Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

Get Back on Track When Conversations Get Derailed

Elayne Savage explains what to do when conversations get out of control

Licensed psychotherapist Elayne Savage, Ph.D., is a global expert on communication, disappointment, criticism, and overcoming fear of rejection. Her books, Don't Take It Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection, and Breathing Room: Creating Space to Be a Couple, are published in 9 languages. She is a relationship and workplace coach as well as a professional speaker.

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Isn't it amazing how easily communication can misfire between you and your family member? One of you feels wronged and takes something personally. Before you know it, your conversation gets derailed into yet another failed interaction. It happens so fast---all it takes is a look or a tone of voice. Rolling the eyes will do it too.

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Hurled accusations can make an especially huge dent in your relationship. Sometimes it's not even what was said. It might be that someone neglected to say or do something. Taking things personally complicates the already complicated relationship between you and the person in your family with borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. Interactions become strained and painful.

The 'Diss List'

Taking things personally usually involves feeling "dissed" in some way: disrespected, discounted, disregarded, disconnected, disbelieved, dismissed, disposable, disapproved of, or disappointed in. These are all aspects of feeling rejected.

Taking something personally usually assumes intent. Someone means to hurt you or they are taking sides for you or against you. Actions are perceived as a personal affront, an insult or slight.

When we take something personally, we are taking it the wrong way and building extra meaning into it. For example, we might translate "I've been busy" into "I'm too busy for you."  Too often we tend to "fill in the blanks" with our own assumptions, attributing meaning without checking it out.

These kinds of misunderstandings and hurt feelings can quickly turn into anger and resentment.And when resentment takes up too much space in relationships, there's barely space available for affection and connection.

Let's try to understand the role of rejection when you find yourself hurting and overreacting, and you don't know why.

The Many Faces of Rejection

We can better understand and manage these overreactions by understanding the connection between taking things personally and feeling rejected. Rejection surfaces in dozens of forms - from feeling ignored, to feeling judged or criticized, to feeling abandoned.One way to do something about taking things personally and the accompanying feelings of rejection is learning to recognize it's various manifestations and how they affect your responses.

It's not easy to label your feelings in the midst of experiencing them, but identifying specific rejection components is a good place to start. Once you put a name to what's happening, you have a better chance of doing something about it. The key lies with you. You can't manage other's actions, but you can manage your reactions.

Here's a good first step:

Ask Yourself 

  • Might I be taking this personally? If so, how? 
  • Is there any cause for me to feel  threatened? ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­
  • Am I feeling rejected in some way? 
  • I am feeling judged? Criticized?  
  • What am I telling myself? 
  • Could this be an old message?
  • If so, where might it come from?

Misperception is a major culprit in miscommunication. Sometimes we perceive slights that may not have been intended. When there has been a history of hurtful interactions, we come to expect more of the same. This is true for both parties.

That's why developing the ability to de-personalize the interaction--stepping back and allowing some objectivity--is the key to better communication.

Walking Alongside Yourself

How do you gain perspective? One way is by giving yourself enough breathing room to not get so caught up in the drama of the moment.

Let's call it "walking alongside yourself." Being mindful. Noticing and naming the interaction between the two of you. This gives you some enough distance for perspective and objectivity. You'll begin to recognize the triggers for each of you.

A good goal would be actually catching yourself saying or doing something hurtful. You might think to say, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean for it to come out that way." The next time or two  you may catch your mistake even earlier in the interaction. Then you can pause, and start your sentence again. More respectfully this time.

With this new self-awareness, whenever you start moving down that old path of miscommunication and misunderstanding, you can decide to stop, rethink it and choose not to continue full speed ahead. You can learn to choose to back up to the fork in the road and change direction.

Practicing self-awareness helps you see your options in a difficult situation. You can see options and make choices about what you say and how you react.

Try separating the "now" of the present moment from the "then" of unpleasant past experiences. Developing this self-awareness can free you from becoming overwhelmed by your emotions in the moment.

"Emotional flooding" is when emotions are swirling around you and spilling over. At times like these you feel unable to think straight. You have trouble sorting out your feelings. You're more likely to take things personally and overreact. Flooding interferes with being open, flexible and reasonable, making it really tough on family relationships.

Let's take a look at the ways interactions can get off track when communication mis-fires.

Understanding Sequence and Reciprocity

It helps to understand how sequence and reciprocity affect family dynamics.

Sequence in this context refers to both positive and problematic behaviors in the relationship--identifying what behavior comes before and what behavior follows. And what comes before that? And before that? What behavior comes after? Soon a pattern of interaction begins to emerge.

Related to sequence is reciprocity--the effect of behavior on future behaviors--how one response begets another. In other words, every action is also a reaction, creating a circular rather than linear process of relating.

Let's suppose your family member says something you perceive as accusatory. Your response is to protect yourself from the attack. Your first reaction may be to withdraw, maybe nursing your hurt feelings or giving them the silent treatment. What if your family member perceives your withdrawal as an emotional abandonment? Might the pain of this cause them to react by lashing out? 

And what do you do then? How do you protect yourself? If you withdraw even more does your family member feel even more abandoned by you? How do they react to the pain of this feeling? With more angry outbursts? If not, what do they do? What if, instead of imploding, you lose your temper and explode? What happens next? At what point does the interaction start to disintegrate?

