PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM THREAT

SELF PROTECTIVE STRATEGIES

When you take something your spouse does personally, you are reacting not responding.  That personal reaction indicates that you are feeling “threatened”.  The feeling of threat is an ill-defined feeling of “not being good enough” in some way, not important enough, not smart enough, not respected enough, not good-looking enough etc., etc., etc.

In general, we first experience such feelings of personal, psychological threat during our childhood experiences with parents and others.   As youngsters, we develop strategic patterns that we use to avoid such threatening feelings of not being good enough.  Obviously, we are not aware that we are trying to protect ourselves.  These self-protective strategies are the way we try to manage interpersonal situations so as to avoid or minimize our sense of threat.

Self-protective strategies or defenses are designed to ward off threatening feelings.

Defenses detract from your ability to engage effectively with your spouse.   When you are seeking self-protection, you do not have the capacity to engage in a positive interaction.   To try to manage your own sense of vulnerability by the vain attempt to maneuver other people, particularly your spouse, is neither psychologically healthy nor effective.  Generally, such self-protective strategies are explained to oneself and to others as appropriate interpersonal actions, which are designed to justify the self-protective strategy.

The most effective way to deal with one’s own vulnerabilities is through self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-management or self-regulation.

Examples of Self-Protective Strategies

Some examples of self-protective strategies are control, ingratiation, perfectionism, withdrawal, evaluating others, being over responsible, being compliant, and being driven.  Check out the Box on Self-Protective Strategies for definitions and the rationales we use to justify them.

I prefer the term “self-protective strategies” to “defenses” because most people think of the common Freudian (Anna not Sigmund) defenses of denial, repression, regression, projection, intellectualization, rationalization, and sublimation.  These defenses are used to protect our self from our self (our ego from our id).  I am identifying strategies we use to protect our self from perceived attack, criticism, rejection, etc. from our spouse.

Managing Your Self Protective Strategies

Of course, the first step in managing your self-protective strategies is to recognize what they are.  You are likely to think that the particular strategy or strategies you use are due to your temperament or personality.  We attribute a lot to personality that is more often a self-protective strategy.  As you become more willing to be self-reflective, beginning with recognizing and managing taking things personally, you will begin to recognize the patterns of self-protection that you use to avoid feeling insecure.

When you first make the attempt to be more self-reflective, it will seem awkward and you will feel very self-absorbed.  Over time, new approaches to communicating with your spouse will become more second nature and require less attention.

Self-Protective Strategies 1

More Self-Protective Strategies

 

 

EMOTIONS ARE NOT “THINGS” IN YOUR BRAIN

EMOTIONS ARE NOT THINGS

A “common sense” theory of emotion views emotional reactions in interpersonal situations as a physiological reaction “caused” by something another person did.  This idea is captured in a statement such as “You made me so angry when you stood me up!”  Further, such emotional experiences are described as “normal”.   In other words, someone stands me up that “causes” me to be angry (hurt, anxious, pissed, annoyed, irritated, etc. etc.), which is a “normal” reaction to being stood up.  What follows is usually some reactive action (yelling, not speaking to the person, retaliating in some way) that is justified by the “normal” reaction of being angry at being stood up.  Implicit in this “common sense” theory of emotion is a very widely held view that emotions are distinct states with corresponding distinct brain states, e.g. there is a set of “anger neurons that are trigged when your co-worker does something that annoys you.

There is a growing body of research carried out by Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northwestern University that offer us a new way to look at emotions.   According to this new approach, emotions, even the basic ones like fear, anger, sadness, happiness and disgust, are not distinct entities inside us.  Overall, Feldman Barrett’s research found that no brain region is dedicated to any single emotion.  Furthermore, every supposed emotional brain region is also activated during non-emotional thoughts and perceptions.

