“There’s something I need to talk to you about”

When someone says “there’s something I need to talk to you about” to me, my body goes into “fight or flight” mode. The same thing happens when someone says “there’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.” The adrenaline, the dread in my bones, the palpable fear I suddenly feel. “What did I do now?” I ask myself as I try not to freak out, “What am I in trouble for?”

My husband accidentally used both of these phrases a few days ago, and it elicited the exact response listed above even though the things he wanted to talk about or ask were completely nebulous. The same thing happens at work.

In other words, my brain has somehow become wired to interpret those words – “there’s something I need to talk to you about” and “there’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask you” – as threats and it responds accordingly, even though there is nothing inherently threatening about those words themselves.

Looking back, I’m not sure when this wiring took place. It might have been that all through growing up those phrases were used when I was stepping over a line and needed correction, or it might have been that this took place intensively during the period in college when I began asking questions and my parents responded by buckling down. That period of my life was extremely unpleasant and painful, and I try not to dwell on it. During that period, though, I lived with an almost constant “fight or flight” response, and was extremely jumpy. Any time my parents said they wanted to talk to me, it was almost guaranteed to go badly and be extremely painful.

It’s like Pavlov’s dog, in a way – if you ring the bell every time you feed the dog, eventually the dog will salivate if he simply hears the bell ring. In this case, hearing those phrases was immediately followed with pain and hurt for a long enough period of time that today merely hearing those phrases makes me have a visceral reaction. It’s really not surprising if you think about it.

I’m not completely sure how to fix this, though. I’d rather not go through my life getting a “fight or flight” response every time I hear the phrases “there’s something I need to talk to you about” and “there’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.” I’d like to not have to worry about the sudden pulse pick up and the feeling of dread sweeping over me.

My husband thinks he has an idea. He’s been using those phrases all the time over the past few days to try to desensitize me to them. So far, it’s only succeeded in me feeling the “fight or flight” response, then realizing that he didn’t actually have anything he “wanted to talk to me about,” then feeling the impulse to slap him. :-P I may just tell him to knock it off, but for the moment I’m curious if this might actually work.

Do any of you have experiences with this kind of thing?

The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
Busting the Mommy Myth
Red Town, Blue Town
Convention on the Rights of the Child: Articles 1-5
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anders

    It’s theoretically sound. You can also ask yourself, whenever you hear those words, what is the worst that can happen? Your husband is not likely to hit you (I hope!) or yell at you, is he? Slowly shining the light of reason on old habits makes them easier to break. Also, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might be useful here.

  • Sercee

    I experience that exactly, whenever someone uses a phrase similar to that (and, for some reason, when I check my phone messages…). However, I don’t recall having a period in my life when I was conditioned to specifically associate that type of conversation starter with anxiety, panic, or any sort of trauma, except that I spent most of my life being treated by my peers as though I couldn’t do anything right (I was bullied pretty much unceasingly up until high school) so I think I have more of a guilt conscience than anything. I always react like I did something wrong even though I know for a fact I haven’t.

    • Carlie

      Exactly the same for me. Icy fingers of DOOM when I hear that statement, with nothing I can point to as a cause. (Is it a common trope in movies and tv, maybe?) I wonder how many people react that way, and if people saying it really don’t feel that way too or are using it specifically to intimidate?

    • Saz

      Wow, I have the same reaction to checking voicemail. I have it to a small degree when I see an email from my father or stepmother (we are estranged by my choice, but that doesn’t stop the emails and cards/gifts). Time has helped to work past some of this, but I definitely know the feeling.

  • Matthew Gill

    My mom’s boyfriend is an extremely heavy sleeper.

    He told me one foolproof way to wake him up: “Ward, I need to talk to you.”

    It’s like flipping a switch. I’ve only had the chance to try it once. I haven’t spoken to him about it much, but I suppose it has a similar effect on him.

  • Caravelle

    I don’t like hearing those words either, although I don’t think I react as badly as you do; I’m just generally apprehensive. I think it makes sense : nobody uses those words unless they have something big to tell you, probably something they’re not sure how to bring up, and that can very easily translate to something bad, or at the very least something stressful.

