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Their needs don’t trump mine - it’s not about “trumping” anyway! Gah!
January 11, 2013 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes, people will hurt me - and then get so upset about having done so, that they want me to comfort them. Or else they become so inconsolable that we can’t move forward without talking about their feelings. How do you handle these situations when what you need is time to process your own hurt?

There is a thing that I have encountered in my life a bunch of times, and I never quite know how to deal with it. I can give examples if needed, but I don’t want to get bogged down in specific cases that are over & done with.

In general terms it runs thus:

I feel hurt because of something someone I care about says/does. When I'm hurt and someone close to me is involved, I often have to withdraw for a bit. It's a reaction to the fact that a person I care about enough to be vulnerable around has just done something that was painful to me. That pain makes me question whether they are who I thought they were, and remember that they might do things that are hurtful or upsetting.

I need time to process their actions and then collect myself, remind myself that this person is allowed close to me for a reason, that they actually are safe and trustworthy despite whatever has just happened. That the chances of them doing that again are small - or that I need to reassess the risk of letting my barriers down and allowing them near my soft squishy vulnerabilities.

Anyway, while I'm processing the hurt and the self-protection instinct, I'm a bit wary. I don't want to be touched by whoever just hurt me, I am willing to talk about it but can be guarded in my speech, or sometimes want a bit of time to calm myself first.

The other person feels awful that they've hurt me - and suddenly they're distraught, often crying, sometimes verbally shredding themselves over what they did, and working themselves up more and more about it... and they need me to comfort and reassure them.

I, unsurprisingly, react with compassion to their distress. I'm female-bodied, and like most people who were socialised female I was fed the message that my feelings and needs should be secondary to those I care for. I've mentioned here before that I also grew up with a physically & emotionally abusive parent, so I internalised the message that my feelings didn't matter as much as theirs. (I am in therapy, so I'm working on this.)

But I end up facing the choice between squashing down my own feelings of hurt in order to comfort the person who's caused me pain, or being the callous uncaring shite who's ignoring their distress - often with repercussions for me after my “failure” to console them. The former leads to me feeling worse; the latter leads to them feeling worse as well as me. Social Conditioning says that if I'm going to feel worse either way, I should take the path that makes them feel better rather than worse. But I'm concerned that that's a path to resentment and self-abnegation and simmering quietly until things eventually explode. I've seen that happen to older female friends; I don't want it for myself.

So how do people navigate this?

I've pruned people who would do this manipulatively out of my life, but I don't know what to do about the ones who are genuinely that upset over hurting me that it overwhelms everything else.

It's particularly hard with guys when they're crying. I mean, I hate the macho stereotype, I wish more guys were able to cry or show emotional pain without feeling like they fail at masculinity, and I don't want to discourage them from expressing their sadness. So I'm extra-hesitant to withhold the comfort they're so desperate for. But it feels like that comfort has to come at the expense of my own, and I'm not happy about that.

I've also been penalised for not offering people the compassion to which they felt entitled: I've been called selfish or heartless, given the silent treatment afterwards, that sort of thing. At its worst, an Ex-lover sat stone-faced and watched me cry over what his manipulative behaviour, telling me explicitly that he needed physical touch as comfort and that unless I let him touch/hug me so that we could "comfort each other," he “couldn't do anything at all” - not even acknowledge that I was upset. (That's a large part of why he's an Ex - his idea of compromise was "you do what I want and then we don't have to argue any more.")

So how do you deal with situations like these? When your needs are directly antithetical to someone else's, and you're both in pain, how do you proceed?
posted by Someone Else's Story to Human Relations (35 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Leave -- the room, or the building. Say, "I need to take a break, I'll be back [in X amount of time / at Y o'clock]." and step away. The other person will not die as a result of this.

I know it sucks, but adults have to be able to soothe themselves if they're to have functional relationships. You can't manage other people's feelings for them.
posted by jon1270 at 11:36 AM on January 11, 2013 [12 favorites]


Say "I need a bit of space right now" - or, if you're really worried about being read as hostile, "it'll be fine, I just need a bit of space right now" - and then take that space. Don't talk about it with the other person, even in a guarded or gathering-your-thoughts way, just process it in your own time.

Most people won't have a problem with you doing that, because it's a totally reasonable thing to ask for. The people who do the "no I must follow after you and wail about how awful I am until you reassure me and it all becomes about my hurt feelings rather than yours!" thing... well, you'll know that's what they're doing, and you don't actually need to respect that behaviour (although I sympathise with how difficult it is to resist the guilt-trip).
posted by Catseye at 11:38 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I hate to be flippant, but someone who offends you, wittingly or not, then breaks down emotionally and expects you to comfort and console them, and then lashes out at you for not showing them the compassion they demand is a little confused about how healthy human relationships work. They may not be manipulative, but it's certainly not your responsibility to sort these people out.
posted by Nomyte at 11:39 AM on January 11, 2013 [27 favorites]


I spend a couple of years going through this with an ex-girlfriend. She'd do something cruel, I'd be hurt, she'd feel terrible, and then I'd comfort her. My need to deal with the pain I felt wasn't addressed. There was no comfort for me. Ultimately, she dumped me (I'd like to say that it was the other way around). We haven't spoken in years. I am much happier now and better at having healthy relationships. While we were in the relationship, I never did find a good solution. Today, I think us not being together was the best solution. We were a mess.

You say that you've pruned out the people who do this manipulatively. However, I'd suggest expanding your willingness to end relationships over this behavior. People can be bad for you in a variety of ways. Some people may not have the control and emotional maturity to be a healthy partner or friend.

