I had a client come in today describing a very typical “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” scenario he had going on with his wife. He described his wife as difficult and volatile, and he would do anything to avoid expressing his thoughts and opinions about any subject matter beyond the kids’ schedules so as to avoid the intensity of her reaction. His perception is, if he doesn’t say a thing in response and just listens and nods, she gets angry that he’s not contributing. If he speaks up about his view of the situation she gets angry and feels he’s trying to control her. Her anger is like a hurricane with whipping winds carrying verbal assaults and leaving a trail of trash which can take him days to recover and heal from. The manifestation of his fear of her comes out in stomach aches and pains that can keep him in bed for days. His experience is that he works so hard to not upset her and just can’t seem to get it right. Keep in mind, that while it might be easy to look at her as the problem, the reciprocal nature of the relationship is what keeps him stuck in this line of thinking that he’s backed into an impossible corner. He does have a part to play in the dynamic, even if it’s just a matter of changing his perception of the situation. He then frees himself from the corner and isn’t waiting for her to get out of his way.
I thought I would share what I coached him on so perhaps it would assist the countless others who have found themselves fearful of the person they love and share a life with and whom they believe are keeping them pinned in a corner.
1) Shift the purpose of the communication
There is a fundamental concept that one would benefit from understanding inside and out. If you can shift the purpose of communication from an attempt to change the other by getting your point across and having them see the light of (your) day, or to avoid them from having a strong emotional reaction, to simply an opportunity to define yourself to the other clearly and calmly, the fear of the other decreases. You are no longer trying to communicate in a way that will get or avoid something from the other, whether thats a change in their opinion or for them to calm down. You are simply first, getting in touch with what you think and what is important to you, and second, working on delivering this in a way that is consistent with who you are or how you want to be. If you can let go of the importance of the reaction or how it may or may not be perceived, or what the outcome will be, you are killing two birds with one stone. Decreasing fear of the other while not bottling up what you think. We can not communicate authentically when the focus is on the others possible reaction. Disconnect from the outcome of them being different by what you do or don’t communicate and connect to being your best self.
2) Choose your words in a way that reflects accountability. Even in the face of their blame
Most people begin their statements with ‘you’. You always do this or you are incorrect or you shouldn’t feel or think the way you do about this particular situation. They may be saying this out loud or just in their heads. Regardless, this only speeds up the wind that is blowing toward the eventual storm. Acknowledge that you understand how upset this person is. Judging whether or not this is a “right” or “wrong” reaction is pointless. If you care for this person, seeing them suffer in the discomfort of their anger could make you pause. If you accept their blame for their anger at any level, this will be hard. You might say, “I see this is really upsetting you” or “I see this is really important to you, I’m listening”. Then acknowledge the dilemma that you are up against. You might say, “It is very challenging for me to stay in this conversation when you are coming at me this way” or “I want to talk about this and hear your perspective but Im finding I’m having a hard time staying calm when you are so angry and are communicating so intensely”. With self defining “I” statements, you are taking accountability for your own reactivity to the other person. Silly me, I’m having a hard time staying calm. Again, the purpose is to not get or avoid a certain reaction from the other, but instead to try to stay clear headed yourself and in the conversation without fear of repercussions. It is your choice to accept blame, and/or to get reactively angry or shut down.
3) Attempt to interrupt the pattern
Throw out a statement that is completely out of place and may even be opposite of what you are feeling and thinking. ” I really want to hug you right now because I see you are hurting” or “I love you so much it is hard for me to see you this upset”. Sometimes recognizing that the other persons anger and reactivity comes from their own fear they are experiencing can help shift you in to a more objective and thoughtful person. It is in our biology to act aggressively when we are in a fear based state. Stress hormones released in a perceived threat situation trigger our fight or flight response. This person you love thinks they are under attack! Let them know you are not the enemy.
4) Take the time out
I’ve had people complain that the person follows them around the house continuing to rant and rave. Nothing, and I mean nothing productive will get accomplished when anger is high and both people are in that perceived threat place. Most people don’t even store memories in a proper place useful for recall when emotion is high. So, not much can be learned! It is best to let your cortisol levels return to normal by taking a time out. If the intensity does not dissipate, let the other person know you are interested in circling back around when both of you have calmed down. Leave the house if you need to after stating why you are. The goal becomes to get your biology back to a normal state which will allow you to be thoughtful versus reactive. Even if you are blamed for dipping during a hard time, it is worth taking care of that which you can control in the moment.
So you see, the dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t mentality is constructed by you! You always have a choice on how you perceive something and how you react in the moment. Have that be your focus versus what the other person is doing to you. It keeps life more interesting! Keep trying to be your best self by taking control and accountability for you.