When I was 37, with middleschool children at home, I went to graduate school to study counseling. If you had met me then you would have seen a perfectionistic, seemingly happy young women. But in reality, I hid a lot of shame and massive amounts of unprocessed trauma. I was a walking shame bomb covered in a robe of perfectionism. My life seemed full of drama back then and I was always reacting to people’s perceptions of me.
Around that same time something happened that I will never forget. I was a people-pleaser selling scrapbook supplies from my home. I had spent months helping a customer who was dying of cancer. I gave her hundreds of dollars of album supplies. And rather than working on my own albums at weekend retreats, I spent my time making sure her family would have albums after she was gone. I also spent several days “babysitting” her while her husband worked. Many of my customers had gotten to know and care for her in the process. When she finally died, I sent an email asking my customers to keep her husband in their prayers. My big mistake was forgetting to remove her email address from my group email list. Her hurting husband got the email, and decided to project his pain onto me. “SHE WANTED PEOPLE TOLD IN HER OWN WAY!” His full-page-all-caps email screamed at me. Unfortunately, he didn’t know my customers to tell them of her passing.
I was so devastated by his reaction that I deleted all my email addresses and shut my computer down, vowing to never send an email again. “I’m such an idiot. I’m so awful,” I said to myself and sent him a note of apology. It’s clear to me now how much value I gave to another’s opinion of me and attached it like Velcro in a destructive manner. I gave more credence to what someone said about me than the truth. What I should have done was considered if I had done something wrong, examined all I had done to help my friend and her family, realized he was hurting, and ultimately negated what he said about me.
About that time, a teacher taught me one of the most helpful phrases I’ve ever learned: “What is this person telling you about himself?” The teacher said all our actions and words are a reflection of our past experiences. They are evidence of the lens through which we see the world. When people blow up or over-react, it usually isn’t about what we did wrong but about how bad the other person is hurting, or about what dots they are connecting from their own histories.
For this blogpost I wanted to write about what happens in the space between something happening and our response. I call this a buffer zone. In many ways our brains and bodies are wired to respond instantaneously rather than react in a healthy way. This is a protective (Think about how quickly your hand pulls away from a hot stove). However this response mechanism does not always serve us well.
The way you see the world is informed by your own past experiences, expectations, motivations, beliefs, culture, and emotions. We subconsciously or consciously scan our worlds and confirm our beliefs when we see it happen. The term psychologists use is Perceptual Set. This can impact how we interpret and respond to the world around us. For example, we might walk into a classroom for the first time and say to ourselves, “No one is going to talk to me.” We may hang our head, sit in the back of the room, and as leave and say to ourselves, “See nobody even said hello.”
Because we lead busy lives we take mental shortcuts where we put people into categories. These mental shortcuts are called cognitive heuristics. Here’s a quick example: Jim drinks a lot of beer and spends many hours reading sports magazines. Is he more likely a member of a fraternity house or a nature club? All else being equal, most people would guess the fraternity. So we do this thing where we make quick decisions. We put people into categories, we fill in the blanks, we see the world in terms of good and bad, black or white, all or nothing.
Every person, including you, is a combination of their thoughts, emotions, and histories. We each carry a lifetime of joys and sufferings. Most times it works out, but every so often my stuff bumps into your stuff, or yours into mine. Some of us have endured more trauma than others, and that can make us extra prickly and reactive. Let me share an example. One time I emailed a mentor and he didn’t respond right away. I filled in the blank spaces by saying, “Oh great, now he’s irritated because I emailed him. Well forget him.” I sent him an angry email. I wanted to shut him out before he had a chance to shut me out. I did this because I had a history of losing the people I felt closest to. A few days went by and I had a novel thought: “What if he was busy? And what if I told him what I was making up a scenario about him being mad at me?” Since I had nothing to lose, I sent the letter explaining my interpretations. As I recall he sent back an email that said he was sorry he had come across as standoffish and that he had never meant for that to happen. We re-engaged and I attribute him as being the person who helped me heal from the deepest emotional wounds of my life.
Humans can act like metaphoric porcupines poking and being poked by others. Or we can use the metaphor of bubble wrap as the coping strategies that give us time and space to choose more helpful responses. The more we back off and see a bigger picture, the more we stop allowing others to direct our emotional reactions.
Below I offer some strategies for interacting with others so that you have emotional space, or bubble wrap, as you move throughout your day:
Bubble Wrap Strategy #1 – Vulnerability. I told you how I was a perfectionist. It was my wall of armor that kept me from getting hurt by others. But perfection is a lonely place. Even if you were perfect no one could relate to you because nobody else has it all together. In one of my counseling courses I learned the term Universality. I learned if one person shared something vulnerable in a group that person automatically became the most popular member. That’s because we all have junk in our lives, so we consider that person to be brave. She risked telling her not-so-perfect story with others. People are drawn to the person who can say, “Oh man did I mess up” or “I’m a little fearful about taking this test.”
Bubble Wrap Strategy #2 – Emotionally Focused Connection. I studied a type of marriage counseling called Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). The founder, Dr. Sue Johnson, said partners do a dysfunctional dance whenever they feel their connection threatened. Ironically, those dysfunctional dance moves are the thing that causes the other partner to pull away more. Here’s what it looked like in my marriage. If my husband was spending a lot of time working on his computer and if I felt like we hadn’t spent much time together I would lash out, “You don’t care about me anymore.” In an effort not to make things worse, he would go to his computer for comfort because that’s where he felt a sense of control and success. My reaction was causing him to pull further away. Using EFT, I should instead say something soft like this, “Hey, I’m missing our time together? Are we good?” Since I’m not yelling, and since I’m being vulnerable, he can easily move towards me and offer reassurance.
Bubble Wrap Strategy #3 – Emotional Flexibility. I recently read a book called Emotional Agility by Susan David. David says, “The way we navigate our inner world—our everyday thoughts, emotions, experiences, and self-stories— is the most important determinant of our life success. It drives our actions, careers, relationships, happiness, health; everything.” She says often we get hooked or stuck in our emotions by either bottling them (pushing them aside) or by brooding on them (over analyzing, ruminating). Neither of these methods help us get unhooked. Emotions wait, they come back tenfold when we try to smother them, and rumination is only helpful when we use it to move us forward. (For instance, “How am I going to use this to improve my life?” instead of “Why me?”) Instead of bottling and brooding, we should notice our emotions but in a way that involves courage, compassion, and curiosity. I like to imagine I’m standing above myself, taking a meta-perspective (putting a bit of distance) as I consider: “You’re feeling sad today. I wonder why?” or “You’re mad. I’m so sorry that driver was rude when he cut you off.” I’m able to notice my emotions without letting myself be led by them.
Bubble Wrap Strategy #4 – Values and Strengths. Years ago I came across an online assessment called the VIA Survey. Based on your answers it rates you on your strengths. One of the categories I scored highest on was justice. Knowing this helped me understand why I needed to speak out on social media about injustices. I always to be respectful and I encourage others to share their points of view, but I stopped letting influencers in my life have the last word (“You can’t say talk about politics on Facebook!”) Another top value for me is family. So if my daughter and grandbaby drop by when I’m trying to get a project done, I don’t have to stress out. I remind myself what has more importance: they do.
*There’s a free version and a $40 extensive version of the VIA Survey.
What are some tools you use to keep from overreacting to others?
Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.
She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."