In a healthy relationship, you should be able to talk about this sort of issue in a straightforward way. You could say, "I'm really hurt right now and I need to spend some time by myself. I hear that you are upset, but right now I really do need some space." That should be okay. The other person should have some ability to self-soothe (I'm using baby parenting terminology!)
posted by Area Man at 11:45 AM on January 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Basically what Nomyte just said. None of the behavior of the other person you describe is something that you should be attempting to accommodate. A person who is, regularly "distraught, often crying, sometimes verbally shredding themselves over what they did, and working themselves up more and more about it" is a person who has emotional issues that are keeping them from interacting with people properly. You are not their therapist or their mother.
posted by griphus at 11:45 AM on January 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


No one likes to sit quietly with the (bad) consequences of their actions. However, that very process can be fruitful if the person has ears to hear. (Many people don't.)

So not only is it not your responsibility to comfort them, you're not doing them any favors if you do.

Let them go cry to someone else if they truly need to. Maybe they need to cry to a therapist. :-)

Caveat: do you find yourself calling out people on their actions a lot? That might bear some examination one way or another. I used to drive people crazy with nitpicking complaints. However, some of my complaints were in fact legit and people didn't much like my standing up for myself. Too bad.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:47 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've also been penalised for not offering people the compassion to which they felt entitled: I've been called selfish or heartless, given the silent treatment afterwards, that sort of thing. At its worst, an Ex-lover sat stone-faced and watched me cry over what his manipulative behaviour, telling me explicitly that he needed physical touch as comfort and that unless I let him touch/hug me so that we could "comfort each other," he “couldn't do anything at all” - not even acknowledge that I was upset. (That's a large part of why he's an Ex - his idea of compromise was "you do what I want and then we don't have to argue any more.")

First, congrats on getting rid of the stone-faced jerk. You did right.

Your reactions so far are pretty healthy, actually. You object to this poor treatment because you KNOW you don't deserve it. You've been punished for being heartless, but not by saints and smart folks with their shit together and compassionate people who want the best for you. These asshats are messed up jerks who sound like they suffer from narcissistic personality disorder. Of course they're going to try to make it all about THEM, again, because that's what NPD people do.

Just cut these folks loose. You don't owe them anything - and anything you can give will never be enough, anyway.

It sounds like there have been a whole lot of people like this in your life. Were your parents selfish egoists who treated you like extensions of themselves? I only ask because this was my experience, and I'm now super-sensitized to anyone who tries to pull that kind of crap on me. Maybe try to be careful about when you're falling into orbit around people like this. They can be charismatic and powerful, and because you have issues relating to them, there's a part of you that will be strongly drawn to them. I'd say you've done more than your share up to now, so no guilt necessary about how you handled things in the past.

But do move on, and stay vigilant about not letting these self-obsessed scenery-chewing "this hurts me more than it does you" types get the better of you in future. They're poison for you - and for most people they become involved with.
posted by cartoonella at 11:58 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Can you just tell them, "Listen, I know it's upsetting to you that you've hurt me - I appreciate that you care about my wellbeing. But I need to process this myself - I've got to ask you to work through your feelings on your own or with someone else. "

Recently I've found that there's a lot of power in just telling people exactly what you're feeling in a situation, and telling them exactly what you need - not trying to persuade them to think or feel a certain way, not trying to figure out what is leading them to act as they do. Many people are not accustomed to this and will in fact respond very well to it and appreciate it - so many of us were raised to be indirect about our feelings and what is going on with us that sometimes we don't really know how to act well, how to show caring in such a way that it comes across as caring, etc.

There's no need to "show these guys" or convince them that they are immature or need therapy or whatever. First, they're straight or cis guys, right? They've been raised to be a bit emotionally immature and the question is whether they are trying to grow or not. Second, if they're really your friends and care for you, they may need some direct prompts about how to act but they're not pulling the "care about my feelings and trample your own" thing out of malice.

If they don't react well to "I need to handle my feelings about this myself, so I can't process yours with you", then that calls their ethics and friendship into question and you can address that.
posted by Frowner at 12:00 PM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I say "lets talk about me for a while" in a slightly exasperated tone while physically moving away slightly. If that doesn't jolt them back to reality and make them apologize, focus on me then I cross them off the friend list/ break up with them.

I've only done this a few times but its been quite illuminating in terms of how other people really see you.
posted by fshgrl at 12:02 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've experienced this, too. My take is even if the people who are doing this are not what you would classically describe as manipulative, this kind of behavior is a tactic (whether the person consciously knows this or not). It works for them–probably has since childhood–and because it works, they never found more mature, thoughtful ways to deal with the other person's feelings when they are in the wrong. It reminds me of begging in a way. It's a short cut to the other person's forgiveness. But that shouldn't be your concern. And, if it's true that we teach people how to treat us, you should definitely continue calmly holding your own and not caving in such instances. I want to mention that in my experience anyone who then gets angry and calls you names ('heartless') when you do hold your own was just being manipulative.
posted by marimeko at 12:08 PM on January 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


My wife used to put me in this spot fairly often, long ago, but in most cases, I think she actually was hurt worse by her own realizations/admissions to herself than I was by the initial incidents. So what I've done over the years is learn to react more neutrally, ask her to probe the implications of a comment or action with me, and ease into a recognition that I would appreciate being consoled. It's a struggle to hold my reaction off for a bit, but my needs are eventually fulfilled with less pain for everyone if I can manage it. I write it off as a minor downside to having a sensitive partner with a very strong sense of guilt.

