Mentally Argue with People
In my quieter moments—showering or drifting to sleep—my subconscious thoughts were becoming conscious.
Feeling like my nervous system was on high alert was not a new feeling to me. But realizing how much stress I was creating in my body and mind during these argumentative moments was confronting.
It took so much effort for me to be a calm person, and I had been practicing for years. I thought I was making progress. I thought I was calmer than I had ever been.
But witnessing this internal mental conflict was disheartening. My mind was a merry-go-round of malevolence.
In her seminal book, How Emotions Are Made, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett outlines a new theory of how emotions work.
Emotions are not a reaction to a stimulus. Emotions are stories that we construct from the internal and external sensory information presented to our brain from moment to moment.
As Lisa says, “An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.”
I was constructing arguments to deal with stress I felt on a regular basis.
And that stress? It was from complex trauma.
How My Trauma Gave Rise to Mental Arguments
It’s common to think of trauma as big things. War, violence, abuse, or neglect. But trauma isn’t about the event itself: it’s about how your body processed it.
Trauma is a fundamental feeling of threat. A perceived lack of safety. It is anything that overwhelms your ability to cope. And there’s a lot that can overwhelm a child.
And in the face of overwhelm, without consistent soothing from a calm caregiver, a child will grow up with a model of the world that is unsafe, inconsistent, and uncertain.
Growing up as a highly sensitive person in an insensitive world, coupled with intergenerational trauma, led to a lot of overwhelm, anxiety, and depression for me.
And as a traumatized highly sensitive person, my felt sense of safety was lacking.
So I thought my mental arguments were a way for me to feel safe with other people. If I could get people to agree with me, and think like I did, then I knew they wouldn’t be a threat. We would all get along because we would all agree.
But I misunderstood the purpose of these arguments. I thought I was dress rehearsing conflict in order to create safety.
In reality, I was conflating existing stress with the need to argue.
My body was feeling stress from unresolved trauma, and my brain was constructing stories of similar times I felt stress. During arguments.
I wasn’t stressed because I was arguing, I was arguing because I was stressed.
How I Stopped Arguing with People in My Head
You’ve probably heard the term “safety first.” I couldn’t get to a place of mental calm without first developing a felt sense of safety in my mind and body.
And even though I had been practicing meditation for years, there were a few very specific tools that helped me to find that safe feeling.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing. It’s an incredible somatic therapy that is at the cutting edge of trauma treatment.
Finding an EMDR therapist was a game changer. She helped me release many traumatic memories and start to feel safer overall.
2. Cultivating calm
The mind-body connection is well established. So, in order to have calm thoughts, I realized I also needed a calm body. In meditation I would practice embodying calm as much as possible.
How much deeper could I make my calm? How much more could I sink into the bed or chair? How much more could I let go?
A well-regulated nervous system can easily shift from stress to calm. And activating calm is a learned skill, called self-regulation.
Learning to self-regulate as an adult was a difficult practice. First, I needed to pay attention to when dysregulation or stress was occurring.
For me, signs I’m becoming dysregulated are talking more loudly, biting my nails, or constant movement like playing with my hair or jiggling my legs.
Learning to recognize my increasing stress and breathe deeply or practice being still helped me to embody calm outside of my meditation practice.
4. Calm relationships
We are hardwired to need each other. And I think this gets overlooked a lot in the self-help world.
Self-regulation is a vital skill. And there’s lots of ways you can learn to self-soothe. But we also need calm relationships. Calm families. Calm communities.
In fact, regulation can happen through relationships. This is called co-regulation. Ideally, it begins in childhood being consistently soothed by our caregivers.
But co-regulation also continues in adulthood. And it happens through secure attachments with our friends and intimate partners. Co-regulation can even exist in a relationship with a trusted therapist.
Having a few close people that I could co-regulate with was vital for helping me to feel safe and calm.
5. Letting go
The final piece of the puzzle was realizing I didn’t need people to agree with me in order to feel safe. I can have strong values and disagree with people and still be okay.
Letting go of the need to be right… of the need to change someone else’s mind… of the need to create safety through validation… was liberating.
I’m no longer as triggered by differences of opinions. I’ve freed up so much mental energy. My creative output has skyrocketed. And I regularly feel a sense of calm clarity.
Becoming a calm person isn’t easy. We are buffeted by chaos and suffering all around us. But learning to feel safe in my body, to let go of mental conflict, and embodying calm has been life changing for me. I hope that by sharing my story, you can find a greater sense of calm in your life too.
About Tahlee Rouillon
Tahlee Rouillon is a music composer, CEO and founder of the Seekers’ Sanctuary. She creates soothing meditones® music to help people feel effortlessly calm. Her sacred wordless vocals and emotive sonic landscapes often moves listeners to tears. Tahlee has been described as ‘the voice of an angel’, ‘my favourite meditation music ever’ and a ‘low-key musical genius’. She’s obsessed with dogs, forests, good food, and laughing out loud.