This research challenges the view that we can easily and neatly distinguish between emotion and thought and the idea that our emotions are “things” in our brain.  Feldman Barrett challenges the idea that there are unique biological “fingerprints” of each psychologically identifiable emotion that can be identified from your facial muscle movements, your body changes, and your brain’s electrical signals.ID-100122588

Emotions like “anger”, “happiness”, and “fear” refer to diverse biological states that vary depending upon the context or situation in which they occur.   For Feldman Barrett, “When you’re angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heart rate will increase, other times it will decrease and still other times it will stay the same.  You might scowl or you might smile as you plot your revenge.  You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.”

Given this approach, how do we understand our emotional reactions?  How can we understand what context means when it comes to understanding and managing our emotions?  How do we assess the context in which our emotions occur so that we can better understand and manage them?  There are two ways to think about context: (1) the current situation we are in, and (2) our own history, the historical context.

Your emotional reactions need to be understood in terms of your own unique history.  Generally speaking, the way we react emotionally and understand our emotions evolve in the context of our relationships with our early caregivers and how they respond to us.  Every child needs every-day sustaining help, needs comfort and reassurance, and the experience of cognitive mastery.

Early fear and anxiety are related to the growing awareness that we have little control over whether and how others provide the things we need to survive and flourish.  Anger likely develops because others will not or do not respond well to our need for help, love and reassurance, and mastery of our world.  Anger at the unwillingness or inability of our caregivers to provide for us also challenges the child’s sense of omnipotence, i.e. the fundamental wish or belief that he/she is entitled to have all its wants fulfilled on demand.  Of course, all emotions begin in very rudimentary, ill-defined form and become more refined over time with maturation and the changing nature of these caretaking relationships and our relationships with others.

ID-100290105The best way to understand your emotions-in-context such as anger, fear, and the catch-all hurt is to is to know that you are reacting personally to the interpersonal situation.  Taking something personally means that your own personal history is being played out in the current interpersonal situation.  It means that whatever is going on in the current situation, it is being experienced in terms of your own long history of others going all the way to childhood.  Thinking of emotions (particularly anger, fear, and hurt) as emotions-in-context tells us to be cautious about how are interpreting the current situation.  The current situation is not the same as past situations but it can feel the same.

Taking something personally happens when you portray what the other person is doing only in terms of how you experience it.  How you experience someone else’s actions, while important to you, is not the only way to describe other’s actions. 

Some examples:

  • “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”
  • “I can’t believe you are ignoring me like that.”
  • “My opinion doesn’t count; You treat me like a second-class citizen in this relationship.”
  • “You spend so much money on things that are not important; you’re so selfish.
  • “You always want to have sex.…you’re a sex addict.”

In each of these statements, the items in bold are you portraying or characterizing another person’s action.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to the other person about how he/she sees the situation.  Others rarely, if ever, experience their own actions in the same way that you are characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation.  The feeling of being “ignored”, etc. is significant for you on a personal level.

Let’s use “feeling ignored” as an example of how we can be affected by earlier childhood experience.  To understand the experience of “being ignored” we have to think about a child’s experience of not being paid attention to in a way he wants, which is a description of what is happening to the child.

Let’s imagine a child in the following situation with his dad:  One Sunday his dad is enjoying reading the newspaper, preoccupied with what he wants to do.  His son approaches and interrupts him asking him to play a game with him; he wants some attention from his dad who is usually very attentive.  The dad is doing something he really enjoys and responds to the boy with a sharp tone, “Can’t you see I’m busy? Don’t bother me.”   This is not abuse, it’s an adult being interested in something he wants to do and failing to appreciate how his child experiences his words and deeds.

Children cannot be objective about themselves to know that they are okay even if they are in trouble or don’t get what they need or want.  They cannot evaluate how they are doing in the world separately from how they think others see them, particularly their parents.  This inability to think objectively about oneself is a characteristic of the nature of childhood cognition.

The boy in the example experiences his father’s lack of acknowledgement of his wish as if father is saying something is wrong with him.   It is as if the child said to himself, “If there weren’t something wrong with me or what I want, it would have been attended to.”  The child is thinking personally; it must be about him as a person.   Of course, father, like lots of parents, forgot how children think and therefore, failed to realize how his child is experiencing the interaction with him (father).  Over time with repeated experiences like this the child can develop a generalized experience of “not being good enough”, not being worthy.