    Usually when I get told that I think I consciously go “Okay. It’s probably bad, but let’s wait to see what it is and THEN panic”.

  • Amanda

    I have that same feeling with those same phrases, and it’s due to my parents (mostly my mother) using them endlessly, and with great enthusiasm during my teen years, which coincided neatly with their Dobson obsession.

    I wonder if that type of language was taught as either a good way to approach your child, or if they suggested that parents say that JUST as they were dropping the child off somewhere (I’d get it right as I was getting out of the car at school, so I could obsess over it all day) so the kid could stew and fret until the subject was raised and then somehow we’d be willing and eager to talk.

    My eyes just can’t roll hard enough. It makes me nuts.

  • bitwise

    Yes! I’m glad someone is finally acknowledging what a scary thing this is to say to someone. It’s a sure way to get me to suddenly have ‘something I need to go do’, (or knock over a glass of water). I’m surprised that it doesn’t seem universal (or even common) to have a very negative reaction to “There’s something I need to talk to you about”. I always assumed the standard meaning of the phrase was “You’re in trouble, and it’s very, very serious”.

    I guess as a way to minimize stress, when your husband uses the phrase, remind yourself that you’re equals now, and that he’s not your parents. Remember that talking about problems with him is a positive thing, because it’s an opportunity to have open communication. It will take a while to get rid of the conditioned response, but if the results is always neutral or positive, you’ll eventually become de-conditioned.

    • John Morales

      I’m surprised that it doesn’t seem universal (or even common) to have a very negative reaction to “There’s something I need to talk to you about”. I always assumed the standard meaning of the phrase was “You’re in trouble, and it’s very, very serious”.

      Huh. It took me thirty years to work out “How are you?”/”How’s it going?”/”How are you doing?” is not a question.

      (But I got there)

      • lane

        I STILL think it’s a question. :P

      • bitwise

        …It’s not? I’ve always taken “How are you?” to be a question, but the sort that one generally expects the response to be a lie. Even if the answer is ‘terrible’, I just reply with a “Fine. How are you?” that sounds more like “Fine-ow’ryou?” Of course, this kneejerk response has to led to:
        “Hello, bitwise.”
        “Fine-ow’ryou?…Er, I mean, hi.” -_-

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    Or, just urge your husband to phrase it differently!

    Or if he’s completely wedded to the phrase, at least he could preface it with a big goofy smile or jazz hands or something.

    But really I think the best thing would be just to replace the whole thing with a joke phrase or word, or say it in a silly accent – anything to signal that it’s not Serious.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    Yesterday my boss came into my office and said “We need to talk.” My sweat pumps went into fast speed and I was wondering which of my sins of commission or omission would be used to beat me about the head and shoulders. It turned out the CEO had asked her a question which she knew I could answer. But for a moment I was panic-stricken.

  • Yukimi

    Not many people call me to my cell phone so every time it rings I think it’s my mother and I go into fight or flee mode. It has make me dislike talking on the phone in general. I would like to get rid of this trigger.

    • Libby Anne

      Someone just suggested this to me: Set your ring tone so that if it’s your mother, it’ll play Beethoven’s Fifth or something, and for all other numbers it’ll be normal. Then you’ll know whether or not to start freaking out. :-P

      • http://loreleitracy.etsy.com LoreleiHI


        My MIL’s ringtone is a dog bark. It happens to be one of the choices on an iPhone. :p

      • Yukimi

        Thanks for the tip ^^

  • http://niftyatheist.blogspot.com/ niftyatheist

    I think you should give this a try for a week – and even better, could he maybe arrange to have something really nice to talk about or could the question be something like “Do you want a foot rub?” or chocolate? :D I’m only half joking – maybe you can replace the associations with pleasant ones – at least between you and your husband!

  • anotherone

    Wow, posts like this *really* bring out the similarities between our childhoods. I have the exact same reaction. It’s faded a bit over the years, but for the longest time I would instantly feel sick to my stomach when someone said that to me–sick and terrified and awful. My non-professional judgment is that the patterns that led to this reaction were emotionally abusive–an emotional abuse peculiar to fundamentalist families.

