“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. 😛 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?

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