There’s something uncomfortably glib about a word like “tricky” when applied to the panoply of family dynamics from the mild to the truly horrifying. For this article, let’s agree that tricky means what it means – a puzzle, complex but not overwhelming. If your family dynamics are genuinely overwhelming, this article may not be for you. Having said that, the tools I’m going to talk about can be used by most people in a vast array of relational settings.
A Little Bit About Development
Our internal emotional structure is formed primarily by what we experience and how we react to it. Without going into pages and pages about developmental milestones, suffice it to say our parents and how they treated us have an enormous impact on how we are formed. Most parents are emotionally damaged, and many have never gotten help for it.
Anything our parents haven’t processed and are not able to hold emotionally may be passed down to us. Sometimes parents are stuck at an early developmental state – think of a father who is also a drunk and a bully. A grown man who sneers and calls his child names has regressed to a younger self-state, possibly stuck there for his whole adult life.
We tend to pick up the behavior that is modeled for us, which is why children of abusers are more likely to become abusers. But we can pick up internal messages just by sitting next to our parents, because we are limbically connected – that sense of “making a connection” – to our loved ones (and pets, though most of those subliminal messages are pretty benign).
The way we survive the traumas of early childhood is with defensive mechanisms. These are instinctive tools like denial (the ship is sinking, but we’re going to be fine), repression (stuffing emotional pain/painful thoughts so we don’t experience them), projection (ascribing my negative emotions to someone else), rationalization (dad hits me all the time, but I’m sure he loves me), and others.
When we run into someone else’s defensive structures, know they have been there for a long time and are usually held firm, which is why trying to change the other person is usually a lost cause. Once we know change is needed, all we can do is change ourselves, and hope they can figure out how to do the same so we can stay in the relationship.
What’s Mine Is Mine
One of the things that happen when parents have developmental deficits, is that they use their children to make themselves feel better. This happens in countless ways – telling their children how to feel, sharing too much (emotional confidante), not listening to or answering their questions, putting them down, building them up in fawning, unhelpful ways, every manner of over and under-valuing.
A parent who behaves in these ways is violating a child’s boundaries. The fact is, you get to have your feelings. Moreover, you are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings. Please hear that again. You. Are not. Responsible. For. Anyone Else’s Feelings.
The phrase, “You make me mad!” is a misstatement. It would be more correct, and honoring of boundaries, to say, “When you said that, I felt angry.” I have an anger response, my anger response, to something you said or did. My anger, my responsibility. But how can that be? Doesn’t the other person owe me an apology?
The other person doesn’t “owe” you anything. If the other person wants to repair and continue the relationship, there better be an apology, but you are not owed it. I may stay angry until I get one, or I may be able to forgive without one, it all depends on how well I’m structured emotionally.
So much of our language around these kinds of interactions perpetuates violations of boundaries. If I say, “I’m angry” and you say “No, you’re not” you are on my side of the street, telling me how to feel. If you say “I’m upset” and I think “I need to fix it” I’m on your side of the street, trying to manage your feelings.
We have to learn to stay on our own side of the street and not try to control or be responsible for someone else’s feelings. If we can’t tolerate a loved one being angry with us, we will violate their boundaries in order to feel better.
We all go in and out of regressed (younger) states. Someone cuts me off on the highway and I want to take out my rocket launcher. Emotionally, I have a 14-year-old driving my bus. My wife upsets me, and I escalate into anger and name-calling. Emotionally, I’ve got a six-year-old or four-year-old driving my bus.
Someone hurts my feelings at choir practice, and I want to leave and never come back. Take my ball and go home, just like a seven-year-old. A capable adult can hold when upset. A capable adult does not return fury for fury, insult for insult. In a capable adult position, I try to be aware of my emotional state, bring it into conversation, prevent escalation, and be curious about what is going on inside the other person.
Our escalated feelings and what comes (or wants to come) out of our mouths is our best data, our best warning sign that we are regressed. At the first sign of regression, if I notice it, I might be able to stop it and have an adult conversation. When we are regressed, the only winning move is not to play, at least until we grow ourselves back up.
And Now The Tools
Framing conversations: When we are upset, the first thing we usually forget is that the person on the other end of our conversation is a person, with feelings, and emotional state, and their emotional structure. All we know is they “made me mad.” All that it takes to frame a conversation is asking permission. “Is this a good time to talk about something that might be upsetting?”
This gives the other person a chance to take stock. If they say “no” then ask them to schedule a time for the conversation. If someone is already in an escalated state nothing of value is going to come from a difficult conversation. “Can I tell you how that landed on me?” is another good one.
Pause to reflect: When someone says something distressing, stop to notice it. This can feel like a huge effort if we’re used to flying off the handle. You’ve probably heard the idea “when you’re angry, take a deep breath and count to ten” – I would say take a deep breath in through your nose and blow it out, before trying to respond. If you simply react, you will escalate into an argument. Pause, so you can respond.
Bring emotions into the conversation: When you pause to reflect and notice an emotion, you can name it. “Wow, when you said you forgot about my birthday, what I made up about it is you don’t really care about me, and I felt sad.”
This is a great structure for bringing emotion into the conversation:
“When you said (or did) __________”
“What I made up about it is _________”
“And I felt _________”
Once you bring your emotion into the conversation, it’s up to the other person to decide how to respond or react.
Setting boundaries: This is usually just about having the courage to say no to someone who’s words or behavior is hurting us. “Mom, I feel like you’ve been doing that my whole life and I want it to stop.” “Dad, if you ever say that to my son again, we won’t be coming back here.”
Most people will not stop their damaging words or behavior unless we stop them. If we have been under the person’s thumb since childhood, this courage can be hard to find without the help of a therapist.
Asking for needs, being able to hear “no”: Often, we do not have because we do not ask. If I don’t ask someone for what I need, it means either I am afraid (of not getting it, or damaging the relationship), or believe I don’t deserve it.
This leaves it to the other person to somehow guess what I need. Eye rolls and sighs are don’t cut it. We have to ask. And be able to hear “no.” If we can’t hear no, we are violating their boundaries. If they hear us and refuse us, it is up to us to decide what we want to do about that.
Parenting yourself: This is often difficult work that one can undertake with a therapist. There are various methodologies, but the basic idea is that whatever we did not get from our parents we can give to ourselves. That is, my capable adult part can be a parent to my wounded child part, and gradually bring healing to those deep wounds.
Complicated (tricky) relationship issues are best resolved with the help of a mental health professional, but whatever stage you are at in your relationships, the tools above can help you hold onto a capable adult position, and stay on your side of the street emotionally, owning only what is yours. This lays the groundwork for us to stand our ground and healthily advocate for ourselves in relationship.
“Family Stroll”, Courtesy of Jessica Rockowitz, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Cooks in the Kitchen”, Courtesy of Becca Tapert, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Ergli Campfire”, Courtesy of Daiga Ellaby, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Family on the Beach”, Courtesy of Megan Leong, Unsplash.com, CC0 License