By the way, responding appropriately to children does not mean either immediate or even delayed gratification of their requests.  It does mean openly acknowledging the want and that it is important.  This acknowledgement of the child’s wants supports his own feeling of being valued and important, i.e. being “enough” as a human being. To not be attended to, to not have what you want acknowledged, is to be “ignored” and it is personal to a child!

These kinds of incidences happen to children all the time.  Over time, as children we experience anxiety, fear, anger in such events and our mind and body prepare us to protect ourselves from the threat of what we experience as something wanting in ourselves; it is as if some “fatal flaw” has been exposed to others such that they will reject, humiliate, avoid, criticize, ridicule, and/or harm us.  Over time we conjure up defenses against such flaws and our body prepares us for “fight or flight”.

Over time you will develop a ‘quick response system’ that will include making a quick ‘interpretation’ of the situation that will be based more on your own history than on the current situation.  That is, you will ‘characterize’ the other person’s action in terms of what it means to you personally.

In the example, “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”, you are characterizing the others behavior as “unfair”.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to your co-worker about how he/she sees the situation.  As noted, others rarely experience their own actions in the same way that you characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation; it is not an objective assessment of the situation.  It is up to you to examine what about ‘fairness/unfairness’ is significant for you on a personal level.

Now that you get it, i.e. “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.” indicates your personal experience of a situation, what is the alternative?

Given that you recognize your personal take on the situation, and have given yourself time to reflect, you are in a position to assess the way in with the situation is problematic for you.  In the situation presented, you may see that your co-worker is not doing all the work assigned to him/her, is not completing work assigned, is doing other than assigned work.  The problem is that this affects the work other others, including you, in the office.  All of these assessments are descriptions of what may be occurring that are creating a problem for you at the work situation.  All of these descriptions pose ways to address the work problem.  Such descriptions of problems open that way for negotiation.  It may not always work out; negotiation may not be possible because the other person reacts, does not want to negotiate work tasks, or is not accessible.  You may have to go some other route, e.g. speak to a manager, go to human resources, decide to move on etc.

Here are the takeaways from this post:

  • Emotions are not “things” in your brain; there is no such thing as “anger neurons”
  • What you feel depends on your own history with others and the current situation
  • Recognize your personal take on the situation
  • Learn to describe not characterize
  • Once you can describe the situation, you can define the problem
  • Make your best effort to discuss the problem

References

Barrett, L. F.  “What Emotions Are (And Aren’t)”.   New York Times, Sunday, January 17, 2016.

Barrett, L.  (2006). Are Emotions Natural Kinds? Perspectives in Psychological Science.  Vol.1(1) 28-58

Barrett, L.  (2006). Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion.  Personality and Social Psychology Review.  Vol 10 (1) 20-46.

Nussbaum, Martha (2003). Upheavals of Thought.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

DISAGREEMENTS VS. CONFLICT

DISAGREEMENT IS NOT CONFLICTLots of people use the words disagreement and conflict interchangeably.  To do this ignores very important differences between these two types of interactions between people.

When you disagree with someone, it is about something.  It’s about who is going to do what task at work; it’s about where to get the car serviced; it’s about how to discipline a child; it’s about which movie to see this evening.  Disagreements are about content, the what in your interaction with another person. ID-10088140

The defining element of a disagreement is that you are talking to each other.  Because you are talking to each other, you can negotiate a resolution of the disagreement.  You can compromise, one of you can make an accommodation to the other, or you can agree to disagree.  And, most importantly, after the disagreement, you are both still talking to each other.

That is not usually the case when there is a conflict between you and another person.  When you are in conflict with someone, the assumptions you are making about each other are hidden and the feelings are strong.  In a conflict, you are not talking, you are yelling, avoiding, or talking over each other.  In a conflict:

  • Issues will not be resolved
  • Misunderstandings are not resolved
  • No benefits accrue to the relationship through negotiation of issues

While disagreements are resolved through negotiation, conflict is managed through self-reflection and personal accountability.

