Why I wanted to run away… and what stopped me
Why I wanted to run away… and what stopped me
What I’m about to say might shock you.
People can be poisonous.
Or at least say and do poisonous things. People we like – even love – can be a source of disappointment and distress and have a poisonous effect on those around them.
Sometimes, I wish everyone would just go away and leave me alone. Sometimes, interacting with my fellow humans upsets me so much that I fantasise about living or working by myself.
Don’t get me wrong – I like people, in fact I generally like them a lot – but sometimes as a result of something they’ve said or done it knocks me off my balance and I find myself stressed, anxious or angry.
I don’t think I’m alone.
The interactions we have with the key people in our lives are central to our sense of happiness and wellbeing, and the power other people have over our happiness can be profound. How we communicate with one another impacts the quality of our interactions, our wellbeing and even our humanity.
Unfortunately, human communication is renowned for its fraught and error-prone nature, especially when emotions are running high or where we don’t see eye to eye.
Five people-related communication problems and how to fix them
Five of the most common communication problems that affect our social wellness are outlined below (with suggested solutions in italics):
- Often, we’re not clear in our own minds on the point we’re trying to make. It’s no wonder then that others misunderstand, or we get a reaction we hadn’t bargained for.
Focus on the purpose and desired outcome and let this direct the content of your spoken word.
- Our emotions can get in the way of what we’re able (or willing) to hear, or what we’re able (and willing) to express.
We need high levels of self-awareness to realise when we are being blinded by emotions. Pausing and breathing deeply for just six seconds is enough to re-engage clear, logical thinking and defuse the dreaded amygdala hijack. Getting good sleep can also help prevent the emotional rollercoaster. It’s hard to be compassionate and non-judgemental when over-tired, moody and irritable.
- The English language is manifestly inadequate as a means for accurately conveying all that we might wish to get across, with its nuanced layers, subtleties and interconnectedness.
Make allowances for linguistic imprecision and bluntness in the way we frame what we are trying to say. Listen by seeking to understand what the other person is trying to say – the full message behind their actual words.
- The gloriously imprecise science of body language and facial expression means we are constantly and ceaselessly open to sending and receiving the wrong signals. We cannot never be saying anything.
What’s your RBF like?! If your facial expression or the expression of the person you are speaking to is unintentionally off-putting (angry, annoyed or irritated) then your social wellness and the authenticity of the communication will be compromised. Check your non-verbal behaviour (NVB) is congruent with your message and accept that NVB is a source of data for subjective interpretation and extrapolation of meaning.
- The “C” word. To be on the receiving end of Contempt can leave us feeling worthless. No interaction will go well unless there is demonstrable mutual respect.
Ensure you identify and hold front of mind something about the other person that you respect or even admire, something elicited by their abilities, qualities, nature or achievements. Show regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others.
The amount of decoding that needs to be contended with in every second of every communication cannot be overstated, and the potential for misunderstanding – and therefore frustration – is rife. It’s a miracle that we (mostly) muddle along as well as we do.
When things do backfire, it’s worthwhile remembering these common communication challenges that we’re all up against, as they can help to depersonalise problems.
Tuning into interpersonal dynamics
This is such an important aspect of exercising self-care.
If the people you spend time with affect your mood, thoughts and behaviours in a way that is helpful, constructive and rewarding, then it makes good sense to see more of those people.
These individuals will have a profoundly positive effect on your wellbeing:
- A true friend is someone who helps you feel good about yourself, with whom you feel at ease and unjudged and in whom you place complete trust.
- A good colleague is someone who you feel listened to and understood by, and whose thoughts, even when different from your own, are expressed respectfully and in an inclusive, considerate manner.
- A loving family member accepts you unconditionally, flaws and all, and is concerned for your wellbeing and happiness.
But, what if after being with someone you find yourself down, disheartened, distressed, disappointed, dejected, depressed, despairing or disillusioned? (Ever noticed how so many negative emotions are “D” words?)
Throughout the course of my life I’ve experienced many difficult times, but the only ones to truly floor me have been those of an interpersonal nature.
When we experience others’ behaviour as hurtful, unjust or in ways that leave us otherwise dispirited, it can trigger a desire to retreat from the world. It’s a coping strategy, a way of insulating or inoculating ourselves from the effects of others’ moods and behaviours.
It’s the ‘flight’ that we refer to in “fight, flight or freeze”.
It struck me that because the conversations we have with those around us can be so good (or so bad) for our social, emotional and mental wellbeing, it really pays to tune into these dynamics.
If this feels familiar, it might be time to reconsider who you’re mixing with (or at least how long you’re doing it for), and what boundaries or rules you need to put in place to protect yourself from the evils of their ways. ?
Tuning into yourself
How we interact with other people is one thing, but how we interact with ourselves and our own minds arguably plays an even greater role in determining our social and emotional wellbeing.
As I reflect what makes me occasionally want to run away (at least for a while) to some remote Hebridean island, I realise it’s not actually other people who make me unhappy, it’s my response to them that can be the issue.
It’s the processing of our reactions to what we perceive as the problems in what other people are saying, doing or thinking where the opportunity for growth and greater wellbeing exists.
‘It’s not their actions, it’s my reactions’ is a helpful reframe reminding us of our responsibility in staying calm and positive for protecting ourselves in a non-judgemental and compassionate manner.
Taking in the good
This is a heartfelt blog.
