My friend Karen called me up recently because she was upset about an argument she’d had with her husband, Mark. They’d both had a long day at work and when he told her he was too tired to do the dishes after dinner, she’d become extremely upset and accused him of not caring about her. He responded by getting angry and telling her she was too demanding. By the time she called me, they had both retreated to separate rooms and had stopped speaking.
Highly sensitive people are often prone to feelings of anxiety and fear and we can easily become overwhelmed by those feelings. Many of us cope by either trying to ignore them or avoiding them through the use of food, alcohol, shopping, smoking or other addictive behaviours. Most commonly we try to protect ourselves from hurtful emotions by blaming someone else for how we are feeling. Unfortunately, while these tactics provide temporary relief, they do not solve the problem. The key to resolving painful emotions is to recognise that feelings emerge from within us, not from someone else, and within us lies the help we need.
Anger is a mask for other emotions. Behind an angry reaction is usually fear, as in my friend’s case, when she yelled at her husband because she was actually afraid that he didn’t care. Similarly, her husband’s anger concealed his feelings of hurt and frustration triggered by her lack of understanding. He was also possibly afraid that she was trying to control him. All these feelings can then lead us to anxiety, which makes us feel panicked, edgy, irritable and desperate to seek reassurance and comfort.
During their argument, Karen became increasingly desperate for Mark to console her and tell her that he cared about her and didn’t expect her to do all the dishes. But her frantic efforts only pushed him away because he felt blamed. And she felt more upset as he blamed her for not recognising how hard he worked.
The problem was not who should do the dishes, but why they were feeling upset. Was it Mark’s fault for not doing the dishes or was it Karen’s fault for asking him to do it? The reality is that it was neither, which was why blaming each other only exacerbated the argument. Once Karen asked herself why she became so upset, she realised that Mark’s neglecting the dishes had hit a nerve. It reminded her of a similar situation when she was growing up, when her father had told her that he loved her when she helped around the house and he withheld his love when she didn’t. To her, housework became an expression of love, so she became terrified that Mark didn’t love her anymore when he didn’t help out.
What she realised, however, was that underneath her anger at Mark was fear, and the fear wasn’t really about Mark’s love for her, but her father’s. She knew that Mark loved her. And she knew that he had had a long, tiring day. He had not actually done anything wrong, but his actions had triggered a fear deep inside her. I suggested she talk to Mark about how she felt and what she really was upset about. When she did, he was sympathetic and understanding and he no longer felt blamed or attacked.
Recognising the hurt at the root of our emotional reactions is the key to tackling those painful feelings and resolving the issues triggered in our relationships. Most of the time, these feelings are generated in childhood and we continue to be haunted and influenced by them until we deal with them head on. Becoming aware of them is an important first step. Expressing those negative feelings, by talking to a trusted friend or loved one or writing in a journal, is the next step. Getting your hurt feelings out is essential to releasing the pain that has distorted your perceptions and led you to blame others. Trying to get someone else to change their behaviour won’t heal the hurt inside you. But facing that hurt will.