Having friendships and/or family members you feel close to is often a primary part of living the life you want to live and is one of your biggest challenges. Interactions with others are often the most emotional experiences you have, both in rewarding and painful ways. If relationships are part of your life worth living, determining how to make this work for you will be important.
Keep Your Priorities in Mind
Relationships are naturally full of ups and downs. There are so many times you will have urges to break off a relationship and to never speak to a person again. In many cases though, that’s using avoidance and/or abandonment as a way of responding to a problem. You avoid the immediate pain of hurt and vulnerability but in the long run your relationship is damaged.
Emotionally sensitive people experience more intense emotions that are more easily aroused and that last longer than those who are not emotionally sensitive. You react faster with greater emotional intensity that lasts longer. Your emotional reactions can be triggered by television shows, magazine articles, places that trigger memories, anniversaries and other events. Interpersonal issues are one of the most challenging areas for you.
With a strong fear and sensitivity to rejection, even routine events such as a friend canceling lunch plans can bring on a tornado of emotions that are difficult to manage. With this difficulty in relationships, so much of life becomes stressful, such as attending classes, dating, participating in friendships, interacting in group activities, having roommates, and working with others. Some of you withdraw and become isolated as a way of avoiding the pain of relationships. Others experience anguish and suffering on a regular basis with little relief. Working on interpersonal skills and ways to manage emotions in relationships can help you reduce the suffering you experience on a daily basis. Improving your interpersonal resiliency and skills is complicated. Four options for getting started (based on the work of Marsha Linehan, 1993) include the following:
Validation is the acknowledgement of your own or someone else’s inner experience (feelings, thoughts, urges) and behaviors as understandable. Validation helps you improve communication with those you love. When you validate others, you create a safe context for them to express their fears, worries, and issues that make them uncomfortable. When you have open, accurate communication, then you can problem solve.
John comes home from work and his wife Amy meets him at the door holding the credit card bill. She has an angry look on her face. In a loud voice she says, “You know we are trying to cut the credit card bill. We agreed to discuss any charges. It’s not even two weeks later and you’ve already broken that promise. How dare you! How can I ever trust you?”
How will John respond? Of course he will say something like, “You are always on my case. I can’t do anything right. You’re the reason we’re in this credit card mess anyway, so don’t go blaming me.” Communication then becomes an argument. John responded to his wife’s anger with his own anger. While that is understandable and natural, it doesn’t help either of them have a helpful discussion.
John’s first emotional reaction to his wife’s upset was likely one of shame or guilt, because he had broken their agreement not to use the credit card. Instead of expressing his guilt, he defends himself with anger. That makes him less vulnerable, and it also makes effective communication more difficult. If he had accurately expressed his feelings, John might have said, “Oh, honey, you are right. I can understand how you would be so hurt. I did use the credit card and then I felt guilty about it. I meant to tell you and I kept putting it off.” That would be a more accurate expression of his thoughts and emotions. In turn, Amy would likely …
Radical Acceptance means completely and totally accepting something from the depths of your soul, with your heart, your mind, and body. You stop fighting reality. When you stop fighting reality you suffer less. That means you don’t feel hot anger in your stomach whenever you see the person who got the promotion you deserved and you don’t seethe with resentment when you see your best friend who is now dating your boyfriend. You accept that what is, is. You learn and you go forward. Radical acceptance is easier to understand than it is to practice. There are many obstacles to giving up the suffering of resentments and anger, particularly for emotionally sensitive people.
1. But I don’t want to let them off the hook. Holding on to your anger can seem like you are punishing the offending person, whoever did a wrong to you. As long as you are angry then they aren’t getting away with whatever they did to harm you. Your anger serves as a marker, a memorial almost, of their actions. If you let go and radically accept then it is like it never happened and you don’t want it to be that easy. When your feelings are deep and intense, you want the other person to understand they hurt they have caused. Plus your resentment is pretty intense too and difficult to manage.
That sounds good. The problem is that it doesn’t really work that way. When someone has treated you unfairly, he either knows it or doesn’t know it. If he recognizes his actions were unkind, then your anger serves only to distract from his facing his own failings and guilt. If he doesn’t recognize his unkindness (or worse), then your anger changes nothing. Your anger will not teach another person …
Many emotionally sensitive people seem to dislike and even hate themselves. The reasons vary but seem to fall into certain categories: self-blame, negative self-attribution, believing myths, not living values, treating yourself as if you don’t matter and experiencing emotional pain.
Many people look for someone to blame when things go wrong and bad things happen. If you burn yourself by spilling a cup of hot coffee, then someone made the coffee too hot or jostled your arm. If you don’t finish school, it’s because your teachers didn’t encourage you.
We all have different ways of viewing the world. Some may have a strong sense of smell and their experiences are filtered through aromas and scents. Others may be particularly visual and react primarily to what they see. A bed of flowers elicits calmness while disarray in the home triggers anxiety. The senses of touch, taste, and hearing can also be ways of connecting to the world and affect your experience of events, people, and situations.
In addition to the senses, your worldview is influenced by the balance between your thoughts and emotions. Many people will look at a puppy and feel love for the puppy. For some, that love will dominate and they will be filled with longing to take the puppy home. They may do so even though they have no room for another pet. Others may smile and appreciate the puppy, but think of the time and money it takes to care for an animal.
In his book, Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence and Purpose in The Middle of It All, Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D. writes about applying mindfulness to your daily life experiences. His book is divided into sections about where you might practice mindfulness, such as “At Home,” “At Play,” and “At Work.”
Emotionally sensitive people often find noise, crowds, strangers, lack of space or privacy, and clutter dysregulating. Yet all these experiences are often part of life, particularly in an urban area. Turning to mindfulness may not seem natural as a way to cope in these situations. Kaplan’s book offers ways to apply mindfulness to everyday life.
If you are working on developing new coping skills, you may find that understanding the skills and how they work is much easier than actually using the skills. You may be able to tell someone else about the skill, write out the steps involved, and answer questions about it but find you do not use it in your life. You may find that you keep going back to familiar ways of dealing with emotions and stress, even when those old ways are not good for you in the long run.
Jessica has a great memory for details and enjoyed sharing adventures with her husband. She was shocked when he asked for a divorce–she had no idea how unhappy he was. Only after he filed the papers did she understand that there was no big event that changed their relationship, but a series of small episodes. For example, when out with friends, her husband enjoyed sharing stories about the trips he and Jessica had taken. Jessica often corrected the small mistakes he made and she was usually right. When he complained, she explained she was just helping him get it right. She didn’t see that as a problem.
One day in second grade I raised my hand to read aloud certain paragraphs of a story. I loved to read. I skimmed ahead and found a dramatic section that would allow for varying voice tones. The teacher selected a different section for me to read. I protested that I wanted to read the section I had chosen. She skipped me and I didn’t get to read at all. I was being willful.
We may think of willful behavior as typical of children. Picture the child in the store who is having a temper tantrum, refusing to leave without a wanted toy. That is willfulness. Another example would be when a young child is chosen by a team he didn’t want to play on. Going home or sitting by the sidelines refusing to play was most likely not effective behavior. It probably didn’t solve the problem and in addition he didn’t get to play a game he enjoyed. Even the child who doesn’t want the bubbles he blew to float away is showing willfulness. While we tend to think of children exhibiting such behaviors, adults can be just as willful.