• Ariana Friedlander

The danger in swatting flies


I once watched a biker crash because they were swatting away a swarm of gnats while riding along a trail. These particular gnats were benign flies as they didn't bite. But if you've ever encountered a cloud of gnats you might understand the compulsion to swat them away.


In this instance, that instinct proved more dangerous than simply ignoring them.


These kinds of situations frequently occur in our interactions with other people. The instinct to argue or run away or hide or people please is counterproductive. Yet people often react compulsively to a trigger in conversations like the biker did to the swarm of gnats swatting away the flies.


The biker, who sustained relatively mild injuries, wished they hadn't reacted that way. But what was done was done. Despite offers to help, they hobbled off battered and bloodied.


The physical wounds of such impulsive decisions are much more visible than the ones we sustain from conversations gone awry. A negative interaction makes a lasting impression because cortisol stays in our system for up to 24 hours. That's three times longer than the shelf life of oxytocin. Cortisol is a stress hormone commonly released in stressful situations, whereas oxytocin causes us to bond and build trust.


That is why one hurtful interaction can cause such lasting damage to the quality of a relationship. If we don't heal the grievance, our bodies and minds turn the pain into an armor of self-protection. As a result, we compulsively swat the flies in our conversations instead of addressing the deeper need.

Luckily, we have the ability to consciously redirect such impulses. While I wasn't the one to wreck my bike, I have since kept this story in mind while out for a ride myself. And I have chosen to ignore the flies, a hard feat indeed, in an effort to meet my deeper needs. We all possess the agency to exercise such self-control in conversation, we just have to choose to do so.

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