    I think a lot of fundamentalist parents love their children in supremely conditional ways, and the lightning fast retraction of that love comes right after the phrase, spoken with sickening gravity, “we need to talk.” At least, that’s how it was for my family.

    Of course, parents like mine say that they will always love us no matter what we do. But the “love” that remained once we didn’t toe that oh-so-narrow line of their expectations was so abstract and theoretical as to be meaningless. When I strayed from the very narrow margin of acceptable behavior, attitude, or belief, the “we need to talk” line would come out, and *everything* about our relationship would change.

    That phrase always ushered in the emotional shitstorm of them trying to get me to behave and believe like they wanted. The dire warnings about what befalls the Biblical fool would come out (God, even after all these years I can quote Proverbs like nobody’s business).

    The two siblings nearest my age and I suffered under this pattern for years. We’d buckle under the pressure and acquiesce when they pulled out all the emotional stops. (Who wants to be the hell-destined fool, after all?). But in college, when I had the space I needed away from the toxicity, I wouldn’t buckle any longer, and the relationship all but ended. There was the cold distance, the open disapproval, the anger, talk of my ingratitude and foolishness, warnings about broad path of destruction. No more emotional support, no physical support, and the limiting of contact with my siblings.

    It was a de facto shunning, papered over at the end with a deadly calm politeness (on their part, not mine–I was a hysterical mess). Of course, the craziest part was that my “rebellion” would have been utterly unnoticeable to anyone outside my family. By the standards of larger society I was the goodiest of goody two shoes.

    Life out of my family’s web is *so* much better–so much happier, and more peaceful, and sane. But damned if those emotional shitstorms didn’t leave their mark. And yeah, even after all these years, my husband knows not to pull that “we have to talk” crap. ;)

  • anotherone

    As an aside, another strange thing is that there was plenty of classic emotional (and even some physical) abuse in my family. But none of it had the long term emotional effect that the “we need to talk” scenarios. I think it might be because I’ve always known that my parents were and are sorry for the times they lost it with us physically and emotionally, even if they will never say so. But the “we need to talk” crap, and the total unwillingness to let one’s child differ in any point of belief or lifestyle, to them that’s good parenting.

    I’m really sorry for all my long rambly incoherent posts. Obviously, your writing strikes a chord. :)

  • http://jadehawks.wordpress.com/ Jadehawk, cascadeuse féministe

    I have exactly t same reaction to those and similar phrases (also, to the phone ringing; if it’s for me, it’s guaranteed to be bad news of some sort), and there’s no way i can train myself out of that simply because sometimes those words are succeeded by “we just got evicted” or similar catastrophes. I can totally understand those people who have a lot of debt they can’t get out of and who go into fight-or-flight when the phone rings.

    • Elise

      I’m actually in therapy for PTSD from an abusive past, and I can share with you how my therapist has helped me. I listed all the phrases that triggered me, and then he went through each one, asking me how I felt about it and forcing me to talk through it, how I feel now, how I felt then, and when it all started. Then, he’d often say ‘wow, it’s like they were hunting for you’. (Basically, it was introducing the truth of the matter, so that I could change my perception)

      He also used a technique called EMDR, which engages the brain, but also works like a tens unit for emotional pain, so that we could talk without me spiraling into a flashback.


  • Meggie

    Teachers use ‘there’s something I need to talk to you about…’ when they want to talk to a child alone because the issue is embarrassing, because they are in trouble or because they are about to ask them to report on another childs misbehaviour. When I hear this phrase I immediately panic.

    The hard part is that now, as a teacher myself, I need to use this phrase myself. Aaargh. I hate to hear the words come out of my own mouth but it is so hard to avoid. You can’t walk into a room and say “Johnny, I need to talk to you about the child you beat up at lunchtime” so intead I hear myself say “there’s something we need to talk about”. I also find myself saying “there’s something I need to talk to you about but don’t worry, you aren’t in trouble” when I offer special extension activities or a reward to a hardworking student without making everyone else aware. My students are going to grow up with the Pavlovian reaction that the short version of the phrase means punishment and the long version means reward!

