The repairman came to fix the refrigerator. I offered him a glass of water, asked him questions, and soon we were chatting about his family. While we talked, I wondered a little anxiously when he would start working on my refrigerator, but I kept talking.
How long had he lived in the city? He owned a dog? Finally he checked out the fridge, but it was too late to get the needed part. He left looking happy but I wondered if my fridge might have been fixed if I’d been less talkative.
When we enter into interpersonal interactions (note this is interactions not just friendships), it’s helpful to remember what our objective is. According to Dr. Linehan, there are three main goals of interactions: relationship effectiveness, objective effectiveness, and self-respect effectiveness.
My objective with the repairman was to accomplish a task, but I didn’t even think about that. At the time I never thought about the objective of any interaction, so I reacted in my habitual way, which was to focus on the relationship. In truth he was a nice man, but I wasn’t really trying to establish a relationship, though I behaved as if that was the purpose of his being at my house. When he left I was frustrated. I’d focused on the wrong objective; if fact, an objective I didn’t even have.
For a long time, relationship effectiveness was my primary goal for every interaction. I didn’t think about or choose it, it was just my nature. That’s true for many emotionally sensitive people. Self-respect and accomplishing tasks almost never get top priority and that means sometimes you’ll feel pretty rotten about yourself and lots of important tasks simply won’t get done.
Becoming aware of your objectives when interacting with others can help improve your effectiveness in accomplishing the intention you have for the interaction.
Focusing on your intention doesn’t mean you are rude or unkind, just that you keep your purpose in mind and act effectively to meet that purpose. Maybe you want to maintain your self-respect. Maybe getting a task done is your priority. Or maybe you want to build or protect a relationship.
Many times you cannot accomplish a task, maintain self-respect and build a relationship in the same interaction. So if you’re not clear about what your main task is, you’ll feel like a failure because you don’t accomplish all of the three. We’re most satisfied when all three are accomplished, but that’s just not reality for every interaction. If you focus on what your priorities are, you’ll have a guide for how to proceed. You’ll behave differently if self-respect is your top priority than if your main goal is to protect the relationship or to accomplish a task.
For example, imagine you called your cell phone provider about a mistake in your bill and you get the bill changed but the representative seemed frustrated with you. You feel guilty about her reaction and question the firm, persistent way you talked with her. If you remember that you’re not trying to be friends with the representative of the cell phone company, that you were polite but firm in a business transaction, you may view your interaction differently than if you focus on how the representative felt about you.
Being aware that your main goal was objective effectiveness may help you judge your success more positively.
One of the most difficult situations is when you are sacrificing your self-respect on a regular basis in order to maintain a relationship. Emotionally sensitive people are loyal and don’t want to lose friends or romantic partners. The cost of repeatedly saving the relationship at the cost of your self-respect is high. If you cannot change that situation, then that could be a strong indicator that it is time to let the relationship go.
Making a choice about your priorities in interactions helps you clarify how you want to approach various interactions. For certain people you may be willing to occasionally sacrifice self-respect and may frequently be willing to give up accomplishing a task to maintain those important, valued relationships. Some tasks may be so important that you must risk a relationship.
As you go through your day, think about the purpose of the various interactions that you have. Consider whether you are accomplishing your objectives. Does your behavior match your priority in the interaction? You may find that you’ve been approaching all interactions without thinking of what your objective is. You are likely to be more satisfied and effective if you clarify that for yourself.
Note to readers: Please consider taking our survey to help us learn more about emotionally sensitive people. Your responses are anonymous and we’ll discuss the results in upcoming posts.
Linehan, M. Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: New Guilford, 1993.
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Last reviewed: 2 Mar 2012