If there was one thing I could convince you of, it would be ‘it’s not your fault.’ You didn't do something wrong.
Many issues – from social awkwardness to low self-esteem, self-blame and conflict – are rooted in the perception that someone else’s bad mood is a result of something we did. Couples in my private practice struggle time and again with oversensitivity to their partner’s moods. Without thinking, they take it personally, feel accused and react defensively.
The ‘Spidey’ Sense
For how it starts, we have to turn to the original templates – our primary caregivers. This is frequently parents but not always. It is the major influences in our lives growing up; the people who looked out for us (or were supposed to) day to day. If one or both of our parents struggled with something, be it mental illnesses, addiction or unhealthy patterns of coping, then as kids, we noticed. This means danger to the young, developing mind. If a parent is unable to function, it literally risks a child’s very survival. It makes sense then for that child to develop what I’ve come to call a ‘spidey sense.’ This sense is a special attunement or attention to their parent’s physical and/or emotional state.
Setting the ‘Spidey Sense’ on high, the child has the best chance to detect the first hints of trouble, scrutinizing facial expressions, body language, and behavior of the adult. Analyzing each question and statement for tone and hidden meaning helped to predict, and maybe prevent, the next angry outburst, tearful breakdown, or slow motion, pill-slurred, conversation.
It Must Be My Fault
As children, we don’t know any different or better coping methods. Having a limited scope of knowledge and experience, kids tend to draw flawed conclusions about causes. I must have done something to upset them. In other words, from a child’s point of view, a parent’s mood is their fault. Into adulthood, these faulty conclusions transfer to our friends, spouse and children’s moods. We truly believe that by being acutely sensitive to other’s moods and behaviors, we can anticipate and control situations. The funny thing is that we don’t know we’re doing it because by now, it seems normal.
Codependency in Action
Let me give you an example from my own life. In my previous married life, driving home from work, I would start to get tense. I was anticipating my partner’s irritation that had surely carried over from work. It was a setup from the start: I didn’t cause the irritation but because I knew about it, I had to deal with it. My partner, also not being the healthiest of people, coped with the ‘kick the dog’ strategy. You know this one – get mad at something at work and instead of dealing with it directly, bring it home and pick a fight with your loved one.
You Can Change Your Life
1) Raise Awareness
It’s easy to recognize these pattern but so hard to change it. It means resisting this great internal PULL that says DANGER! As with all change, you have to map out the territory with awareness before moving forward. Figuring out what I was feeling as I drove home and entered the house was the first step. I had to stop tuning in to others’ feelings and tune into my own. Then I had to decide what was an appropriate and expected response to an experience. I decided that coming home from work should be emotionally neutral. If nothing else had happened, nothing should be wrong. Taking this stance, puts the emotions back where they belong – in the other person’s hands.
2) Tolerate Discomfort
Listening to our friends, partners, and kids as they vent their feelings is a loving thing to do. You, me, others – we can’t help how we feel – only what we do with those feelings. Hearing them express their pain, fears, and even anger, without trying to make it all better or minimize it, is important. When we empathize with another’s discomfort, it naturally becomes our own for a small time. By listening, we show them they are not alone. It is when we think we have to DO SOMETHING that we fall into the trap of responsibility without power. We cannot manually turn the dial up or down on someone’s feelings wheel without the risk of stomping on their emotions. Telling your loved one they shouldn’t feel ________ about something only invalidates what they DO feel in the service of our own discomfort. The only real power we have is to soothe ourselves.
3) Recharge Your Battery
Your power is within. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true. After listening to someone vent, if you get the signal that all is not right with you, use that information to meet your own needs. Believe it or not, this is in service to your loved one – in the most meaningful way. By soothing yourself, you fill your own cup, giving you the most resources to help others. You stay calm and even, ready to assist or soothe others. Your battery is fully charged.
4) Stay Emotionally Balanced
Diving down the rabbit hole of reaction with your partner is a habit. Resisting that pull can feel kinda mean at first. Essentially, it’s a mis-attunement – meaning, you are purposely creating emotional distance when the other person gets stormy. Remember why you are doing this – it’s a long-term investment in the health of you and your relationship. It’s a vote of confidence and validation in the other person. You’re saying, “I hear you and I trust you to work this out. I’m not lost and I know you’ll work this out.”
5) Change the Pattern
Before change sticks, you may experience what we call an ‘extinction burst.’ Habit will pull you both towards familiar patterns of unhealthy behavior and may leave you with doubts. The child in both of you sees the old threat. Trust the process as this is temporary; wait it out. Over time, you’ll see and feel a positive difference in yourself and those around you and gradually gain a greater sense of ease. Assess your progress and adjust strategies as needed.
6) Trust Yourself
When you understand the reasons why you or others think, feel or act, everything gets better. Always ask yourself questions and answer until you are satisfied. Whether you believe it now or not, the truth is, you are the final word. Try this test – you picked up on something funky from your partner, boss, or friend – some irritation or sadness – and asked if everything was okay. That person said everything was fine. Do you believe them and go on with your day? If you said no, you’re trusting your instincts (and maybe thinking you did something wrong). If you said yes, you’re still trusting your instincts but this time, you’re also taking care of yourself by trusting the other person and yourself to handle whatever comes your way.
Also published on Medium.