Always Walking on Eggshells? How to Stop
We all can be cautious at times, but that's different from being afraid.
Posted December 19, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
We all can do this at times, this walking on eggshells—knowing that this is not the time to bring up certain topics, ask too many questions, say what we really think. Time to lay low, back off, let it go, not make waves. Maybe we’ll bring it up later when things have settled down, when the timing is right, if it gets worse.
Some folks are good at knowing when to step up and be assertive and when to step down. Boss in a bad mood? Time to leave her alone. Partner stressed out from work or the kids? Be a support, not another stressor. Others are able to navigate their relationships with friends or even bosses, but in their more intimate relationships, they get stuck. They’re always stepping down, stepping back, afraid to be open and assertive. Why? Because these people are important to us, because we have history and memories, we know how they can react and are on-guard, because they know how to push our buttons.
And then there are some who sadly feel this way all the time. Walking on eggshells around everyone is how they cope with relationships. The world and others are unsafe, bad things can happen unexpectedly and quickly and so they are perpetually careful and cautious. Not making waves is not a strategy but a way of life.
What drives this
Anxiety, some level of fear about the other’s reaction: The grumpy boss is known to rant, the stressed partner to bark. The anxiety level can be low and stepping carefully is more about avoiding drama. But for those who are pulling back all the time in their intimate relationships or across the board in their lives, this is about something else; their anxiety is running the show, and their childhood may be spilling into and contaminating their present.
If you grow up in a chaotic or abusive environment, you understandably learn to see relationships as volatile, frightening, abusive. You become wired to be sensitive to any strong emotions, especially from those close to you. And because you are a child and only a child your way of coping is to be hypervigilant and hypersensitive to how those around you are feeling—you need to know when it’s time to run and hide, get ready to fight… or walk on eggshells and be careful. And taking it one step further, you figure out how to avoid stirring the emotional pot at all—you never speak up, you always accommodate or take the blame in advance, you always anticipate the worst.
What helps as a child can handicap an adult. The fear remains and it doesn’t take much to trigger it, and with it for those old little-kid feelings and little-kid coping mechanisms to kick in. Even though you’re not in danger, you feel like you’re in danger. Even though you’re an adult, and others see you as one, inside you feel small and vulnerable.
Stopping the process: Rewiring your brain
Can you learn to stop walking on eggshells? Sure, but it will take some work. You can’t simply get rid of the old brain circuits, but you can create newer, stronger, healthier ones. Here’s how to do it:
Realize when your little-kid brain is taking over
Can you tell when your adult, rational brain is going offline and your little-kid anxious, withdrawing, afraid-to-speak-up brain is taking over? Probably. Realizing when this shift is happening is half the battle—you stepping back and watching yourself rather than going on auto-pilot.
And if this is difficult for you to do, start by checking in with yourself every hour and asking yourself how you are doing, what brain is running you right now—your adult, rational brain, your frightened, anxious brain? Take your emotional pulse. No need to do anything at this point, just note what is going on.
Calm down the little-kid brain
Once you get more sensitized to your moods, you can begin to take reparative action. The goal now is to get out of your anxious brain and into your rational brain. You sense your boss’s bad mood, the store clerk is irritable, your partner is angry and scolding. You get triggered. Your anxious brain is going to tell you it’s red-alert time, time to accommodate, give in, take the blame, apologize, do something now to put out the fire, calm the other person down.
Instead, you want to pull back, slow down. This is a first-aid situation. Take some deep breaths; say you need a break to regroup. Do something mindful—cooking or writing or focusing on your work tasks or even taking a quick power nap to reboot. Take action that pulls you back into the here and now, your environment, that gets yourself out of your obsessing, frightened head of the past and into the present.
Figure out what are your true emotional reactions
Okay, your brain has settled. You’re back to being an adult. Now you want to focus on you, not on the other guy, and try to determine how you feel about the situation, the problem, the other’s reaction. This is more difficult—it may be hard for you to determine how you feel. Take your time. It may take you 20 minutes or two hours or two days. That’s fine. But if you find after you settle down and the anxiety has subsided that there remain feelings of annoyance or anger or sadness, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back. This is great and important.
Now it’s time to once again act, to do something with those emotions, your awareness. Now is the time to do what you couldn’t do as a child—let others know how you feel rather than thinking, "I can only feel better if I make them feel better."
This is hard stuff. The anxiety and fear will probably well up, but the challenge is to step up and act differently despite how you feel. You don’t have to do it right, you only have to do it differently, you only have to step out of your comfort zone. This is how you begin to replace the old wiring. By acting despite how you feel, you have the opportunity, and the only way to create the opportunity, of finding out that what you fear will happen doesn’t happen. You don’t get hit, you don’t get divorced, the other takes you seriously or even apologizes. These experiences, and they have to be experiences born from action, are what change your image of you and the world.
Take baby steps
And you don’t need to overwhelm yourself; it’s okay to take baby steps. If your partner or parent or sister is a bit too frightening, take smaller steps, such as speaking up if you feel your work colleague isn’t pulling his weight on a team project, or practice holding your ground with the irritable store clerk.
And if in-person is too difficult, or you have trouble thinking on your feet, send your colleague an email, call up the store the next day and complain to the store manager. This is not about the colleague or the clerk but about you, you changing your approach to relationships and anxiety. With practice in going against your grain, stepping up despite how you feel, you become less afraid. You can stop walking on eggshells.