WHEN IS A CONFLICT NOT A DISAGREEMENT?

The first clue is how you are feeling.  Too often, when you feel angry, for instance, you are set to “blame” the other person, e.g. “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”   That is, something you have done has caused me to feel angry at you; and it’s normal for me to feel angry at you.   This scenario of thinking others “cause” us to be angry (hurt, fearful, pissed, anxious, etc.) and describing this as normal is really the basis for having a conflict.  It is more accurate to describe an angry (hurt, fearful, pissed, anxious) reaction as ‘automatic’ rather than ‘normal’.  Calling such emotional reactions ‘normal’ is typically used to justify acting out that emotion rather than reflecting on the situation.ID-10067169 (1)

If you act when you are feeling angry, hurt, fearful, pissed toward someone, you are setting up the situation to have a conflict.  Usually what happens is, you react (act badly) by yelling, shutting down, etc., which increases the likelihood the other person will feel angry, hurt, fearful, etc. and react in turn.   Now you two have a conflict.  Whatever the issue (not doing an assigned task, e.g.), the conflict is now about how you both are feeling toward each other and the negative assumptions you are making about each other.  The issue now is that he is a shirker and she is off on one of her emotional binges. This is now a conflict about who is right, who has injured the other, who is the worse employee.  It is not a disagreement about work loads.

The method to resolve conflict is for each person to be self-reflective and personally accountable for his/her part in the breakdown of the interaction.

HOW TO BE PERSONALLY ACCOUNTABLE

Enhance your emotional intelligence

Certain emotions such as anger and fear along with the catchall emotion of hurt, tell you that you are reacting personally to the interpersonal situation.  Such emotions are associated with the release of the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CHR) along with other hormones and neurotransmitters including epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine, all of which ready you for a fight or flight response.  Daniel Goleman who developed the idea of emotional intelligence, views such emotions as a quick response system that pushes you to react to a person or situation without appropriate reflection on what is going on interpersonally.  If you act on these emotions, you will not behave well.

Recognize your personal take on the situation

Your ‘quick response system’ will also make a quick ‘interpretation’ of the situation that will be based more on your own history than on the current situation.  That is, you will ‘characterize’ the other person’s action in terms of what it means to you personally.

In the example, “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”, you are characterizing the others behavior as “unfair”.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to your co-worker about how he/she sees the situation.  Others rarely, if ever, experience their own actions in the same way that you characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation.  And, you should examine what about ‘fairness/unfairness’ is significant for you on a personal level.  One way to be self-reflective about how things feel personal to you is The Downward Arrow Technique (If You Lose Your Pen, You will Die).  A good quick use of this technique is at (http://jayspence.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-downward-arrow-technique-if-you.html), try it.

Learn to describe not characterize

Now that you get it…i.e., “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.” indicates your personal experience of a situation, what is the alternative?  Given that you recognize your personal take on the situation, and have given yourself time to reflect, you are in a position to assess the way in with the situation is problematic for you.  Once you identify the problem, you can describe it to the other person leading the way to a negotiation of a possible disagreement.

In the situation presented, you may see that your co-worker is not doing all the work assigned to him/her, is not completing work assigned, is doing other than assigned work.  The problem is that this affects the work of others, including you, in the office.  All of these assessments are descriptions of what may be occurring that are creating a problem for you at the work situation.  All of these descriptions pose ways to address the work problem.  Such descriptions of problems open that way for negotiation.

It may not always work out; negotiation may not be possible because the other person reacts or does not want to negotiate work tasks.  You may have to go some other route, e.g. speak to a manager, go to human resources, etc.  However, you have acted well, congratulations!

CONFLICT IN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP

The same principles of disagreement and conflict apply to intimate relationships, even more so because you want this relationship to continue.  Take a look at this post Conflict in Marriage for how these ideas apply to your marriage.