I can't advise you to go all Vulcan at the first sign of a problem, knowing you'll get what you need in time, because that's hard and theoretically you shouldn't have to. But an unexpected happy side effect of managing to do so has been that it doesn't come up much anymore, possibly because it helped so much to resolve issues like this without resentment or damage to anyone's self-esteem/self-image.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:08 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


"No, I am not going to comfort you. Stop making this about you and your needs. You screwed up and you hurt me -- you need to focus on meeting my needs and comforting me first before you get to feel better about what you did. Maybe you'll feel better by caring about me first instead of yourself. Don't EVER ask me to make you feel better about hurting me, regardless of whether it was intentional or not. And for the record, what you're feeling right now is called guilt. You deal with that on your own time, not by abusing me further."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:12 PM on January 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


I've been called selfish or heartless, given the silent treatment afterwards, that sort of thing.

You aren't being penalised, these people are showing you their character.

If someone gives you the silent treatment, quit trying to get them to stop. Say you could use some quiet time yourself and leave, don't let someone make a successful bid for your attention with this.

Some people might not want to be around you if you won't give them attention when they give you the silent treatment. Consider this a self-solving problem.
posted by yohko at 12:21 PM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


being the callous uncaring shite who's ignoring their distress

You're not the only person who has trouble with this--this is a totally normal thing to find confusing and upsetting. I suspect there's no ideal answer. I do know that until you stop characterizing prioritizing yourself so negatively, you're not going to be able to deal with this.

If you're upset and you don't want to comfort someone, it doesn't make you callous, uncaring, or (a) shite. It makes you a perfectly normal human being who puts themselves first sometimes.

I also have abusive parents and ingrained attitudes like this are very, very hard to unearth and deal with because they are (sometimes literally) beaten into you. Especially when they're reinforced by societal sexism. Punishing you for not caring for them after they've mistreated you is part of an abusive pattern that you should watch out for in partners.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:44 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I knew I'd miss something when I cut 500 words of example out of my post. I've been approaching these situations basically as Frowner and Catseye suggest - Using My Words, as Captain Awkward would say, and telling people that I'm happy to talk about it, but I need a bit of time to process and/or don't quite feel like I can hug them and make it all better yet. In these situations, that's when things tend to escalate.

I'm not convinced that all the people who do this are self-absorbed narcissists who should be cut off at the first instance like this; the world just isn't that black & white. But that doesn't mean I should just put up with this - surely there's a middle ground?

I also understand that it's not my responsibility to sort these people out - but how do you convey that without damaging the relationship? That's basically what I'm asking.

To throw a couple of those examples in:

- A few years back when SomePartner and I were moving out of a really unpleasant situation, we were both stressed and short on patience. He said something that really stung - I've done my best to forget it, so I don't want to immortalise the specifics here. I teared up over what he said, but I told him as calmly as I could that I was really hurt by what he'd just said, and that I thought it was unfair.

I took another load of boxes out to the car; when I got back in, he agreed his comment wasn't fair, apologised, and asked for a hug. I said I appreciated the apology, but wasn't really feeling like I could hug him just yet, and that I was going to move more boxes while I let my feelings settle. When I came back again, he was sitting on the couch with tears running down his face; he looked up at me and got as far as "I'm sorry" before he was just sobbing. While I reiterated that it'd be okay, he got more and more upset.

Despite the fact that I still feeling hurt by what he'd said a few minutes before, it was heartrending seeing him so distressed, and becoming more inconsolable by the moment, so I went and comforted him over my own discomfort. That was my choice, I get that, but at the time I didn't know what else I could've done as a caring partner.

- It's also happened with friends - like the time a friend declared that all pets were child-substitutes; when I disagreed with her she started making comments about how my disability totally makes me, like, an exotic pet (or a child-substitute) for SomePartner because I'm as dependent on him for food, shelter, care, etc, as a puppy. And she knew damn well that the dependence and being too disabled to support myself are upsetting to me, over and above my painful condition.

When I called her on that being Not Cool, she started beating herself up about it, until she'd worked herself up to I'm A Terrible Person And I Drive Everyone Away In The End And Now I Will Go Into A Tailspin About How You Will Hate Me Forever Because I Was So Awful To You And There Is No Way You Could Ever Forgive Me. I tried to reaffirm that I was unhappy with her comments, not her, and talk her back down. But I found myself thinking it sucked that I felt I had to reassure her because she had said something unpleasant to me - and both her upset and mine could be avoided in future if she just stopped the mean-spirited crap.

She didn't; the friendship ended soon after.


As for Currer Belfry's pertinent caveat, it doesn't happen that often - I've had to go back a couple of years for these examples, and that's only partly because they're clear-cut, uncomplicated demonstrations of the issue. However, as one of the few non-white, disabled, queer, etc, folks in my geeky social circles, I have had to deal with well-meaning people saying thoughtless or insensitive things about race/disbility/women in general/etc. If anything, I've bitten my tongue or been very gentle about questioning prejudices in the past.

As a couple of eloquent bloggers have put it, though, often it comes down to the choice between swallowing shit [by taking the treatment without protest], or ruining the whole afternoon [by being "the confrontational one"]. That's not a pleasant choice to make, whether it's about personal insult or social injustice.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 12:47 PM on January 11, 2013


I don't know. This could be way off, but the fact that this has happened to you with lots & lots of different people is ringing alarm bells for me. After a certain point you have to realise that the common denominator is you.

