Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

Why We Tolerate What We Hate, and How to Stop

You can heal emotional wounds and get what you need.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
You hate your job. It's boring, dreary, and back-breaking. But you do it because you are a single parent, or because there is nothing else out there no matter how hard you have looked. You suck it up and do because right now you don’t have any other choices. 

We’re not talking about that today. That's about survival, perseverance, about stepping up and being responsible. 

We're talking about something else—more subtle forms of tolerating, usually involving the intricacies of your close relationships. Your partner is critical and scolding at times; though it bothers you, you say little and put up with it. You make a fancy dinner and your husband takes little notice; your feelings are hurt but you don’t mention how you feel. Your boss is dramatic and torrential at times, but year after year you weather it no matter how much it wears on your soul. 

You know there is something wrong here, that you shouldn’t be putting up with such mistreatment, but you do. And you wonder why you do, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference and you keep hanging in there. 

There are a lot of ways of looking at this psychologically: Stockholm syndrome, the deadly intermittent reinforcement. The other way, particularly with close relationships, is tied to childhood wounds. 

An explanation: You grow up, through usually no one’s intentional thought, to be sensitive to certain feelings: Your dad was critical and so you became sensitive to criticism. Your mom was distracted and preoccupied and so you became sensitive to feeling neglected—you worked hard but regardless how well you did you felt unappreciated. They hurt your feelings, and you felt that you couldn’t change it no matter how hard you tried. The wounds are usually one or two of a handful—control, criticism, appreciation, neglect. 

You had to cope and endure, and as a child you had only three ways of dealing with these wounds: follow the rules and avoid conflict; withdraw; get angry. You are usually bouncing off of siblings—maybe your sister was the “good” one and so you got angry. Whatever path you chose, it worked—at least in that you survived your childhood. 

The problem comes when, as an adult, others, particularly those close to you, inadvertently trigger these old wounds—your friend doesn’t return your call quickly and you feel neglected; your supervisor doesn’t seem to notice you working overtime and you feel unappreciated; your partner complains about how the apartment looks and you feel criticized. 

When these situations arise, and they will, your wounds are triggered, and your 10-year-old self kicks in—you withdraw, you try to be good, you get angry. But because it is part of your past and view of life, because you are wired to be sensitive to and respond to these emotions in a certain way, you hate it but put up with it. Someone else with different wiring would draw a line: You can’t do this or I’m gone. Instead, for you, your little-kid brain kicks in and says, If I can figure how to do just the right things, how to say things in just the right ways, solve the puzzle that is this problem, the other person will stop treating me this way. 

This is little-kid thinking. This is psychological groundhog day. You try and try, long past when others would put up with it, tolerating, trying to find the right combination of actions and reactions that will make it stop. 

You can’t.

You either have to stop tolerating what is hurting you and get out, or respond with adult thinking and stay in. 

The sticking point here is that the solution you came up with at age 10 doesn’t fit the adult world. It's like old software in a new computer. To break out, you don’t need to solve the problem and do better and try harder; you need to become more flexible—to expand and update the software. Usually this means doing what is simple but emotionally hard: You need do the opposite of what you usually do. 

So if you tend to withdraw, you need to step up. If you tend to get angry, you need to calm yourself down, use your anger as information about what you need, and talk about that. If you tend to be good, you need to figure out what you want and communicate that to others rather than walking on eggshells.

It doesn’t matter what the topic is or situation is, it’s all about breaking out of old patterns and going against your grain. 

The starting point is realizing when those old buttons are getting pushed—when you are over-reacting, when you feel like the 10-year-old, when your work, professional, rational mind goes out the window and old emotions take over. Watch your emotions, see if you can tell when you are overreacting, feeling like a 10-year-old. 

If you can recognize when this happens, you have an opportunity to step back from it. At that point you need to do a voice-over in your head and say, I’m getting triggered, this is old stuff from the past, I’m an adult, I can handle this in an adult way. Take several deep breaths.

Next, you do the opposite of your instincts—step up, calm down, be assertive, upgrade the software, be more adult. This includes saying to the other person what you could not say to your parents—that the criticism hurt your feelings, that you need more positive feedback from your supervisor, that the unreturned phone call left you feeling unimportant. Hopefully, this will prompt the other to change her behavior. But she may not.

At that point, you have to decide to leave or find some way to think about the situation from a more reality-based adult lens—that these disappointments in the relationship are in fact relatively rare and that the good times significantly outweigh the bad; that you realize you are in fact contributing to the problem and accept responsibility for your end of it; that the job is only a job, that your boss is stressed, and you can look to others for appreciation. What you don't want to do fall back into old patterns, react with little-kid angst, and believe that it will get better only if you do better, solve the puzzle, break the code. That only drags you back into rewinding.

Will you feel automatically better if you do all this? Absolutely not. 

But if you begin to do this—50, 500, 5000 times—in baby steps, in the smallest of situations that trigger you, you begin to rewire your brain. You become less sensitive to those old wounds, and develop other mental and emotional skills to counteract them. You are not so easily triggered, and they begin to dominate your life and relationships less. 

Everyone has something—something that they hate but tolerate.

What’s yours? Are you ready to change it? 


Image: Shutterstock

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.


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