When someone close to you is unhappy, unreasonable or out of sorts, what happens? Do you immediately wonder what you’ve done or feel some level of obligation to ‘fix’ it?
An easy thought trap to fall into is, This person’s unhappy. It must be about something I’ve said or done or the way that I am. It’s got to be my fault. That’s why they’re mistreating me or miserable (or whatever). That’s why they don’t want what I want. Hence, if I want to feel better and change how they feel, I need to do my best to please them. I need to work out what they need, want and expect, and then become that.
Erm, no, you don’t!
Someone doesn’t have a right to treat you without, at its most basic, care, trust and respect, just because they don’t like you or are annoyed by something that you’ve done. Given that humans are contrary creatures who like and dislike people for what can be pretty absurd reasons at times, it’s dangerous to use other people’s feelings about you, real or projected, to guide how your behaviour, choices or feelings about yourself.
Similarly, though, just because someone is unhappy, unreasonable or out of sorts in your proximity, that doesn’t mean that you caused it or that you bear the responsibility to fix it.
OK, Natalie, you might think. But what about if I have pissed them off. What then?
What we piss people off with and what we’re responsible for can be vastly different.
Some people will get mad at you for breathing, for being the ‘wrong’ kind of person, for not meeting their needs and wants in an unreasonable way. Sometimes, you won’t even know what you’ve done; you just know you’ve done something. You’re walking on eggshells with them while frantically flicking through your mental Rolodex of possible transgressions. You make yourself ‘guilty’ of something, not because you are, but to build a case around the ‘evidence’ of their mood or behaviour.
Of course, in healthier relationships, you won’t have to wring yourself out emotionally to navigate the other person’s moods. Sure, you might experience anxiety around their unhappiness, but you also have the scope to broach what might be an awkward but necessary discussion around it. If you have pissed them off, you will tend to know why and they won’t be unreasonable about it, including dragging it on or watching you suffer as you try to figure it out or get back on side. You can make amends, broach discussions, aim to restore and repair. The anxiety gradually recedes.
It’s incredibly useful to ask where you learned to associate other people’s feelings with your actions and worthiness.
Where did you learn to read tension or unhappiness and experience anxiety about an imagined or exaggerated misstep?
When your default reasoning is to assume you’ve done something or that you’re responsible for other people’s moods and behaviour, you learned that.
Asking the question, Where did I learn to be this way? helps you to compassionately acknowledge what gets set off in your inner world by what you perceive as negative shifts in other people’s feelings and behaviour.
You might recognise the parallels between the current situation and person and childhood ones. Maybe they’re very similar to a parent or caregiver. Or, you might recognise anxiety patterns such as people pleasing, perfectionism and over-responsibility. The latter patterns will show up, not necessarily because you are responsible for something or in danger but because you’re overattuned to other people’s seeming needs, desires, expectations, feelings and opinions.
Consciously differentiating between the past and the present is a game-changer. You recognise that you’re not that kid anymore and that you don’t have to continue feeling this way. Teaching you that you don’t own other people’s feelings and behaviour and that you don’t have to pussyfoot can also help you to recognise, not just your boundaries, but unsafe people. In doing so, you become a safe person for yourself.