  • Judy L.

    It’s funny (no ha-ha funny) that those phrases freak you out, because the phrases themselves are a kind of introduction, a reverential permission-asking approach to conversation. Almost the way that a child starts a conversation by asking a question like ‘guess what?’ or ‘wanna know what happened today?’ or ‘can i ask you something?’ With both ‘There’s something I need to talk to you about’ and ‘There’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask you’ the expectation of the person asking is that you’re going to give them permission to reveal the something or the question by responding to their question with ‘Okay’ or ‘Go ahead’ or ‘Yes?’ But because these conversation-openers are typically only used when the person wants to talk to you about something bad or ask you something that they’ve clearly been having to think about asking you, rather than just asking you straight-out, we of course expect the worst when we hear these phrases. It’s also the case that this kind of communication is rampant in business management; it’s the way that a superior attempts to ‘soften’ a critque or comment or order by establishing a communication dynamic in which the person being spoken to is made to feel like they’ve given their superior the permission to speak to them. Usually we don’t seek out permission to speak when what we have to tell someone is good news or neutral information. Whether it’s a workplace situation or just among friends or family, try not responding to these sorts of conversation-starter questions and just look blankly at the person talking to you, and you’ll see how bloody uncomfortable they’ll become when you don’t give them the permission-granting response they’re expecting (unless they’re the kind of person who doesn’t pause after delivering this sort of question and just continues with what they were going to say). Part of our social adeptness is evidenced by our understanding of our roles and responsibilities within communication exchanges, and when we don’t play our expected part, it throws people off (not doing what’s expected of us can also be a sign that there’s something neurologically or psychologically different about us, but that’s a different tangent entirely).

  • Judy L.

    *NOT ha-ha funny. i hate typos!

  • lane

    Something similar happened with my boss the other day. She said “hey, can we talk for a minute?”, but I was in the middle of something. I spent the next 10 or so minutes trying to talk myself down and not panic.

    Personally, I think it may have something to do with my intense dread/fear of disappointing someone and/or being “wrong”. Fundamentalism bred a sense in me that I have to do things a certain way and follow a certain person’s (and certain book’s, certain god’s) rules. There was intense shame in not aligning to a certain ideal. So, I don’t know that it’s the confrontation itself that’s the problem so much as this underlying idea I have that needing correction means I’m a terrible person.

  • Kristine

    Maybe check out a book called Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. I’m reading it now and doing the exercises in hopes that it will help me with the same problem. Best wishes.

  • Marty

    Well it’s going to be impossible to train the whole world not to use them, so I think your husband is going about it close to the right way. As far as the behavioural conditioning goes, might be more effective to use the phrases in appropriate but only positive contexts at home (you as well as your husband). When there’s a bit of noise, and you want to ask something positive, use the phrases – “There’s something I need to ask you – What? – would you like icecream/ a hug/ a glass of wine? Things like that.

    If it’s really annoying or concerning to you, cognitive behavioural therapy is really good at this sort of thing. Can help you figure out the thoughts behind it, the precise triggers, and give you strategies for dealing with them.

  • Gordon

    My reaction to “can I have a word?” or “we need to talk” or “have you got a minute to talk in private” is very similar.

    People should not use those kinds of phrases in innocent situations.

    “There’s something I need to talk to you about?” …. “do you like cats?”

    What? You nearly gave me a heart attack to ask something you could just have come out with? What!?

  • http://skjaere.livejournal.com/ Skjaere

    I hate confrontation, so any time I use the words “There’s something I need to talk to you about,” it means I’ve been pushed to my absolute limit, and there’s no choice left but to face a situation that has become impossible to live with. And so, whenever someone else says these words to me, I sort of assume it means the same thing, and that I have *really* screwed up somehow (and I don’t take criticism well). So yeah, those words can really get the adrenaline flowing for me, too.

  • Rilian

    When I was younger, there were similar phrases that my mom really did use when she was mad at me. And now my mom is going senile or something and she keeps using those phrases and that tone that make it sound like I’m “in trouble” when all she wants is to ask if she can have some of my almonds or something mundane like that.

