Understand Other People

Better communication through a better understanding of behavior

You’re On My Last Nerve!

Unleashing the Self-Talk Build-up

Did you ever notice that when someone does something wrong to you – cuts you in line, reneges on a promise, doesn’t do what they said they would – the tendency can be to start to bash them in your mind? You might think about the things you’d like to say, if only you had a few minutes with that dastardly person. Or you might ruminate over all of the rude people, just like that one, that you are forced to deal with every day. Perhaps you shout out (where they can’t hear you) a few choice swear words at them. Other people’s actions can often set off a chain of reactions within us wherein a person goes into a self-talk bubble. They talk to themselves over and over again about the unfairness of it all, and the difficult time that other person has caused.

If this happens too many times, you might find that the next person who perpetrates something negative against you winds up getting on your last nerve. This is the person – spouse, sibling, child or friend – who steps over the line they didn’t even know was there and allows you to unleash all of the frustration that’s built up over time. The self-talk has done its dirty work, and now instead of just talking to yourself about how annoying everyone else really is, you are yelling at the person in front of you or on the phone.

This is the scenario where the person on the other side is scratching their head – or crying, or shrinking away, or yelling back at you – because they can’t imagine what has happened to set you off. This kind of outward reaction can take a few hours, a few weeks or sometimes a few years. This is why family members who seemingly get along just fine may have a blow-up and never speak again. Or why a spouse suddenly says “I want a divorce” even though things didn’t seem so bad.

The time you spend in your head talking about how terrible others are to you is time spent creating a fissure-like problem that eventually will find its way out. Most people don’t know what will finally set them off, but the last straw lands on the camel’s back and the last nerve gets taut and it’s all downhill from there.

You might even feel good about unleashing the anger – “he or she deserved it!” But in reality, life is short and most of the time people do eventually regret using another person as a punching bag. What kinds of things can you do to prevent the build-up from happening? It’s not that you need to put on rose-colored glasses and see everyone as wonderful; you just need to learn to defuse the brewing fissure before it can erupt. Think of it as opening your own personal spigot before the bad emotional response boils over!

  1. Remember that it is the human way to do something we “shouldn’t do” to others from time to time. The biblical adage about taking the log out of your own eye before you criticize the stick in someone else’s applies here. While in the moment you are furious with your child for talking back to you, you may not remember that you spoke sarcastically to that same child last week – but you did. You don’t think of your own faults and foibles – and this isn’t about beating yourself up – it’s about seeing that, in different circumstances, that person doing something against you IS you, in another scenario.
  2. Turn the golden rule around. Don’t only do unto others as you’d like them to do to you; do unto them as they’d like to be treated. If your spouse is non-talkative and quiet, don’t go out of your way to get them to engage and talk to you and then yell at them for being non-talkative. That might just be who they are. If your child asks you for “space,” don’t go into their room and try to be helpful in that moment. Wait until they come to you. The golden rule can be misapplied, because you might convince yourself that “this is what I’d like someone to do to me….” Instead, see the other person for who they are and do what they need in that moment.
  3. Turn your self-talk into objective banter. That person cut you off? Sure, it might have been “rude” and it might have been someone in a hurry who wasn’t paying enough attention. What’s the fact? They got in front of you and made you swerve. Self-talk about that – “That car just got in front of me and I swerved to avoid it.” Then end it there. You don’t need to speculate about the driver and how awful he or she is. You don’t have to use it as the excuse to ruminate about your miserable life and rude people everywhere. Just note it, objectively, then drop it. The moment has moved on.
  4. Bring up issues you need to raise when you are calm and feeling in control. Other people do things to us that aren’t the best. If your son hurt your feelings, it’s perfectly okay to tell him so – but don’t paint a picture of what a terrible son he is. Tell him that particular statement, in that particular moment, hit you the wrong way. Ask if he meant it and whether there is something the two of you need to discuss. Bring it up calmly and take responsibility for your feelings, too. Don’t make it about him. Saying “I’m sorry you had to be so mean to me” isn’t what’s needed here. Explaining, objectively, what you experienced and then seeking to understand, is.
  5. Start each day new. The person who bugged you yesterday might be a friend today. The negative experience you had with a colleague might be overshadowed by their attempts to help you on a project. People don’t fundamentally change, but the circumstances do. Someone who might have been having their own “bad day” yesterday, could be in a different mode today. Give them a chance to show you. 

Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University.

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