Over the period of a recent month-long trip to Europe, whilst enriched from meeting new people, clients and colleagues and re-acquainting with dear friends and much-loved family, it’s fair to say that I also experienced some doozies of situations (people?) some of which (whom?) have left me feeling depleted (another D word).
But first, I’ll practice positive reflection by ‘taking in the good’:
- The senior leader who made himself vulnerable in front of his peers by courageously sharing his personal wellbeing story. Could have heard a pin drop. Goosebumps, it was so powerful.
- The uber-cool young guy covered in piercings and tattoos who rushed to help me as I (rather spectacularly) fell up (yes, up) the elevator on the Tube. Don’t judge a book by a cover – the youth of today have compassion.
- My brilliant GLWS home team back in Oz who have had my back (and inbox) for the best part of a month, making this trip feasible.
- The dinner with an ex-colleague who makes me laugh and feel 10 feet tall; the food was revolting but the company such fun.
- An opportunistic business meeting where the ideas and creative energy flowed.
- Visiting with my old boss who still inspires me with her strength and values 25 years down the path.
- A stolen afternoon in Edinburgh with my 2 BFFs from school and university days – more than 30 years on and we still laugh and put the world to rights.
- Seeing the bond deepen between my 15yo daughter and my 15yo niece, seeing something special take hold, and memories never to be forgotten.
Putting up walls
Alas, life is not a chocolate box.
As uplifted as I’ve been by the variety of conversations, perspectives, stories and shared memories—each of which has contributed in some small way to a positivity and force for good in my life—there have been a few interactions at the opposite end of the scale:
- Casual racism from the ‘nice’ woman in the trendy coffee shop in London. I walked out mid-purchase.
- Overt religious extremism from an Anglo middle-age middle-class woman who saw the loss of morals, increased drug usage and promiscuity and disintegration of society as a result of declining (Christian) church attendance. I said I thought I was an ok person even though I hadn’t said a prayer in over 20 years.
- Excessive alcohol bringing out the worst possible sides of people – aggression, mistrust, insecurity, moroseness. See “Second-hand-drinking’ damage is more common than you think.”
- Family members sniping, squabbling and hurting one another through complacency. (Hearing Corinthians 13:4-7 at the wedding on the last day of our holiday, we were all usefully reminded about the value of being patient and kind, not being easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs etc.)
- There are others but since my husband reads my blog, I won’t include them here ? ?
The reality is that other people’s bad moods, insecurities, poor behaviours and emotional baggage can fast become yours unless you have your antennae up and your radar working actively to keep balance and good reason in play.
We don’t get to control or even influence what other people say to us or how they behave towards us or those around us. But we can control and choose our responses, and we can (and must) take steps to protect ourselves from being contaminated.
If we have our wits about us and the presence of mind to act in the moment, we can uphold what we believe in and what we are comfortable with. We can push back, contest, take a stand or offer some guidance, and in so doing, we can stop or at least minimise our upset or distress. And we can do all this with compassion – for ourselves and for the person with whom we’re having the interaction.
Mind your mind
Infuriatingly, most of us only become aware sometime after the event of how we wished we had responded in a difficult situation or with a difficult person. Usually when we’re in fight, flight or freeze mode we are so angry, uncomfortable to the point of being even fearful or insecure and anxious that we lack the wisdom, courage and presence to articulate what we are experiencing and feeling.
Here are six suggestions that should help:
- Master the art of being fully present, mindful and purposeful in the moment. It’s a life skill that stops us being triggered, and therefore helps prevent us from saying things (or not saying things) that we later regret. When we practise mindfulness, we are developing our ability to notice and observe what is occurring in real time and to focus our minds (and refocus as necessary).
- Learn to sit with and accept the discomfort and unhappiness that comes from not being able to stop, prevent or fix other peoples’ problems, challenges or imperfections; from not being able to please everyone all of the time. Hard for those of us who are fixers and perfectionists with overdone sense of responsibilities. ?
- Remember how easy it can be to see shortcomings in others, and how hard it can be to see our own.
- Know that when you feel threatened it’s a result of your primitive brain being hardwired to ‘fight’ back, to defend yourself with a counter punch – to be meaner, harsher and nastier than your opponent. Things escalate and get out of hand, full on arguments and conflict ensue. So, find and switch on the executive functioning, logical and rational part of your brain (clench your fists, bite your tongue, count to ten [actually six will do], and breathe…)
- We can also protect ourselves from the effects of potentially poisonous interactions by developing and upholding better boundaries around deciding for ourselves what’s ok and what’s not – what crosses the line in terms of what we’re prepared to tolerate and ‘give’ on and where we take a stand. Having good emotional boundaries in place is the golden rule for stopping other people’s baggage (bad behaviour, negative emotions) from becoming your baggage (stress, upset, responsibilities, bad behaviour).
- Try not to overthink the interactions that have been unpleasant. A good rule of thumb is to let go of what’s happened and over which you have no control; and choose a positive path forward including a commitment to what boundary needs to be established in the event that the same thing happens again. Distract yourself (with something constructive and pleasant).
So, the bottom line about interactions with others is that we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them!
Living on a desert island is not the answer. Neither is putting up huge emotional walls so no-one can hurt or upset you.
Like so many things in life, the middle path seems to be the one to adopt. With this in mind, you can reduce the amount of upset and stress in your life by aiming to be as emotionally in control, detached and regulated as necessary and as under-controlled, authentic and emotional as feels good.
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