  • Kenn

    You could try positive reinforcement. If you find some kind of reward (not food, but maybe something that you enjoy doing) and have him give the reward to you after he’s said the phrase and asked you his question, you may begin to associate the phrases with something positive and the fight or flight response should go away.

  • MatthewL

    I have no reason I can think of to react badly to those words but I do. I can’t recall my parents ever using them and in the small extent to which I was bullied the bullies had no interest in talking.

    I think the phrase “We need to talk.” (or its equivalent) is inherrently loaded and likely to put anyone on guard. I’m sure those who’ve been on the receiving end of it, especially as children and particularly from their parents, are much more sensitized. When people have something to say most of the time they just say it. I think any one who uses those words without intending to put someone on the defensive is tone deaf to their meaning.

    From your description it is clear that your reaction is more severe than most due to your upbringing. If it is a serious problem for you I suspect a little work with a good therapist would be the best approach. If your husband can help that’s great but not something to be assumed and it might burden the relationship unnecessarily (your call obviously I can only speak in gross generalities here).

    The threatening nature of the phrase seems to come from its vagueness combined with a foreboding of something unpleasant. Imagine if it were “We need to talk about our plans for this weekend.” or even “We need to talk about what happened last night.” then it’s possible to mentally prepare for the subject even if it is a difficult one. Leaving the reason for needing to talk unstated, even momentarily, is an inherrently aggressive stance.

    Trying to become desensitized to the effect by exposure may or may not be the best approach (thus my recommendation for professional help). It strikes me a bit like an aspect of martial arts training where one needs to be calm in the face of a direct threat. It’s up to you to figure out if this is something necessary or even useful to you.

  • MatthewL

    One more thing occurs to me. Perhaps the best approach would be to take control of the situation by simply responding with “About what?”

  • Otto

    I learned, the hard way, to always say “no,” when my father offered to take me out for fast food or coffee. The first time, I was sixteen, and he wanted to talk to me about how I didn’t know how to wear makeup, and so that he felt I didn’t know how to be a woman.

    I kept falling for it, all the way through high school and college. I always just thought we were going to go do something fun together, and then he’d tell me things like, “you’ve got a real black woman’s ass on you,” or, “you need to do your own laundry when you’re menstruating.”

    He was always good intentioned – he wanted me to be well, to be a good woman. But it meant years of me feeling like I was worthless, fat, and stupid.

    He still offers to take me on those rides, when I visit my parents. I’ve learned to say no, to never be alone with him. I can’t stop the emails he sends, where he tells me that being a lesbian means I’m failing as a human being, but I can stop hearing it when he wants to take me out in his car.

  • http://www.misterwoodles.com Neal

    I publish a webcomic every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. When I log into Facebook on one of those days, if I see that I have a new message, I immediately tense up because I automatically assume my mother has sent me a message saying what offends her about the day’s comic… even though that has only happened a couple of times.

  • jamessweet

    I don’t get it with the “question I’ve been meaning to ask you phrase”, but definitely with the “I need to talk to you” phrase I get a fight-or-flight response. I don’t think it had anything to do with my upbringing in my case, though…

  • mostraum

    I have no background that should make me react to such conversations starters in a negative way, but I still do. I think it’s because they imply that this is going to be a “serious” conversation about something that needs to be discussed at lenght. Not necessarily unpleasant, but noth light and easy either…

    On another note, I think I more or less “pavloved” my partner this autumn. Every time I said “I’ve been thinking” her response was “Oh, does this thinking involve a lot of physical work?” And it usually did :-)

  • lorimakesquilts

    Exposure has worked for me, but he should have talked to you about it first. And it should be followed up with talking about something positive — like how much he loves you, admires you, etc. It takes time but it does work. And I saw someone else mentioned cognitive behavior therapy, that worked for me too. The conscious effort to change my response ended up replacing the old habititual fear response. The time frame definitely depended on the intensity of the threat I perceived but it helped me get over a phobia (clinical, not popular meaning) of the medical establishment. So I have found it very effective.