The way you describe how you respond to feeling hurt suggests to me that you may be, without realising it, a bit of a sulker. On the inside, sulking often feels like 'withdrawing to deal with my vulnerability, etc', but the way it presents itself is that the person deals with conflict or insult by withdrawing. There's something fundamentally and literally antisocial about this, because it precludes a way of dealing with the conflict by talking about it or discussing it. I have been around sulkers, and although I'm sure they felt they were doing what they had to do to protect themselves emotionally, the result was profoundly sucky for everybody. The fact is that it's unlikely to be the case that your friends are being deliberately hurtful to you on this regular a basis (of course, if they are, you should get real friends). In my experience 90% of friend-hurt situations are misunderstandings or miscommunications or other mishaps, but by withdrawing and refusing to engage you make the situation 100% about the getting the friend to placate you and feel bad.

I think it's possible - not, like, certain, but at least worthy of consideration - that the emotional reactions you're seeing are so strong because you withdrew in the first place; having a friend cut off all contact in reaction to a perceived injury, and having no way to talk to them or apologise or make right or even justify yourself, is pretty horrible and upsetting and tends to turn little things into great big things quite quickly.

Whether or not you intend your silences to be a punishment, they are liable to become de facto punishments if every time you feel you have been wronged they occur. It also turns the situation into a power play where the person has to dance around to avoid upsetting you in any way, particularly since any confrontation about the silences is liable to result in more silences.

I may be 100% wrong about this, and most of your friends may be jerks, but I think it's something you should consider.

Even if I'm 100% wrong and you're not sulking or it doesn't happen all that regularly or whatever, I do think you should give some thought to why it is that you're so distrustful of people that even a teary apology isn't enough for you to forgive and feel safe around them. I can't think of many situations where that wouldn't be enough for me, and if I hurt a friend but then apologised tearfully, I guess I would be pretty cut up if they continued to act angry and standoffish unless the hurt was, like, weapons-grade life-altering type stuff. Life's just too short to stay angry with people who love you enough to feel deep remorse over hurting you.
posted by Acheman at 12:53 PM on January 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


When I called her on that being Not Cool, she started beating herself up about it, until she'd worked herself up to I'm A Terrible Person And I Drive Everyone Away In The End

If that's her pattern, you can't really fix that for her by trying to comfort her for a bit.
posted by yohko at 1:16 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's improbable that the whole rest of the world is doing something wrong, so if you find this happening very frequently, it's much more likely that (as Acheman suggested) the problem is you. You may need to reevaluate how you handle conflict.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:17 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Using My Words, as Captain Awkward would say, and telling people that I'm happy to talk about it, but I need a bit of time to process and/or don't quite feel like I can hug them and make it all better yet. In these situations, that's when things tend to escalate.

Hm.

So all this escalates precisely when you start asserting a boundary, and you are more socially marginalized than the people in your friend group. Well, that's shitty. These people sound like they are either pretty young and very insecure (I could see myself acting like this in my early twenties) or they are not really interested in being good friends to you.

If I had to take a total guess, I imagine that these are people with either a very weak sense of self or a very large sense of entitlement. If they have a very weak sense of self (bad childhoods, learned to "be good" all the time, etc) then when you establish a boundary they are hearing (correctly, IMO), "What you did really was hurtful and can't be passed off as just one of those things" and that makes them freak out because they have such low/fragile self esteem that even one little "I am not as good as I would like to be" knocks them on their ass - probably they are struggling to hold together their sense of self all the time and can only do so by ignoring or papering over mistakes. People with a big sense of entitlement just don't like being told that they were actually wrong.

That is, the act of saying "yes, you definitely hurt me and I have my own needs that I must tend to" is what sets them off because they are not capable of accepting that they can make real mistakes.

I wonder if you could have a conversation with the most mature and thoughtful friend who does this - pick a time when you are both not upset, talk face to face, share your feelings and concerns and ask for their back-up. Try to build an ally there, maybe, by reaching out to them when they can hear you and allow their feelings of care and concern to come to the fore? Also if you have friends who don't do this, can you make allies of them so that you have someone in real life who perceives what you perceive?

I suspect that "the commonality is you" only in the sense that you are the socially vulnerable person in a group of either insecure or entitled people.
posted by Frowner at 1:20 PM on January 11, 2013 [12 favorites]


I thought something along the lines of what Acheman said. This (what all these people are doing to you) is not usual behavior; the fact that you get it frequently, from more than one person, is worth looking at.

It could be that your behavior when you withdraw makes them think that what they did hurt you far worse than it actually did. You see yourself as taking some time out to process, they see you as behaving as if you hate them or something.

It could also be that something about you, not even something you're in control of, draws these types of people to you. Maybe you seem like the type who will put up with it, or you seem especially fragile, or accommodating. You point out in your update that you're disabled. I wonder...not that you're an exotic pet (ugh!) but I wonder if a certain type of person comes into your life and wants to protect you and take care of you and thinks that because of your disability you can't handle stuff the way someone else could. And consequently they get super upset because not only did they anger their friend, but they were useless as a caretaker, or whatever kind of thing would go through the mind of someone like that. Just a guess, really, but it stood out to me.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:24 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


OK, now I have read your follow-up (should have previewed). If the two situations are the only ones you're talking about, it doesn't sound like you have a pattern of sulking - although it also doesn't sound like anything like the 'bunch of times' in the original question. However, I do think that in both the situations you're describing it's not as straightforward as 'they were being jerks'. It's interesting that in the title of your post you say 'it's not about trumping anyway' - but you do seem to think that only one person's emotional hurt can be ministered to at a time. I think this is clearest in the case with your partner: sometimes people in relationships hurt each other. Then it hurts that they have hurt each other. The solution to this is that you comfort each other - it isn't about who was right or whose emotional needs are greatest, everyone should get comforted unless the hurt is, like, relationship-ending awful. If you withdraw, it does become like a punishment, and in my view that's not a healthy dynamic even if what he did/said was completely wrong.

