Something significant and painful happened to me recently that forced me to confront my fear of judgement and my emotional thinking.
I was brought up to be nice, ie to be polite, to try to see the other person’s point of view, not to hurt feelings, to keep the peace, and when I didn’t I would be punished by silence (sometimes for days), by accusations of selfishness and not caring. I was taught that Feelings Rule Everything. It was practically a sin in my formative years to hurt someone’s feelings, even if you were speaking honestly and expressing your own feelings or values. Throughout my life many, many arguments within my immediate family have been essentially a competition to determine Who Feels Worst and therefore Who Wins. Fast forward to today and I am the epitome of a stressed out, emotionally and physically drained, anxious people-pleaser who feels guilty for putting myself first and bottles up my feelings until I explode, vomiting words and emotions all over the other party and losing all credibility. Not attractive, not productive. It leads to a lot of apologising and that old favourite, guilt.
I lost two important friendships recently from failure to respect boundaries and oversharing. I nearly lost a third by acting out in a period of self-pity and resentment. I have been working hard since then to develop a more responsible approach to handling my emotions and expressing my needs. This blog is a product of me starting to put into practice the self-help guidance I have picked up from various sources over the last few years and coming to some fundamental realisations regarding my behaviour and beliefs. Then last week happened.
the conflict between my urge to be approved of and my belief that it was reasonable to want to take care of myself appropriately created a surge of resentment and anger
Without going into too much detail, a close family member asked me to make good on a previous offer to do something but my response wasn’t deemed fast enough or enthusiastic enough and their feelings were hurt so badly by this that they decided they couldn’t speak to me for three days. I was texted at 08:30 out of the blue and couldn’t get to them before 10:00, taking into account the rush hour and the fact that I needed to eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, travel into town, etc. It was a reasonable turnaround but the other party didn’t think so. We had been texting and visiting several times a day prior to that but suddenly the other party didn’t want to talk to me at all because I didn’t comply with their expectations. No discussion, just a text saying “I don’t want to talk”. What followed was three days of silence from the other party and me experiencing a progression of shock, hurt, resentment, rage, despair and a deep sadness. I felt I had been punished for putting my basic self-care above the wants of my family member and I knew in my heart that it is normal and healthy to do so yet I was being treated as if I had done something wrong and hurtful. I felt judged and found wanting, rejected, abandoned, unloved. I am a grown woman in my mid-forties, I know I am good and caring and loved yet the conflict between my urge to be approved of and my belief that it was reasonable to want to take care of myself appropriately created a surge of resentment and anger straight out of my teenage years. I had an intense emotional reaction based on my belief that I was being perceived as selfish and uncaring, just as I had been labelled when I was a teenager, and I reacted as a teenager: with a hurt rage.
This is something that has happened time and again throughout my life; I act like a mature adult until I think someone disapproves of me, at which point I become anxious and resentful and either rebel against their judgement or “suck up” to them until I feel safe and approved of again. It’s a horribly precarious, anxious life, constantly being alert to other people’s moods and questioning whether I should do something and whether it might upset someone if I did. However, I am not a teenager any more and in the last year I have been working on my self-esteem and my values, and so I realised in that moment that I faced two options: I could apologise and allow that family member to continue to control my emotions and actions through their hurt feelings or I could honour my values, in this case the value that self-care comes first. I decided to stick to my guns and hold fast to my stance that I had done nothing wrong. I decided to give the other party their space and let them “sulk”, as I saw it. I vowed to get on with my life.
I was stuck in the emotion of the moment, I was being triggered by the old pattern of outside expectations and internal self-criticism
Unfortunately I didn’t get on with my life. I spent the next few days raging at the injustice, unable to accept the situation, stomach knotted and barely able to concentrate. As I have posted recently, I believe that acceptance is power and until we accept a situation we cannot move forward productively. Yet I couldn’t accept the silence and the “judgement”. I was stuck in the emotion of the moment, I was being triggered by the old pattern of outside expectations and internal self-criticism. Somewhere in my psyche I still believe I need approval and I still fear abandonment. I fear emotional pain and I don’t feel sufficiently confident in myself not to be hurt if someone doesn’t want my company. It took me days to realise that unless I confronted this head on there was no productive path for me out of the situation. I was going to either have to contact the other person or avoid them for the foreseeable future because because even knowing where the pain was coming from, it just wasn’t going to go away on its own.
Today, a week later, we spoke on the telephone and cleared the air. Apparently I was not judged to be insufficiently loving and the silence was not meant to be a punishment but rather the other party needing time to resolve their own admittedly unreasonable disappointment to my delay. It was a failure to communicate their reason for the silence that caused my anxiety and resentment. I admitted that I felt controlled by expectations and feelings. We both agreed to work on communicating our expectations and assumptions better.
As usual, we were both “right” and both “wrong” and I was reminded of some powerful truths that I thought it would be useful to share here:
Were we both being unreasonable? Probably. We were both hurt by each other’s assumptions and reactions. We didn’t communicate clearly. We let our feelings dictate our actions and we hurt each other and ourselves. Can we do better? Undoubtedly. I’m working on it and I am hopeful that the other party will too. You’re never too old to change. You can have a better, happier life. It all starts with you. After all, what have you got to lose?