THE TAKE AWAY

It really takes a lot of effort to be emotionally intelligent and to recognize your own personal take on situations.  The more you can do this, the better interpersonal relationships you can have.  Even if others do not always respond well to your efforts, you know you have done well.  And, perhaps most importantly, it stops the development of a conflict between you and the other person.

WHEN YOU FEEL EMOTIONALLY “INJURED”

HE HAS IMPOSED ON ME

“He has imposed on me, but he has not injured me.”  This is a great line in the Jane Austen book, Emma. This is what Emma says to Mr. Knightly explaining how she reacted to finding out that Mr. Churchill had been secretly engaged for almost a year while supposedly pursuing her romantically.  Mr. Churchill had pretended to admire and flirt with Emma in order to disguise his clandestine relationship with Jane Fairfax.  I have often used this line to help me explain to clients how to manage their reactions to others who do not behave well in order to behave well.

Characterizing another person’s behavior as an “injury” to which we are justifiably angry, hurt, or fearful, gives us permission to act badly in return.  Feeling ‘injured’ in such situations harkens back to a younger age when any small imposition or slight is experienced as an injury to our self because of our cognitive and emotional limitations as children.  As children we are take everything personally because we lack adult perspective-taking.ID-100345480

When adults do wrong by us (e.g. not being attentive, not showing gratitude, breaking promises, keep us waiting, being unkind to us) remember they are imposing on us not injuring us.  If we act out our experience of being injured, 100% of the time we will act badly in return.  A thoughtful judgement about how to respond toward others needs to be based on the recognition that others can impose on us without injuring us.

How do you respond to other people when they have ‘imposed’ on you?  I’ll take a simple example of planning lunch with a friend who has kept me waiting for about 20 minutes.   My first reaction, which is automatic (rather than ‘normal’) is to feel ‘insulted’ (i.e. ‘injured’) by that person’s ‘rudeness’.

My first task is to ‘soothe’ the anger so I can remember the difference between being ‘imposed’ on and being ‘injured’.  Once I do that, I can begin to address the issue of being kept waiting more time than I am willing to spend.  Here is my strategy for dealing with the friend.

  1. I leave the restaurant, going on with my day. I say or text something like, “I missed having lunch with you today since you were unable to make it at the time we arranged.
  2. I then say that being late (not making it on time) did not “work for me”. For example, I might say, “I was not willing to wait for you as I had other plans.  I had a pretty tight schedule today.”
  3. I then say, “I would love to reschedule when it works for both of us.”

The general principles I used in the above example are:

  • I state the person’s action (not my characterization of the action as ‘rudeness’). This means I describe what the person has done that did not work for me.  I am a stickler for addressing other’s actions that are not okay with me as actions that “don’t work for me”.  I love the phrase “it doesn’t work for me” as a powerful statement of my position without putting anyone down.
  • I do not characterize their action (e.g. “You are being rude to me by being late.”). I describe the action, being late or unable to be on time.  It takes a lot of willingness and practice to describe rather than characterize or label another person’s actions.  I guarantee you that most people do not accept/agree with our characterization of their actions.  At the same time, they cannot really dispute a description of their action.
  • I do not make any assumptions about the intent of the action toward me.

Even though you have made a herculean effort to treat the other person well, he/she may react as if you had accused them of some ‘injury’ to you and react in a defensive (self-protective) manner.  Do not lose your cool.  Do not undo your good work at managing your own reaction.  Just repeat what you have already said, emphasizing that it just didn’t work for you to wait, not that he/she was behaving badly.

All of this depends on your willingness to forego feeling ‘injured’.

The same principles work in intimate relationships.  Husbands and wives ‘impose’ on us all the time (they are late, they don’t attend to us in the way we want, the keep us waiting, they speak harshly to us, etc. etc.).  The difference occurs when a particular kind of ‘imposition’ is repeated.  When this occurs, you still use the above principles in the immediate situation.  However, at some other time you identify the repeated ‘imposition’ as a problem to be addressed, i.e. to be discussed and negotiated between the two of you.