The situation with your friend sounds more messed up, but I will say as a marginalised queer crazy myself that it's never seemed to me that the people I need to worry about are the people who will weep with remorse when I call them on their shit. It's the people who are incapable of understanding that they did something wrong in the first place. I'll also say that she sounds like an unhappy person, and it's quite possible you got drawn into a tiny corner of the awfulness of her life just as she contributed a little bit to the awfulness of yours. It is so rarely the case that only one person is hurting, or only one person's context of pain and suffering is relevant or important. You don't have to abandon your own pain to acknowledge theirs.
posted by Acheman at 1:27 PM on January 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Going off Acheman's [first] answer a bit -- you are the common denominator, so look within a bit -- if there are this many instances of tears in your life, part of the answer involves detaching yourself from people who like dramatics, and if you are fuelling drama, find a way to cut that off. Having crap escalate to that point should not be a recurring theme.

With regards to

we were both stressed and short on patience. He said something that really stung... he looked up at me and got as far as "I'm sorry"... I went and comforted him over my own discomfort. That was my choice, I get that, but at the time I didn't know what else I could've done

I think that sort of thing, a dust-up in an intimate relationship where both parties behave regrettably ("both...short on patience") and something crummy happens and you both instantly realise it's out of control and both feel like hell, is an opportunity for you to process things, so to speak, together. Also fine to use it as the cue to take some distance from each other, too. You could've wept on him; you could've told him you needed to take a walk.

as one of the few non-white, disabled, queer, etc, folks in my geeky social circles, I have had to deal with well-meaning people saying thoughtless or insensitive things about race/disbility/women in general/etc

Are these people for-real jerks or are they just people who have never had the opportunity to think about the thing that just made them put their foot in their mouth a bit? You say "well-meaning," so let's go with "not jerks." Swell. I don't know what sort of dipshit bloggers have decided for you that the options here are: embrace prejudice, or, stir shit. There are non-confrontational ways to handle other people's innocent, unfortunate brain-mouth accidents. But maybe this is more a problem of: lousy social circles? Not jerks =! optimal match for you.
posted by kmennie at 1:33 PM on January 11, 2013


Everyone has their own issues (which they try to hide) and the honest expression of emotions/boundaries (by you) brings these to the fore (which is unexpected by them and not something they can deal with very well). In other words, humans are messy, most of this is actively suppressed, but when one person is honest in their emotions, it can start a snowball effect.

So in the case of the friend who was all I'm A Terrible Person And I Drive Everyone Away In The End, this was actually not about you at all but rather about her personal insecurities that just happened to emerge when you stood up to her (which you totally should have because she was horrible to you).

The boyfriend crying on the couch might not have just been crying about that situation but also previous relationships and difficulties and it may have been an emotional release type situation because, yes, culturally, boys don't cry.

I don't think it's manipulative per se (although, the comfort guy was a dick), it's just that some people don't stop having that intense need to be parented by another person when they're upset. What is manipulative is when you don't play parent and they lash out because you've not fulfilled your duty (in their eyes). In that situation, just walk away from them (as you would a child throwing a tantrum).
posted by heyjude at 1:42 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was predisposed to agree with Acheman's initial post, since I had a friend who was a bit of a sulker about things that were really quite harmless, and I know she would have said exactly what you said to justify her behaviour. But to me it wasn't her withdrawing to deal with her own vulnerability, to me it was The Silent Treatment and due to my own personal history I absolutely couldn't handle it. (I didn't do what your friends have done, but I did withdraw myself and consider her a bit of a jerk.)

However the two examples in your followup post really do present the two people as overreacting, insensitive and kind of egocentric. The fact that you explained in words that you needed time to process makes all the difference to me. People should be able to handle that.
I mean, come on, bursting into tears? What's going on in your friendship that spirals your upset into such a drama for other people?

So yeah, maybe get friends who are more capable of handling conflict. And continue standing up for yourself. Leave the room and go for a walk to get the space you need, it does make it easier for both of you if you don't have to see each other while processing. If you can, offer a time frame when you can talk about it again.

And just to point out: People don't have to like seeing you upset. Just as they have to handle seeing that they have upset you, you should also be able to handle if they show (reasonable, not like in your example) signs that your withdrawal and their guilt hurts them. That doesn't mean that you should comfort them, it means that you have to learn to let it roll off your back. Yes, they are upset, they are allowed to be upset, and you have to let go of feeling like you should make them stop being upset.

God job on verbalising what you need.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:45 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Your update actually makes this situation make a lot more sense to me. I honestly have never been in your position - but I have been in the other position, and my partner has been in your position, and we've talked about it a lot, so maybe there's some helpful stuff there? (Except for the friend thing, because that stuff is BS).

Nothing's black and white, but I think there are two major styles of dealing with emotional turmoil, and I think they often tend to align with the extrovert/introvert axis. One is to move closer towards other people, while the other is to move further away. Often, for each type of person, it is the only way that they understand people process pain reasonably, because they tend to associate with the type of people who are similar. (Except in relationships, because there, all bets are off.)

