The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. ~Carl Gustav Jung
I no longer believed in the idea of soul mates, or love at first sight. But I was beginning to believe that a very few times in your life, if you were lucky, you might meet someone who was exactly right for you. Not because he was perfect, or because you were, but because your combined flaws were arranged in a way that allowed two separate beings to hinge together. ~Lisa Kleypas, Blue-Eyed Devil
We all deal with stress and our emotions differently. Some of us need to hide away and process in solitude, others of us need to talk things out (and then talk them out some more), some of us need to write things out to get clear, and many, but not all of us, need some combination of these.
When we are in relationship, be that friendships or sexually intimate relationships, we tend to want the other person to process things in the same ways we do. It can be confusing in the least, and jarring and anxiety provoking towards the other end of the spectrum, when they don’t.
So what do we do, when in relationship, our own anxiety (and therefore attachment needs, sense of worth, etc) is activated because a person we care about is managing their own stress and emotions in a way that is not our way, or not in a way we are familiar with?
Well, if you are like me, we initially freak the fuck out. 🙂
This especially can show up when one person in the relationship has a more anxious attachment style and the other person in the relationship has a more avoidant attachment style. But it doesn’t have to be about attachment styles. It can also be about personality types.
Introverts tend to need solitude to process. Extroverts tend to need their village to process.
Of course these are all general statements. Each of us are unique individuals, with unique histories and ways of doing things. Yes, there is overlap, yes many of us experience similar things; and we are also all still unique.
This includes our ways of dealing with stress and highly emotional situations.
When we see our loved ones are in pain of some sort, be that stress or emotional distress, our initial instinct tends to be to fix it, to make them feel better, to do whatever we can to make the hurting stop.
On the surface this is about our love of the other person and not wanting them to be in distress.
However, if we go a little deeper, this manic need to stop the other person from feeling bad is more about our own inability to tolerate difficult or painful emotions. So, when another is in distress, it raises our own uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and so in order for us to feel better, we need to make the other person stop feeling bad. Now. If not sooner.
But others get to feel their feelings and process them in the ways that work for them just as we also get to feel our feelings and process them in the ways that work for us.
So what do we do with that anxiety, with those uncomfortable feelings of seeing someone we care about in pain? How do we manage our own discomfort without trying to force the other person to change?
Well if I had an easy five step program for this I bet I could make my millions and retire in the next few years.
A truth is, there is no easy way to learn how to manage our own feelings of anxiety and discomfort. It takes time, it takes actually sitting in our own discomfort and learning how to tolerate it, first in tiny bits, and with practice more and more.
Coming into our bodies is part of this process. Learning to feel all the sensations that our bodies express when anxious can give us the clues we need to signal that we need to regulate our own systems in that moment, to take a moment, to slow down and breathe. To bring our frontal lobe online and not allow our limbic system hijack things and put us in instinctual reactionary mode. To allow ourselves to consciously and intentionally think through what is happening in our bodies and why it is happening.
I know for me, my immediate response to situations where another person is processing in their own ways that are anxiety provoking for me is to flee. To walk away. To shut down. And then I jump into fight mode. And then I go on a pendulum ride back and forth between wanting to bolt and run far, far, away and wanting to pick a huge fight just to get the other person present with me, regardless how that “presence” shows up. I want to take action. I want to either fix it or completely break it.
At least that is my immediate, primal, wounded response.
Thankfully, over the last few years I have been learning to slow down. To breathe. To check-in with myself and my own defense mechanisms and how to self-regulate and self-correct so that I don’t turn an already stressful time for the other person into an even more stressful time by freaking the fuck out all over them.
Am I perfect at this? Hell no. It is a practice and it is ever evolving. And I can see the progress from where I was five years ago, one year ago, six months ago.
Remembering that those we love have their own ways of doing things, and that as long as they aren’t causing physical harm to anyone or lashing out and causing emotional or psychological harm to anyone, then they get to just do things in the ways that work for them, regardless of what it may or may not trigger within us.
Our work is in managing our own anxiety in these situations. Of course we can let the other person know we are there if they need/want our support (assuming we can actually hold the space for their own pain and not have that activating us to the point of trying to fix things). Of course we can check in every few hours or days or whatever is appropriate and simply say “thinking of you” or “I know things are rough right now, just want you to know you are on my mind/I’m here/etc”.
And in those in-between spaces of our reaching out and them responding in some way (and remember silence is actually a response), we need to find the ways that work for us to manage our own stress and anxiety around our loved one’s discomfort and what it has brought up for us.
This essay was originally published in my newsletter on June 16, 2019 and edited for publication here. If you’d like to receive my weekly(ish) newsletter with my most current essays and offerings, you can do so here.