And on and on it goes. In other words, They don't do it to you and you don't do it to them. You both do it with each other. In this kind of circular interaction, each person's behavior affects and is affected by the other person's behavior.

In addition, each person's behavior reciprocally affects the behavior in the relationship, which in turn affects individual behavior. This can lead to intensified toxicity of course. But bear in mind positive changes in your relationship can happen this way as well.

This example started with an example of an accusation. Accusations between a family member and a non-BP are often connected to psychological projection. Although projection is a common defense mechanism for most of us, for people with BPD, projection is often a way of life.

When a Feeling is Too Hot to Handle

Let's look at how projection operates and its impact on relationships.

Projection is often a coping mechanism for dealing with feelings we cannot come to terms with. Any time you have unacceptable thoughts, needs, feelings, or fears your anxiety level may shoot up. Your tendency would be to protect yourself from experiencing the anxiety associated with these thoughts and feelings. A common way is to unconsciously attribute them to others.

When thoughts or fears are too hot to handle we want to get rid of them. We may toss them over to someone else. Non-BP's are handy recipients.

Projection is like moving your "stuff" into someone else's storage space for safekeeping.  A woman I know once observed, "If we can't own our own stuff, we try to give it away to someone else. In a way, projection protects us from ourselves by spreading the garbage around."

Here's how it happens: You mistakenly imagine that certain beliefs, thoughts or feelings exist in the other person when you cannot acknowledge them in yourself. They are disowned because they are emotionally unacceptable.

The projection of this trait onto others is usually a blind spot--not part of our awareness. The trouble with blind spots is if we cannot see them, we cannot intentionally change them until they are part of our consciousness. People deal this way with all kinds of unacknowledged thoughts and feelings including anger, fears, badness, insecurities, vulnerabilities, or dependency.

A non-BP is sometimes cued or prodded or provoked by the BP into unconsciously accepting the projection and acting in accordance with it. Have you ever found yourself flying into a rage, then realizing it is actually your family member's anger you are taking on?

Anger, impatience and passivity are examples of commonly projected traits involved in this unconscious, two-way interaction. The family member may even blame the non-BP for exhibiting these feelings. And you know how easy it can be to go to that place of feeling blamed and then blaming yourself. How easy it is to feel responsible or guilty or bad. How easy it is to take it personally.

Learning to Reject Parts of Ourselves

When our family or society deems something unacceptable, we tend to submerge it. We relegate it to the depths of our being. And because it's not safe to show up, these traits become our "shadow side," the part we wish wasn't there.

In other words, we learn to reject certain parts of ourselves. So we deal vicariously with that particular feeling or thought by putting it "out there" and assigning ownership to another person.

Members of the family sometimes develop an exquisitely macabre dance, baiting and biting, biting and baiting, alternating between the two. Just like the fish and the fisherman. Can you try to remind yourself not to bite the bait the other person throws out?

Finger-Pointing

Accusations and insinuations by your BP are often projections. It's hard not to take finger-pointing personally. It certainly feels like a personal attack.

Remembering the old Saturday Night Live joke about finger pointing can be useful here. "When someone is pointing their finger at you, remind yourself that three fingers are pointing right back at the person pointing." The SNL folks got it right. It sure helps put things in perspective.

It's a reminder worth repeating to yourself:

  • This is not about me.
  • This is most likely about the other person.
  • They are probably talking about themselves.
  • What might they be saying?
  • What emotions might they be experiencing?

 Again, this is a great way to "walk alongside yourself" and gain some perspective.

Tips for Clear and Respectful Communication

Practicing clear communication can circumvent mis-steps and mis-firings. Before you let yourself get too deeply into assumptions, experiment with these ways to check things out:

  • This is what I heard you say?
  • Is that what you said?
  • Is that what you meant?

 A more comprehensive strategy for checking things out with the other person would be:

  • Step One: Describe the problem in observable, non-blaming terms.
  • Step Two: Describe how you felt about the problem.
  • Step Three: Describe how you explained the problem to yourself.
  • Step Four: Describe how you would like the interaction to go next time.

 Notice that you are being responsible for your own feelings here and not blaming the other person.

 Take a "Time Out"

Intentionally "pausing" negative interactions by taking a "time out" works wonders. You can always excuse yourself, go into the bathroom, close the door and breathe deeply. 

Importantly, there are ways to make sure leaving the room doesn't feel like a rejection to the other person. You can say something like "I need to collect my thoughts. I'm going to take a walk around the block. I'll be back in half an hour and we can continue this conversation." (Be sure and specify that you will be back and when. And stick to it. Especially when your family member may have significant abandonment issues.)

In summary, try these strategies for clearer, cleaner communication: 

  • Try to maintain objectivity rather than speaking from an emotionally charged place
  • Avoid "filling in the blanks" with your own assumptions--clarify by checking things out
  • Walk alongside yourself, noticing and naming
  • Learn your blind spots
  • Recognize options and know you can make choices.

  ©  Elayne Savage, Ph.D.

Ideas in this article have been adapted from Don't Take It Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection and Breathing Room--Creating Space to Be a Couple, as well as from Elayne Savage's blog: http://www.TipsFromTheQueenofRejection.com.

Discover other related articles on Elayne's website: http://www.QueenofRejection.com. Follow Elayne on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/ElayneSavage and her blog: www.TipsFromTheQueenOfRejection.com

 

 

Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.

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