So for people who deal with pain by moving closer towards other people, your moving away or withdrawing from them has a finality about it, and a lot more emotions on it, that you may not intend. Before I started really thinking about this difference, I used to process it as, "This person cannot take comfort from me: I must have permanently destroyed their love and affection for me." Because for me, touch and closeness is comforting, even when it comes from someone I am angry with or hurt by, as long as I still care about them. Touch and closeness means that you want to work it out.

For people who deal with pain by moving further away from people, other people trying to move closer to them can be viewed as weird and somewhat manipulative, and as though they don't understand that you have a right to feel hurt. I am told that this can read as, "This person doesn't respect my feelings or wishes."

But the problem is often the noncommunication of this situation before the problem exists. Because it isn't enough to say things in the heat of the moment - they will not be taken clearly. You need to start having these conversations when there aren't any problems. Things like: "You know, Friend/Lover X, when I'm sad, I really don't like to be touched or comforted by other people. I really need to be alone to recover from things. It's the only way I can feel better." If you say this a few times, it means that when you do get into an upset situation, when you walk away, they can realize, "The walking away doesn't mean I'm unloved and will never be forgiven: it's just a way of processing feelings that has nothing to do with me."
posted by corb at 1:47 PM on January 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Also, I think that you have to be more aware of your own needs and set good boundaries, too. Someone who asks you to comfort them when they've just hurt you is an insensitive jerk - but someone who will accept your comfort, not realizing it's a problem, may not be.
posted by corb at 1:49 PM on January 11, 2013


I also understand that it's not my responsibility to sort these people out - but how do you convey that without damaging the relationship? That's basically what I'm asking.

The original damage to the relationship is due to their original behavior. Don't take all the responsibility onto yourself here. You're making it all your fault/responsibility when in reality, they're responsible for their own original action and for their reaction to your expression of hurt/disapproval.

That was my choice, I get that, but at the time I didn't know what else I could've done as a caring partner.

Walk away. I don't see it as always my responsibility to help a partner who is crying; what I do in one moment doesn't make or break the relationship or make me a bad/good person. Presumably, this person can calm themselves down and take care of themselves, as they are functioning adults, or they can contact a friend for help, right? Again, it's not your responsibility to care for them, it's primarily their responsibility.

Relationships are marathons, not sprints. You will not damage a good relationship irreparably by taking some time to yourself and letting a significant other self-comfort.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:58 PM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


it comes down to the choice between swallowing shit [by taking the treatment without protest], or ruining the whole afternoon [by being "the confrontational one"]

How about option 3: raise an eyebrow, catch their eye, squinch up your face; i.e., make your reaction obvious without vocally derailing the group conversation.
posted by ecsh at 2:36 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think you handled everything just right in the examples you gave in your follow-up. In the first, both you and your partner were stressed and emotional and he snapped at you. You told him you were hurt, he apologized and when you withdrew, he broke down. Both of you were upset there. The only difference is that his reaction to the stress was tears, and yours was withdrawing. You feel it was, I guess, unbalanced or unfair because you ended up comforting him, but I think he felt just as bad because he knew he had hurt you and you weren't accepting his apology (I know you accepted it verbally, but you held him off physically so he knew you were upset). I don't think he was trying to manipulate you, or even doing so unconsciously. You were both super stressed and reacted in kind. In the end, neither of you ended up with a perfect solution.

In the second example, your "friend" was making everything all about her, first trying to pick a fight and then, when you didn't rise to her bait but eloquently expressed how she'd hurt you instead, painting herself as a terrible person, etc. just to get you to disagree and give her positive strokes. That was NOT a friend, she was being a drama queen and your were right to break off of the friendship!

Obviously, the guy in the body of your question was a manipulative asshole, too.

If this does keep happening to you, I'd suggest that maybe you aren't always communicating, "That hurt me and I need time to process it," quite so well. You may actually be saying those words, even, but your partners/friends perceive it differently. Because you withdraw from them, even though you are saying you are hurt, to them you are acting as if you are angry. They feel that you are being cold and distant to hurt them and get back at them, rather than to process your own pain.

There's a couple things you don't mention that might be significant here and could help with this:

How long does it take you to process your hurt? When you went outside during moving time to settle your feelings buy moving some more boxes around--are we talking a few minutes there, or was it closer to an hour, or even hours later before you went back inside to your partner?

Maybe there is a little bit of manipulation in your own actions. Is it possible that part of you really does want to punish the other person and they are picking up on this?

Body language also communicates a lot. I don't want to be forced into a hug or made to console someone else when I'm still dealing with my own pain, either, so I get where you are coming from. But it would probably be a lot better to physically give yourself that space when possible, rather than sticking around, staring at your partner with dagger eyes, pointedly shrugging him off and screaming,"DON'T TOUCH ME!"
posted by misha at 2:52 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've pruned people who would do this manipulatively out of my life, but I don't know what to do about the ones who are genuinely that upset over hurting me that it overwhelms everything else.

One thing that occurs to me: emotionally healthy, caring people won't lash out at you for gently refusing to turn the focus to them, and it seems like you know that based on the examples you give. BUT you are still trying to figure out how to respond to minimize the chances of them lashing out at you or "damaging the relationship."

This is understandable - we're hardwired to try and avoid experiences where someone else may be aggressive towards us. So it might be that you've simply developed a sticky association in your brain between "standing up to myself in this kind of situation" and "partner/friend gets aggressively angry towards me."

