Very few people can claim that they never feel upset about what others have said or done. But psychoanalysis suggests that controlling another person's behavior invariably causes counterproductive results, adding an undercurrent of resentment and hostility to a relationship. A far better strategy involves disentangling what other people say or do from the internalized "others" that populate the mind. Based on past relationships, these "inner others" persist in the mind as sources of criticism, humiliation and jealousy. Learning to tune out these inner critics helps people focus on reality and feel less distress.
Reflect carefully on an upsetting exchange with another person when you have the time. If it keeps coming back to mind after the event, treat it as an alert signal - it may mean that some unfinished emotional business has reared its head. Remember, no one can completely block the influence of previous experiences, especially early, formative experiences. People can't know others without first knowing themselves. Failures in insight always generate failures in communication and understanding.
Replay in your mind, in a calm, peaceful room, the conversation or situation that caused the distress. For the time-being, block thoughts such as "I should have said 'X'" or "When she did that, I should have done 'Y'." Instead, free-associate around the scene - let your thoughts wander to wherever they want to go. People frequently discover that when others get to them emotionally, feelings from previous unsatisfactory relationships get to them as well, powerfully influencing their emotional responses.
Take the conversation apart step by step. Emotional reactions may seem immediate and inevitable, but they always involve personal judgments, choices and decisions. Imagine playing back the scene frame by frame. What, precisely, triggered the intense feelings? A tone of voice? A sneer or a frown? A turn of phrase? Try and pinpoint the emotional catalyst. One person can never take responsibility for another person's behavior, but everyone can take responsibility for their own responses.
Work out who, or what, really speaks at moments of emotional intensity. Psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall suggests that if, for example, an argument evokes memories of an older sibling or a parent, an internal representation of that figure almost certainly enters the picture. People frequently find that they experience very similar arguments, with very similar emotional reactions, even though the individuals they argue with are very different. Insight and rational responses begin when pre-existing inner representations get clearly disentangled from immediate social exchanges.
Recognize hidden aspects of the self. Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas argues that "the" self is a misnomer. In growing up, a person comes under increasing pressure to acquire "an" identity, but for Bollas, this always means excluding a version of the self that doesn't fit in with the preferred image. When someone balks at aggressive behavior, or uninhibited flirtatiousness, or even kindness, she usually tries to shut out such tendencies in herself. Psychoanalytic work helps people to make friends with themselves, to integrate the unconscious or repressed characteristics they would otherwise project onto others and experience as alien or foreign.
Watch out for another person's verbal aggression causing you to feel shocked and paralyzed. Another person's open aggression may give traumatic form to your own unacknowledged or disavowed anger, or to the abusive aspects of a previous relationship. Knowing about these inner sources of intense and sometimes crippling emotion helps free you to act and respond rationally and realistically.
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- "Theatres of the Mind: Illusion and Truth on the Psychoanalytic Stage"; Joyce Mc Dougall; 1986
- "Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience"; Christopher Bollas; 1993
- Not letting people get to you emotionally takes a lot of perseverance and practice. Don't be disheartened if it doesn't "click" rapidly. Keep practicing self-reflection.
- If you find yourself sinking into a deepening depressive state, either because other people have gotten to you emotionally, or because your own self-reflection makes you aware that earlier relationships with family members were more painful than you'd let yourself realize, seek professional help. A psychotherapist can help you identify the sources of inner turmoil that complicate your everyday experiences.
Peter Evans previously trained as a physiologist, a teacher and a psychotherapist but now writes full-time. Based in London, he's written for "Spiked!," the health-and-wellness blog UltraFitnessDynamics, ContractingMadeEasy.com and a range of academic journals. Evans holds a Master of Science in socio-psychological studies from the University of London.