Is it possible you’re actually a little afraid of a family member you also love deeply?
As you begin to see and recognize your fears for what they are, it’s helpful to look for them in unexpected places, so you can calm them and bring your best self to your interactions with others. You may even start to see patterns in your relationships, where one person (or a group of people, or even – in these contentious political times – fear-mongering television or radio personalities!) – perhaps unwittingly, perhaps consciously – is keeping another person off-balance and fearful in order to maintain the status quo of power.
As an illustration, consider this not-so-uncommon scenario:
A wife says to her husband, “You know, it really hurts my feelings when you don’t plan something special for my birthday. I always try to make yours special! I wish you would make more of an effort – I think I deserve it!”
The husband, suddenly in full attack mode, fires back with, “You always say you’re doing all these nice things for me, but you never let me watch the game with my friends, and you’re always complaining about what I haven’t done around the house – I never do anything right as far as you’re concerned! And anyway, I’ve asked you ten times to take the car in for its 10,000 mile checkup, and you STILL haven’t done it – I can’t count on you to do anything, even though you don’t even work!”
That may seem like an extreme example (that sort of rebuttal is called “kitchen-sinking”
by the way!). But often when sensitive spots (one of “those damn hot buttons”) are poked, even by a seemingly reasonable request, big reactions can occur. The more sensitive the spot, the bigger the blast, frequently loaded with lots of “always” and “never” statements tossed in for good measure.
The person who gets triggered feels suddenly off balance and on the defensive. He wants to re-establish the traditional balance of power by switching things around and putting the other person on the defensive. So the explosion is a way to try and quickly do that so he (or she, when the shoe is on the other foot!) can feel comfortable again.
Imagine in this scene that the wife, overwhelmed by the unexpected ferociousness of her husband’s reaction, shrinks back and just retreats to another room, abandoning her original request.
What If this is what he always does when she attempts to work out an issue with him? What if she never feels like she has a chance of being heard? How many more times do you think she’ll continue to try before just giving up, and deciding that adjusting to any disappointments she feels – saying, “oh well, that’s just the way he is” – is the only course available to her?
This is not to bash the husband, either. Clearly triggered by his wife’s statement, a compassionate look at his reaction suggests that there is much more contributing to his upset than her mere words. He could be feeling any one of a number of possible fears – fear of being criticized, fear of being rejected, fear of being judged, fear of being wrong, fear of being a “bad husband” – even fear of making a mistake….
Whatever it is, he learned somewhere back in time that that his wife’s words constitute an “accusation” that’s a REALLY BIG DEAL. So his self-protection mechanism delivers that huge response to bring him back to feeling safe again.
How Can We Figure Out Someone Else’s Fears?
It’s nearly impossible for someone to guess the underlying fear propelling another person’s dramatic reaction, because it’s usually rooted in an experience long ago that got the fear started in the first place. It may not even resemble at all the current situation.
Asking is a great strategy, though unless we go first in admitting to our own fears the other person might feel too vulnerable to want to have that conversation about theirs.
Much better to focus first on discovering what our own fears are, and seek out their origins so we can gain more mastery over our responses in the present. When we realize that our fear of volunteering to lead the PTA (or even taking business risks!) today actually dates back to hearing our mother say, “Never experiment with anything new when you have guests coming – you’re sure to ruin the meal!” we can begin to neutralize that voice when it comes up, by reminding ourselves we’re in a completely different circumstance.
We can also communicate our newly understood fears to our loved ones so that they can better understand when we don’t react in a way that reflects our best selves. That way our mates or family members can become our compassionate partners, asking us questions and offering a fig leaf when it will help, such as, “Did my comment just now sound like I was criticizing you? Because that’s not the way I meant it….”
It may seem in relationship impasses like this that “he who has the strongest protection reaction wins!” But in the long run, if this pattern keeps up and real communication never takes place, everybody loses. The person who effectively “terrorizes” their mate may feel superficially more comfortable, but they’re only enjoying a small part of the connection they could be having with their partner who ends up hiding their honest feelings.
Given the importance of what’s at stake, it’s really worth looking at our fears as expressed in power dynamics. Once we find out where they came from, and what we think they are accomplishing for us, we have a chance to decide if those really deserve the power we give them as adults!
If there’s somewhere in your life where you’re not speaking up for yourself, and/or maintaining healthy boundaries, and/or feeling respected, and you know it’s out of fear of causing a reaction in the other person, there are ways to approach changing that power dynamic.
If it’s someone in your life who you realize may want you to be afraid, so they can accomplish a goal that they have for themselves, you might want to consider beginning that new conversation sooner rather than later. And if it’s someone in the media, you may want to change the channel!
In the last article in this series, I’ll tell you about specific things you can do to handle fears when they come up in these sorts of difficult situations.