But you gotta remind yourself: people you want in your life will not act that way. For good friends and partners, asserting reasonable emotional boundaries will not ruin the relationship or cause them to lash out at you. You're free to be compassionate but reserved in these cases - it's not your responsibility to fix things for others. And if they can't handle that, well, it's not your problem to fix, either.
posted by lunasol at 4:02 PM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I very much wonder how much of this is tied up with your disability and the general discomfort of able-bodied people, even very well-meaning able-bodied people, when interacting with disabled people.

I have begun to notice a very similar experience when sharing my own feelings about the fact that I have multiple sclerosis. My initial response to my diagnosis was to keep my cards super close to my chest and never reveal how scared or tired I was, but eventually that got really exhausting. I need my loved ones to help me cope! So I've been trying to be more expressive about it, to share more of the fears and frustrations with people who are close to me, but I've noticed that sometimes their reactions are less than helpful. Instead of acknowledging that yeah, shit is scary and bad sometimes, there's a kind of panicked attempt to normalize.

Most of the reactions are things like, "That symptom happens to me! I get [x] thing all the time, too!" Or, when I talk about the frustration of how unpredictable it is and how I don't know how to make plans for the future, people say, "Well, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow! I might have some undiagnosed disease right now!" In other words, what's happening to me because of MS is the same as what's happening to them because of not-MS, and they don't have anything wrong with them, so I must not have anything wrong with me. Nothing to worry about! I suspect most of this happens at the subconscious level; I know nice, well-meaning people and I would never suspect any of them of being intentionally dismissive.

La la la, lots of stuff about me, sorry. Here's where I think my stuff is relevant to you: if I challenge it in any way, for example clarifying that while I appreciate the effort to relate to my stuff, I am talking about something much different than a headache, people get upset, really upset, that their attempts to defuse and normalize the situation can't succeed. You're So Strong And I Admire You So Much upset. But You Look So Good, You Can't Really Be Sick, Are You Sure It's Really That Bad? upset. Oh I'm So Sorry I Can't Imagine What You're Going Through upset. You Poor Thing upset.

When that happens, I find myself in the awkward position of having to console them for having been ineffective helpers, which is the opposite of what I was hoping for when I started the conversation in the first place. It's easier just to nod and smile and mouth some platitude about how nice it is to be understood, but that doesn't meet my need for support, and more and more I find that I can't do it. I have to say, "This isn't about you. It can be about you some other time, when you need my help in confronting your own fear about my disease. Right now I just need you to hug me and be with me in the space of how scary this all is."

There's a whole big societal thing about the "easy" disabled person versus the "difficult" disabled person that I'm leaving out here. Suffice it to say that the same way that people don't like to sit with their own guilt at having done something hurtful, people REALLY don't like to sit with their own abilities when faced with someone else's disabilities. I really wonder if you're contending with both of those things at the same time and that's why people really lose it when you decline to immediately make it right for them when they've let you down.
posted by jesourie at 4:33 PM on January 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


I have thought long and hard about this, both after the events and before posting this question. I'm certain I'm not sulking, sitting there glaring and sullen, or withdrawing to punish people under these circumstances. Again, I am perfectly willing to talk to people on most occasions about what they did - I just don't want to have drop my own feelings in order to cater to theirs.

However, I have never known an apology to be an instant panacea. I can forgive someone for accidentally stepping on my toes or elbowing me as they moved, sure, but that doesn't instantly stop the affected body part from hurting. Similarly, knowing someone is sorry doesn't immediately pull the stress hormones out of my system or turn off the lizard-brain threat response. If you know an instant and certain way to do that, I'd love to know about it?

Occasionally I need a minute or few to collect/calm myself is largely so I can put things into words - or, rarely, to curb the impulse to say hurtful things right back - but mostly I'm able to talk while I process. But sometimes I don't want to hug someone who's just hurt me while my hindbrain is full of fight-or-flight and my emotions are heightened. I think it's okay to respect that desire.

(To answer Misha, it was one armload of boxes; I was already carrying them at that. I would've been back within two minutes.)

There are plenty of times when I can comfort someone or talk through what happened without that having to be at the expense of my own needs. For that very reason, those are not what I'm talking about in this question.

But when someone says (as per the Ex I mentioned up top) or demonstrates that the only way to end their distress is for them to get a hug and I don't feel comfortable hugging them, then yes I do feel only one person's needs can be met at a time. Because I have a need for a few minutes of physical space to process, and they need physical touch right then. You can't give someone half a hug as a compromise.

And when someone is so distressed about my feeling hurt by their actions that we can't talk about anything but their distress, the issues are similar. This is considered a derailing tactic in many social justice discussions - if I turn the discussion to how you upset me, we don't have to talk about how I just said something racist/sexist/etc - but this question is mostly about how to deal with it on a personal level.

I've appreciated the answers so far, so thank you all for your thoughts.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 4:54 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


But sometimes I don't want to hug someone who's just hurt me while my hindbrain is full of fight-or-flight and my emotions are heightened. I think it's okay to respect that desire.

It is 100% okay to respect that desire. Your complete agency over your body is not equally important to someone else's desire to be hugged. It is paramount. Trying to hug someone who doesn't want to be hugged is a serious violation, and I suspect that it is actually a continuation of the original aggressive behavior, couched as a "need" in order to manipulate you into ignoring your own valid feelings and re-center yourself on their desires, which they feel entitled to prioritize.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:41 PM on January 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Similarly, knowing someone is sorry doesn't immediately pull the stress hormones out of my system or turn off the lizard-brain threat response. If you know an instant and certain way to do that, I'd love to know about it?

