Certainly there are situations in which it is important to protect yourself emotionally. At the same time, there are many every day situations in which the threat is only to our egos and our need to see ourselves in a certain way or to be right.
When we feel emotionally threatened by statements made by close friends, partners, or even people we’ve just met, we tend to automatically act to protect ourselves, usually with painful results.
We don’t like to be vulnerable, to risk being hurt or risk more hurt. We may become angry, leave the conversation and maybe the relationship, avoid the person, or numb ourselves in some way.
Maybe we pull deeper into ourselves and put on the mask of politeness. We stop listening with openness. We no longer accept the other person’s ideas. We no longer communicate mindfully. We stop showing gratitude or appreciation for the relationship. We’re in self-defense mode and want to protect ourselves. We focus on ourselves and what we need and want and how we see the situation.
Most of the time these defensive actions harm our relationships, and can even destroy them.
When we feel emotionally vulnerable and scared, we are likely to shift our goal from what is good for the relationship to what is good for us. Instead of looking for the truth in the other person’s viewpoint, we may judge the other person. We turn the other person into an object of sorts, and perhaps stop any true connection from happening.
In most interactions, we shut down and lose close relationships and intimacy because of our fear. That fear may be the fear of rejection or not being good enough or of being wrong. Sometimes we can get invested in being right to the point we sacrifice relationships rather than “give in.”
In her book, “The Five Keys to Mindful Communication,” Susan Gillis Chapman suggests that being mindful of the “we” instead of the “me” (or the “you” for that matter) can lead to stronger relationships. Being mindful of the “we” means to consider the views and needs of all people in the relationship rather than just one. She offers three suggestions for conversations with others.
The first suggestion is to have the intention of “we” focused relationships. This means being open and available to the views and needs of others and respecting the relationship regardless of the ups and downs of communication. This means giving up many of the fears we have and focusing on the needs of the relationship rather than protecting ourselves. It means seeing how we are all connected, even though we have our differences.
The second suggestion is to stop harmful communication. Using mindfulness, be aware of your ways of protecting yourself that damage your relationships and learn to use different behaviors. Using mindfulness to pause so you can remember your intention to value the “we” could be helpful. You could also use mindfulness to stop communication until you are back in the place where you can see the “we” in relationships and not act destructively to protect yourself.
The third suggestion is to be mindful of when your fears arise and refrain from actions that elevate those fears. Accepting that you are afraid without making those fears be about the other person can change the way you communicate. Notice the thoughts you have that feed your fear and lead to greater defensiveness on your part. Shift your thoughts to what is good for the “we” and let go of focusing on the “me” and what the “me” needs. This is not about always giving in to the other person. That would not be good for the “we” either. The “we” means what is good for the relationship and all the people in the relationship.
Chapman, Susan Gillis. The Five Keys to Mindful Communication: Using Deep Listening and Mindful Speech to Strengthen Relationships, Heal Conflicts and Acceomplish Your Goals. Boston: Shambhala, 2012.
Note to Readers: Healing Hearts of Families is a Houston conference for those with borderline personality disorder and their families and friends. Please join us on November 10 for informative presentations by experts in the field.
My sincere thanks to everyone who has completed our second survey. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the survey questions about being emotionally sensitive.