Learning to respond to another's anger or blame in ways that promote caring is vital to relationship health.
Renee saw herself as a very compassionate person. She could easily feel into her husband Jeff's feelings when he was sad or scared. But as soon as Jeff got angry or judgmental with her, her fear became far greater than her compassion - fear of losing herself and of not being seen or cared about by Jeff. Out of her fear, Renee would often shut down into silence, or she would defend herself or try to talk Jeff out of being upset. Her tone would get parental and righteous as she protected herself against her fear. Or she would capitulate and just do whatever Jeff wanted her to do, but would then feel resentful. This dynamic was wreaking havoc with her marriage.
"Renee," I asked her in one of our phone sessions, "What happens inside of you when Jeff gets angry or judgmental?"
"My stomach goes into a knot. I get really scared, just like I did with my Dad."
"So your fear triggers you into avoiding and defending. What do you think would happen if you moved into a compassionate intent to learn with your own feelings? What would happen if you moved into compassion for yourself, for your scared little inner child?"
"I think if I did that, I wouldn't feel so scared."
"Right. You think you are scared only because of Jeff's anger, but I think you are also scared because you immediately abandon yourself in the face of his anger. You leave your little child alone to deal with it, and all she knows to do is withdraw, defend, explain, or give yourself up."
We explored what Renee could do differently if she was compassionate toward her own feelings instead of trying to control Jeff.
"What if you told Jeff your truth and then moved into an intent to learn with him? What do you think would happen if you said to Jeff, 'When you yell at me, I feel punched in the stomach. It feels awful and stressful and scary, and makes it really hard for me to hear you. I really want to hear what you are trying to tell me. Can you say it to me without the anger and judgment? I'm listening.'"
"I think he would be shocked! He's constantly upset with me for not listening to him and trying to talk him out of his feelings."
"So he tries to control you with his anger and judgment, and you try to control him with your withdrawal, defensiveness, explanations or giving yourself up. Both of you are trying to control and neither of you are open to learning. But in order to be open to learning with him and be compassionate about his feelings, you first need to be compassionate about your own feelings."
"I can see that. I always want compassion from Jeff, yet it's obviously what I need to be giving to myself. I wonder why it's so hard for me to be compassionate toward my own feelings?"
"Good question. There must be a good reason. What do you think?"
"I think that I learned as a kid to try to take care of others' feelings. I became a caretaker at such a young age, trying to make everyone feel okay so that I could feel okay. I always felt my parents' pain and I always wanted to fix it. So I think that I learned to ignore my own feelings and just try to fix theirs."
"Yes, most children learn to ignore their own feelings because they don't know how to handle them. Children learn various ways of trying to get others to take care of their feelings, and these controlling behaviors follow them into their adult relationships. Jeff uses anger and judgment to try to get you to take care of his feelings and you use defending, explaining, and caretaking to get him to take care of yours. Things might change between you if you started taking care of yourself by moving into compassion for your own feelings."
"Okay, this feels good. I'm going to practice moving into compassion for my own feelings first, and then try to listen to him."
Renee reported the next week that things between her and Jeff were better than they had been in a long time!
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