HOW FAMILIAR SOUNDING ARE THE FOLLOWING?
“How can you ignore me like that, I work so hard at being nice to you.”… “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I can’t believe you’re checking the sports scores when we wanted to spend time together watching TV!”…” It will only take a second, don’t’ get so upset over such a little thing.”
“My opinion doesn’t count, I feel like a second-class citizen in this relationship”. …“Oh, here we go again, I can’t do anything right.”
“You spend so much money on things that are not important; you’re so selfish”. …“I work hard, and it is my money”.
Interactions like these always involve one or both partners “taking things personally”. These kinds of interactions are not usually the end of a relationship but they build up in way that is very detrimental to each partner and to the relationship.
In this blog, I going to talk about a way to both recognize and understand what is happening when we are “taking things personally” through a process of self-reflection. Most of our most meaningful personal development breakthroughs come through the process of self-reflection.
In the above brief scenarios, each partner is accusing, blaming, reacting, etc. to the other. Understanding such interactions requires some serious self-reflection on the part of each person about his/her part in the dynamics of the relationship.
By dynamics I mean the specific ways in which you and your partner consistently interact with one another. Relationship dynamics are shown in the box below.
We can analyze the above incidents using the idea of a relationship dynamic. For example, in the first incident (using the made up names of Don and Madge), Don did something, likely did not pay attention to Madge in the way she wanted. She portrays or characterizes his action as “ignoring” her, followed by her self-serving statement about her niceness. This, of course, is intended to bolster her characterization of Don’s action. While not stated, some emotional reaction, either anger, fear, or hurt is occurring. Don, not really thinking that he deliberately tried to ignore Madge, responds dismissively, probably in self-defense or self-protectively.
While Don did not respond to Madge in a way that is important to her, her characterization of his action as “ignoring” her is a personal interpretation of his action. The problem for Madge is that she experiences his “not responding” as if he is deliberately ignoring her. Such emotionally based experiences are compelling–they just feel right. And so, we act on them without consideration of the perspective of our partner.
The problem for Dan is that his action is characterized in a way that doesn’t fit with how he feels about what he did. And he feels misjudged, leading to his defensive dismissal of what Made rather than asking about her concern.
The “heavy lifting” of being more self-reflective about our own experience in our interactions with our partner is when it is the least likely to occur, because our own experience of events is so personally compelling.
This negative dynamic can escalate or both partners just shut down until the next time. Either way, over time the relationship becomes less engaging and less rich.
This negative dynamic is what people generally identify as conflict intheir relationship. This “conflict” is not resolvable because you two are not dealing with the issue (not being attended to in a way you like, checking sports scores when having time together, partner not listening, how money is spent, etcetera). You both are dealing with your personalized reactions to each other.
Two things are really important to understand about this analysis of these seemingly minor incidents:
First, there is always an emotional reaction associated with such interactions, usually some variation of anger, fear, or hurt. Daniel Goldman, who wrote Emotional Intelligence, says such emotional reactions are the body’s “central alarm system.” In the Language of Feelings, David Viscott has a great description of the various names we have for these basic feelings.When we are fearful we use such terms as scared, edgy, jittery, concerned, worried, helpless, insecure, uptight, and nervous. Anger is described as being irritated, miffed, teed-off, irked, annoyed, furious, enraged, and “burned.” Hurt is a kind of catchall term that people use to describe being upset.
These emotional reactions are emergency responses that do not allow for any reflection on the “triggering” action…whatever Don did.
Second, when you react emotionally to your partner’s action, you will portray it only from the perspective of how it feels to you. For example, “How can you ignore me?”; “I feel like a second-class citizen”; “My opinion doesn’t count.” These statements ignore whatever reason or motive (good or bad) your partner has for his/her action. The technical term for this is being “egocentric” meaning that one is looking at an event only from their own perspective, not taking into account that their partner has her/his own perspective. This is what we mean by “taking things personally.”
Taking an egocentric stance means you feel threatened by something your partner has done. Your emotional alarm system is activated and your reaction to your partner is to portray her/his action in a highly personalized way; which she is very unlikely to agree is the way she is acting.
When we feel personally threatened, we feel vulnerable, and we act in a way to protect ourselves (e.g. attack the other when angry or hurt, shut down when fearful or hurt). We do not address issues or solve problems in an effective manner. You do not discuss things when you are angry, hurt, or afraid; you just see the other as the “bad guy.”
Self-reflection is about our own emotional reactions of anger, fear, and hurt; our egocentric portrayal of our partner’s action, and the negative action we take toward the person we love. This is fundamental to avoiding conflict and is fundamental to being able to negotiate differences, issues, and problems in our intimate relationship(s).
The time to start the process of self-reflection is when it is the hardest, when you are feeling angry, fearful (anxious), and/or hurt. David Viscott’s description of the various names we have for these basic feelings, noted above, are useful in recognizing these entry pointsto self-reflection and self-awareness.
Here are some typical times when self-reflection is a good idea: You get angry because he is late for dinner, you get hurt because she doesn’t want to have sex on a given evening, you get anxious when he tells you that he is unhappy because you talk on the telephone to you family too much. The list of things that you can get angry hurt, or fearful about is endless. All you have to do is read Annie’s Mailbox (the current Dear Abby) to hear people describing the personalized reaction to the difficult situations in their life. Here’s one from 1/15/2014…”His reluctance hurts me deeply and brings back all those feelings of unworthiness from my [previous] marriage.” (emphasis added)
So think about it. If this list is endless, and you are likely to blame your partner when you have these feelings, there is a lot of blaming going on that is not good for your partner and not good for your relationship.
It is important to note that I am addressing “taking things personally” in this page. There may be a legitimate concern to address, e.g. Madge wants Don to pay attention to her in a way that is important to her. This can be addressed but not in the way she is addressing it because she is taking it personally, preventing a discussion. I will talk about addressing issues problem, and difference in the pages on negotiating collaboratively.
You can go the page FEELING THREATNED: THE LONG REACH OF CHILDHOOD from here to explore sources of personal threat that is behind “taking things personally.”
You can also go the PRACTICING SELF-REFLECTION ABOUT TAKING THINGS PERSONALLY.