How to reduce reactivity & blame

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
                                            — Eleanor RooseveltThe challenge of owning our feelings

As human beings, we have a tendency to blame others for our feelings when their behavior triggers our deep emotions.

  • “You make me so mad when you….”
  • “You make me feel guilty when you…”
  • “You hurt my feelings when you…”

While it’s easy to pay lip service to the notion of “owning my feelings” it is much more difficult in practice. And for good reason. Taking ownership of your feelings is more complex than simply acknowledging the emotions you’re experiencing – that you feel sad, mad, glad, etc. Taking ownership of your feelings also involves taking ownership of the interpretations you make that give rise to your feelings.

This is how family therapist Dr. Ronald Richardson puts it in his great little book Family Ties That Bind: “Our feelings are created by the thoughts we have about situations or the interpretations we make about the meaning of what is going on. No one is able to make us feel anything, short of actually physically touching us.”

Feelings arise from our interpretations

This ability to distinguish between our feelings and our interpretations is a cornerstone of mature communication. Whether or not we realize it, we are constantly attributing meaning to our own behavior and the behavior of others. And we do it so quickly that we can often confuse our emotions with our interpretations. From there it’s easy to blame others for how we feel.

Here’s an example:

You are standing in a crowded line-up with a friend, waiting to purchase theatre tickets. Someone behind you stumbles and jostles you from behind. You didn’t see them stumble so you jump to the conclusion that they are pushy and rude. You feel angry and say to your friend, “People who are pushy like that make me so angry!” Your anger is now blamed on them. However, your anger was not inevitable – it arose from your interpretation of the situation.

Instead, let’s imagine that when you are bumped, you chalk it up to the jostle of a big crowd and you assume that the person bumping you has also been bumped. You imagine they were innocently waiting in line like yourself. You look at your friend, shrug and say, “Whew! Hope we make it into the show in one piece!” Your friend smiles in return and you feel a warm connection. Your interpretation of the situation has produced an entirely different set of feelings.

Each scenario involves the same circumstance and results in different feelings, because of your interpretation.

The consequence of the blame game

So often we fail to notice the interpretations we’ve made. This can result in judging the other person negatively, blaming them for our feelings and thinking we have no choice but to feel the way that we do.

Once we engage in blaming, communication tends to go downhill. Unless the accused person is able to remain non-reactive, they may get defensive or angry in response. This may not have big consequences with a stranger in the theatre line-up, however it can have big consequences in our intimate relationships.

Here’s a more personal example:

Let’s say that when my husband comes home at the end of the day he is quiet, disengaged and doesn’t ask me about my day. Depending on my interpretation of his behavior, I will have very different feelings:

•   If I interpret “maybe he’s angry at me” then I may feel anxious.
•   If I interpret “maybe he’s stressed about work” then I may feel concern & compassion.
•   If I interpret “he’s not interested in hearing about my day” then I may feel hurt or angry.

The same circumstance can result in different feelings. My husband’s behavior didn’t “make” me feel anything — my triggered feelings arise from my thoughts and interpretations about his behavior. We can jump to these interpretations almost instantaneously.

What we may miss

When I fail to take ownership of my interpretations and resulting feelings, I will begin to see my interpretation as “fact” and my feelings as “his fault”. Once I lock onto my interpretation as “fact”, I’m no longer open to inquiring about what is actually going on with him. I’ve already concluded what he’s feeling and now I may blame him for how I am feeling!

As a result, I may sulk or provoke a fight or withdraw myself. I may miss out on discovering that he actually has an upset stomach that is bothering him – or that he just got news that a friend is seriously ill and he is preoccupied and worried. I miss out on discovering that his reality may be entirely different from my interpretation.

We see life through our mental filters

If we don’t become aware of our interpretations, we only see life through the mental filters that we have developed over our lifetime. While some of these filters may be life-enhancing, some may be limiting. These interpretive filters may come from our family of origin experiences, our life history and our culture.

If your father tended to distance himself when he was angry, you may interpret that when your partner is distant, he or she is angry too – when that may not be the case at all. If you had a teacher who criticized you for talking too much in class, you may interpret someone’s yawn at a party as feedback that you are talking too much – when they are simply tired. Our insecurities – often rooted in the past – can be easily triggered.

Culture plays a role too

Beyond our family history, there is also the cultural context we inhabit. Most of us now realize that our norms of polite or socially acceptable behavior are very culturally determined and interpreted. What is “rude” in one culture may be perfectly acceptable in another. Employers take courses now to understand the diversity of cultures amongst their employees. That includes such cultures as boomers and millenials, as well as different ethnic groups!

An important caveat

Please be clear: Owning your interpretation doesn’t relieve the other person from being accountable for their behavior. I am not suggesting that you tolerate behavior that is unacceptable to you or personally harmful. So when in doubt, take care of yourself.

What I am asserting is that there is power in owning and perhaps altering those interpretations that are causing you distress and may be rooted in unconscious reactivity. This benefits you and will certainly help you deal more constructively in your communication with others.

So how do we extract ourselves from blaming others for our feelings?

When something upsetting has occurred, take the time to reflect on the following:

•   What happened? (Be as factual as you can.)
    My partner was distant when he got home and didn’t ask how I was or about my day.

•   What am I feeling?
     I feel hurt and angry.

•   What thoughts do I have? What interpretation did I make about it? 
    He doesn’t care about my feelings. I’m not important. 

•  Or if you want the short-hand version of this reflective process, simply complete the following sentence:

When he/she _____________________________ I felt _________________________ and I assume that means ________________________________.For example: When he was distant and didn’t ask me about my day, I felt hurt and rejected and I assume that means that I’m not important.

It’s worth the work

Once you have owned both your feelings and the meaning or interpretation you’ve made of your partner’s behavior, your reactivity will diminish. Eventually you’ll be calm enough to check out whether or not your assumptions about your partner are true – and to listen to how it actually is for them. You may be surprised. (If your worst fear does turn out to be true, then you may need some time to digest and assess your options. Two articles that may be helpful are: When it’s time to stop arguing: understanding “flooding” and Reduce your frustration by making powerful requests.)

Taking responsibility for your feelings and your interpretations may be difficult – especially when the feelings are strong and intense. However, even a small step in this direction can make a big difference. The reward will be in discovering those unexamined beliefs and assumptions that you live your life through, and gaining some freedom from them – for yourself and for your relationship.

Invitation to action

The next time you feel upset with your partner (or another person), use the template above to debrief the situation and discover your unconscious interpretations. See if you can imagine one or two alternative interpretations of your partner’s behavior. Notice the difference this makes to how you feel — and what this now makes possible in your communication with the other.

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