“It is not your responsibility to figure out what someone else is feeling and why. Let go of the illusion that ‘fixing’ their bad mood will make you feel better.” ~Sarah Crosby
Some years ago, I was talking to my husband on the phone. He sounded annoyed about something to do with his work, but I noticed an intense emotional reaction in myself. Immediately, my heart contracted and my stomach lurched. I could feel a runaway train of emotions activate within me.
My whole body was awash with nausea, and I felt so very uncomfortable.
This was a familiar and old pattern for me. My husband had some feelings and expressed them, and I felt totally overwhelmed by them. It then created a loop of reactivity where he would say something in this annoyance, I would respond with fear that he was annoyed, and it would all become a big mess of emotions being thrown all over the place.
But what felt worse than that moment, when I experienced his feelings as though they were the end of the world, is what came after. I would sink into a familiar space of despair about my husband and how he was feeling. I would try and think of ways to fix the situation, or feel aggrieved by how he’d reacted.
This response is something that I experienced not just with my husband, but with most people in my life to a greater or lesser degree. My real or imagined noticing of someone having feelings, and how horrible that felt for me, in my body.
It was totally instinctive, that someone would seem upset and I would jump in and try to fix, reassure, help, or soothe. And in that process, I would totally subjugate my needs and feelings because of how much I didn’t like how it felt to be around people and their emotions.
Sometimes it would feel that people close to me were trying to upset me with their emotions on purpose. When a family member got angry it would totally overwhelm me, and I would end up resenting them for days or weeks. It felt like they were punishing me with their anger.
When my kids felt disappointment or sadness, I found it unbearable to see them feeling so bad, and I would endeavor to help them by changing their plans, getting them a cookie, or trying to talk them out of how they were feeling.
The problem here is that, of course, when we are human beings around other human beings, we are going to encounter people having feelings—about us or themselves, or anything else we humans have feelings about.
When we find other people’s feelings challenging, we aren’t giving them the space they need to have feelings. There is an element of Your feelings are making me uncomfortable! Can you please shut them down because I don’t like them.
Which is understandable when we don’t know how to deal with our own emotions. If we don’t feel okay around our feelings, of course we struggle with other people’s.
So how do we learn how to not get intertwined with other people and their emotions? How do we stop having such intense reactions to people having feelings, regardless of what they are about?
How can we stop letting other people’s emotional responses completely distract us, and throw us off our day—consuming vast amounts of time and activating intensely uncomfortable feelings of our own?
For me, the first step was learning how to identify what was happening. I felt like other people’s feelings were happening to me, but really, they were having feelings and I was having feelings.
My feelings are separate from your feelings.
One of the reasons why it feels that we get so intertwined and things get so messy in relationships is that we don’t recognize that we all have separate feelings. In so many relationships we don’t give each other space to have feelings, because of the patterns of how we respond to emotions.
We often think it’s like this:
Stop being scared! It’s making me scared!
Stop being irritable! It’s making me anxious!
But really no one is making us have feelings. Our emotions arise on their own, as do someone else’s. But we can learn how to stop reacting to their emotions as our own.
If we can see Oh, I am having my own feelings here! we can then use this awareness to create some space and start to pay attention to ourselves and our emotions instead.
Recognize that no one is having feelings on purpose.
Once I had been coaching for a few years and had radically changed how I worked with both my own emotions and how I responded to those of the other people around me, I asked my husband what he loved the most about my work. He said that now he no longer feels tortured by my feelings. And I thought, Wow! That is so fascinating.
I was so used to feeling overwhelmed by his feelings that I never considered that he was feeling the same way.
Because my emotional reactions are so different from his, it didn’t occur to me that he was also uncomfortable around my feelings. And it’s the difference in our responses that can provide so much confusion in relationships.
My go-to strategy when overwhelmed by my husband’s emotions was to chase him down and try to discuss and fix everything straight away. His strategy was to try to disconnect from me and run away.
Essentially, we both felt challenged by the other’s emotions, and by working to create some space to support ourselves in our own emotions, we created such a big shift in how we now respond to each other.
People can’t be truly empathetic when they are emotionally activated.
What I now know about emotions is that we can’t truly access empathy when we are emotionally activated, so if I am with someone who is having feelings, I don’t expect empathy and understanding from them.
In order to gain full access to our empathy, we need to move through the emotions, so part of working with other people is letting them move through the anger/fear/sadness or whatever it is they are feeling.
I don’t engage them in things I am not happy about or talk about their behavior or what they’ve said—until after they have moved through that feeling.
When we feel any emotion, we see the whole world through the lens of that emotion. Anger sees upsetting things everywhere. Fear sees scary things everywhere. So it doesn’t benefit us to get too involved in what someone might say when they are in the thick of emotional activation.
Knowing this helps us work on not reacting to what they are saying, doing, or feeling.
Feelings activate feelings.
If we are feeling super calm and someone comes along and is expressing a lot of anger, it can easily activate our own feelings. That’s natural. Maybe we feel fear around anger, or maybe we feel anger at their anger. It’s natural for our feelings to activate around others.
With all emotions, we want to work on supporting ourselves through emotional activation. When we can do this, when we can sit with ourselves and provide support, we can move through the emotions with more ease and confidence, and not get stuck in the loop of that emotion.
By noticing and naming your experience, you are offering yourself some support.
We can say to ourselves, The best thing I can do right now is support myself in feeling my feelings, and not engage in their feelings.
We can acknowledge how challenging this is for us. We can offer ourselves the gift of understanding, and that can help us move with the discomfort of the emotions that have activated.
Offer yourself some empathy, understanding, and validation.
Empathy is a very powerful resource when we are in the thick of emotions. Giving ourselves some tender, kind, loving support is a real gift to ourselves when we feel activated.
Maybe we say to ourselves:
This is hard for me because…
I understand why this is so challenging.
It makes sense that this is tough for me since…
It’s hard seeing someone feel so disappointed or angry. It’s hard to hold these feelings.
If it feels good, offer yourself some physical support.
Put your hand on your heart, or stroke your arms, giving yourself a hug, while you stay with yourself in this experience of sitting with your feelings.
Of course, this isn’t always easy! When we have spent a lifetime responding to people’s emotions in a certain way, it takes some effort and focus to start responding differently.
Other people’s emotional activations are some of the hardest things we deal with, but with awareness and intention, we can learn to see these experiences differently, and then learn to respond differently.
Now when I hear disappointment or irritation from my husband, or sadness or despair from my kids, or anger or shame from my family, I can recognize that these are their feelings! I don’t need to jump into their pool of emotions and get immersed in their experiences.
I can instead stand back and support myself, which in turn supports them because I am not adding to the emotional load they are experiencing.
I can help by being responsible for my feelings so we aren’t creating a big chaotic mix of messy emotions.
This is how anyone can create some space and peace in the emotional experiences around them.