By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC
Almost all of us struggle at times with shame, or a sense of inadequacy. Even when we’re dissatisfied with others, underneath that we often fear we’re the problem. When someone gives us feedback, we can get defensive, usually because we’re afraid we’re somehow wrong. When we’re angry, we may not express it, because surely our feelings don’t count. It’s therefore hard to know what our part is—or isn’t—in our relationship troubles. I call this an “arrows-in” problem. All arrows point to us as the problem, our self-esteem is low, and we feel guilty, depressed, and anxious.
When we struggle this way, it’s hard to see our relationships clearly. We tend to form unhealthy relationships that solidify our perspective of unworthiness. If, for example, your spouse is manipulative or selfish and blames you when you make simple requests, you listen to that blame, think you’re the problem, and stick around for more while your self-esteem nosedives further. It’s hard to be assertive or ask for change.
I’m not saying we should blame everyone around us and not take responsibility for ourselves, as that is a different problem. But some of us could benefit from having a clearer boundary around ourselves, knowing what relationship issues we’re responsible for and what issues belong to someone else. We need the essential skill of learning to look objectively at others’ behavior in order to get the clarity we need. Learning this skill can improve our better relationships and help us avoid or end unhealthy ones. We must get at least some of our inward-facing arrows pointed back out where they belong, and not constantly blame ourselves. We do this by learning to be keenly observant of others’ behavior, which requires that we suspend our shame for the moment and focus on watching what the others do. Not what they say, what they do.
All behavior belongs in one of two categories. In one category, the behavior is affirming, esteeming, and validating. It is respectful and conveys that our feelings make sense, even in the face of disagreement. In the other category is behavior that is nonaffirming, nonesteeming, and invalidating. The other person may behave aggressively, minimize our concerns, lack empathy, or convey we should feel differently. It can be helpful to commit one week to watching the behaviors of the people in your life and putting them into these two categories.
The only way to truly observe behavior, by the way, is to temporarily take yourself out of the picture. Be neutral and observing in tone and suspend your own tendency to convince others that you are right or defend yourself. When you try to convince or defend, you become engulfed in the mix and will no longer be in observation mode.
Watch the behavior rather than listen to the words. What does my spouse do if I tell him I’m saddened by how much time he spends at work? What does my mother do if I politely ask that she follow my rules when watching my kids? Does she listen, or get defensive? Does she take responsibility, or act victimized? Does she turn the tables on me by blaming or guilt-tripping me?
Watch the behaviors you observe and categorize them. If you are met with aggression, invalidation, a lack of accountability, or blame—and this is a pattern over time—you are learning volumes about the other person. You’ll start to understand where your responsibility lies, and where it doesn’t. You’ll have better boundaries and clarity in your relationships. And wouldn’t that be great?