Emotional Flooding and How to Identify “Monster” Thoughts

Emotional Flooding and How to Identify “Monster” Thoughts


I was originally inspired to create this blog when I noticed how much certain songs connect and overlap with the powerful feelings and experiences discussed in therapy.  This song was one of them. In Beth Crowley’s, Monster, I hear a familiar reactivity. I hear the experience of people who don’t mean to lose it, but when anger, confusion, and fear set in, they turn into someone that rages away from who they really want to be. I hear what Drs. John and Julie Gottman call a “flooding” of emotions.

Sample Lyrics:

I need a fight
I’ve got you in my sights
Only one of us will make it out alive

 (see end of post for full lyrics)

Flooding happens when our emotional mind overtakes our wise mind. I also find it descriptive to say someone is, “drunk with emotion,” when they are flooded. When we are more, “emotionally sober,” or in our wise mind, we are able to balance our feelings with the bigger picture, and with more grounded thoughts and behaviors. When we are experiencing a wise mind, we are aware of what we truly want and need, and how to best get it.

Considering the Gottman’s guidance for what to do when you are flooded, the line “I’m turning into a monster, you better run and hide…” is not far off from what they recommend. Okay, so, “run and hide,” is an intense and threatening way to say, “take some space.” But the Gottmans would definitely say it’s a good idea to remove yourself and cool down if you or the other person is that upset. They recommend that when you are feeling flooded, you should self-soothe for at least 20 minutes before reengaging.

So what happens when we are turning into a monster?

When we are calm it’s so easy to see how ineffective the monster is. But when we are triggered, the monster can be much more persuasive about taking over. The monster might tell you that unfounded thoughts are true, or that ineffective and harmful behavior is a good idea. The monster may deceive you to make you think they aren’t the monster but who you really are. Oh nononono….

In my experience, taking the break once you realize you’re flooded is the easier part. The harder part is realizing when the monster is rising in you and taking over. The monster can be tricky!

The Gottmans often suggest looking for physical cues, such as heart racing or feeling flushed, to tell if you’re flooding. If you catch yourself huffing and puffing, or you have a wearable device that lets you know you’re in a heightened state, then that’s a very clear signal you need to take a break.

In my experience and observation, however, we need to monitor cognitive cues as well. Recognizing cognitive cues is important because:

  • It can help us deescalate before we get super explosive.
  • Some of us become less aware in our bodies when we get flooded. For example, sometimes we don’t even realize we are yelling.
  • Some of us can get so cerebral that we can become monsters without ever experiencing “the rage” in our bodies. It just comes out through the content of our behaviors. Raise your hand if you’ve ever said or did some crazy bullsh*t you didn’t mean while looking and sounding more or less calm….*sheepishly raises hand…*

If you are relating with the last three statements, my guidance to you is that you stop relying on physical cues and put more focus on monitoring what happens to your thinking. How curious are you? How willing are you to be vulnerable? What’s your intention?

If you are responding negatively to those questions, there is a good chance the monster is coming.

Here are some more thought cues to clue awareness when you’re turning into a monster:

 Myopic perspective – Is something is happening for you that is causing you to double down on your own perspective? Is your perspective leaving no room for curiosity about what’s going on for the other person?  When we aren’t flooded, we can still be confident in our perspectives, but we are able to also hold space to explore the other person’s. Monster thoughts throw that ability away. They see themselves as the only perspective. Example thought “They are totally wrong.”

Obstacles – Are you only seeing the problems and the negatives? When we are feeling emotionally balanced, we can see the world as balanced with good and bad. When we get flooded with negative emotions, however, we are likely to become hyper-aware of and focused on negatives.  Monster thinking becomes blind to the positive perspective. Example thought, “There is no way we can fix this.”

Now – Are you feeling a strong urge for satisfaction right NOW?

For the fighters, “NOW!” looks like “we need to talk about this right now!” even though there would be no external consequences if you wait 20 minutes. Beware of the thoughts that are bubbling up inside you that feel like you have to say them now, “or else…” Those could be monster thoughts. If they are really important to say, you will remember to say them later.

For fleers, “NOW!” is the urge to shut down and flee with no communication to your partner about when you plan to resume the conversation. Note that taking a break does not mean you just abandon the conversation. Taking a break means you clearly communicate that you are taking space to calm down, and you are making a clear plan when to come back and resume problem-solving.

Sadistic – Are you feeling sadistic? That’s a strong word for it, but seriously, what are your intentions right now? Are you looking to say or do something to hurt the other person? There is no way that’s going to help. Even if they hurt you, there is no way that hurting them will make things better for the relationship, or even just you. Revenge thoughts and otherwise hurtful intentions are monster thoughts.

Triggers – Did you just encounter a known trigger? Triggers could be topics like family of origin, finances, sex, time, and childcare, to name a few. If you know the topic is triggering, be careful of monster thoughts. Be aware that you may need to move slowly in this conversation, and may need a break.

Also, does the other person seem to be flooded and having monster thoughts? If this is your observation, know that’s a default trigger. We often flood when we perceive someone else to be flooded. If you take a break, make sure to state the need to take a break from your own perspective, “I am feeling flooded by the way you are talking to me, let’s take a break and talk in 20 minutes.” Don’t cower with “you-talk” by saying, “You are flooded right now. You need to take a break.” Stand up for yourself by staying in your own lane.

Extremes – Are you going to extremes? Key words that indicate extremes include Always, Never, and other words that fly away from what your wise mind knows to be real. Are you flying into the land of ultimatums or threats? Take a break to fly home. When you are more grounded you can address concerning patterns, and potential responses if the patterns continue, from a wiser perspective.

Righteous – Are you feeling morally superior? Does someone need to be taught a lesson or punished? Maybe you don’t want to sadistically harm them, but you want to play the roles of judge and enforcer with this person? Any thoughts like these are monster thoughts. The Gottmans would call those thoughts contempt, if expressed. They found that experiencing contempt in a relationship will surely lead to suffering for everyone. The antidote to contempt and righteousness is to calm down, and also intentionally review the positive aspects of the other person.

by Beth Crowley

I sleep all day
I prowl at night
Do anything to feel alive
I’m in the end just what you made me

I look the same
But I’m not fine
The Master of my own disguise
If you knew the truth you’d probably hate me

I need a fight
I’ve got you in my sights
Only one of us will make it out alive

I’m turning into a monster
You better run and hide
I’m turning into a monster
Right before your eyes
My tongue is a weapon
And I’m locked and loaded
When you least expect it
You won’t know it’s coming
And I’ll strike, cause I’m a monster

I’m merciless, when will you learn?
Set fires just to watch them burn
I bet you never saw me coming
Delirium takes over me
You’re just another casualty
I can hear your heartbeat drumming

I need a fight
I’ve got you in my sights
Only one of us will make it out alive

Refrain 2x

Spencer Northey

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