I just wrote a long comment and lost it, but I think this stuff is worth saying so I'm going to go again..

One way to think* about the process of getting over 'lizard brain' and stress hormones and the like is that you are trying to get your brain to release oxytocin, which gives you all sorts of prosocial and trusting feelings, and reduces stress. One very easy way to do this is actually a hug or physical touch. I'm saying this not to make you feel bad about the fact that maybe you can't always handle that, but in the hope that it'll give you an idea of where the people who solve conflict like this are coming from; there's an actual physiological process just as real as the 'lizard brain' stuff which can reaffirm togetherness and empathy and so on which they are trying to access. If you can't do it with physical touch, just having a conversation where you mutually affirm each other's hurts and talk about your common ground can go a long way towards making you feel better. The people I know who deal with conflict through mutual empathy rather than withdrawal are able to end a row within like 30 seconds, at best, whereas withdrawal is always going to be a strategy that leaves people feeling hurt and confused for longer. The let's-solve-this-together approach also makes it more likely that the situation is going to progress beyond a simple who's right-who's wrong situation. And for me, as I said earlier, it just always seems that life is too short to be angry with people when I don't intend to stay angry with them and my anger isn't going to have any further influence on their behaviour.

This is a bit left-field, but one thing that has helped me a lot with my own far-from-optimal conflict-coping strategies is Buddhist loving-kindness (metta bhavana) meditation (btw I am not a Buddhist). I sit and think about people I like and people I don't like and people I mostly don't think about at all, and on each breath in I think about the kindness they offer me and on each breath out I think about them with kindness. It gives me, if you will, a big dose of oxytocin plus more of a sense that I can generate oxytocin when I feel I need it.

All this stuff may be highly cultural, by the way; I think that Americans are much more into the whole 'you are responsible for yourself, and not anyone else' approach which I personally find off-putting in like 1000 ways, plus in its own way pretty damn ablist.**

This is considered a derailing tactic in many social justice discussions - if I turn the discussion to how you upset me, we don't have to talk about how I just said something racist/sexist/etc - but this question is mostly about how to deal with it on a personal level.

I have got super into social justice stuff in the past, and in many ways I am still into it, particularly as a way to identify and acknowledge problematic dynamics. However, I think my approach towards that stuff is now more nuanced and measured. I do think that sometimes empathy is a trap if it's being demanded in an entirely onesided way. However, I think that mostly it's the only damn thing we've got and our one hope of getting out of this mess, and that pushing people away, while sometimes pragmatically necessary, isn't as brave and responsible as SJ thought sometimes makes it out to be. I think sometimes I read that stuff and it made me less likely to think about where people were coming from, and more likely to think about who was right.*** And I think that was a mistake.****

*Look, I'm going to be honest here: I think 90% of popular neuroscience, including the stuff I quoted above, is just metaphor and mythology for thinking critically about our emotions. I don't even care if the oxytocin stuff is real, I think it makes for at least as good a bit of metaphor/mythology as the other stuff and you would do well to add it to your arsenal.

**For instance, loads of people here have flat-out said that people who can't manage their own emotions well aren't people you want to deal with or be friends with, which as someone with mental health problems (which affect mostly me but do sometimes make me someone who is not fun to be around) I find pretty hurtful. What I think is most powerful about the disability movement, and indeed 'ablism' as a concept, is that it suggests an ethic where we take people as they are and try to work out something together, rather than angrily thinking, "She should be able to do Y! Y is so easy for me! She must not be trying!"

Also that it is not terrible if sometimes people need emotional support at odd times, just as they may need other kinds of help and support at inconvenient times. We should not have an ideal of people being self-sufficient emotionally any more than we should have an ideal of physical self-sufficiency. Both of those ethics are OK though still sometimes damaging for healthy people, and often literally deadly for those with more serious problems. It's difficult for me to read your story about your friend without thinking that she was someone with some really major self-esteem problems that didn't have very much to do with you at all, and maybe it'll help you to feel less angry about the situation, thinking back, if you can conceptualise it that way too.

***It also made me feel bad about myself and my complicity in systems of oppression as a middle-class and white, although female and queer, person. Really bad in a sort of merciless way, and although I kept this almost entirely to myself.

****I guess one of the reasons I now think that mercy and empathy are important even when thinking about Oppressors is that I want to be able to give myself mercy and empathy as in many ways one of those Oppressors just because of my enmeshment in a system I cannot escape.
posted by Acheman at 4:13 AM on January 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Say to them: I'm sure you feel awful, but, would you mind if I come back after you're done grinding off your toe about this? I already feel bad enough, and I don't want to deal with you until I recover my equanimity.

I suppose that realizing that you've hurt someone is a good thing to know. If you feel bad about what you did, then maybe you've learned a lesson, or maybe you aren't quite the asshole you'd be if you just rationalized why it was okay, or understandable, or why the other person asked for it, or any others of the many, many reasons people come up with when trying to avoid responsibility for what they've done.

Later on, after your friend has had time to stew in his own juices, you may feel like helping to hoist him down off the petard on which he's placed himself. If he resents your hesitation to immediately gratify his desire to be absolved, might be that his apology is insincere, so fuck him--um, maybe I mean to say, give him time to reflect further. Either way works for me.
posted by mule98J at 9:28 AM on January 12, 2013


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