Help me understand my emotional responses.
April 2, 2011 11:58 AM   Subscribe

How do I chill out about other people respecting me?

I have put off writing this question for a long time, because I am not sure how to formulate it, since I am not sure I fully understand it myself. Please excuse me if this is hard to understand.

I think of myself as a fairly accomodating person, and after a bad first relationship a few years ago, started to worry that maybe I was too easy going “nice” and letting people walk all over me. I don’t know if this self-perception is even the least bit accurate: I have been described plenty of times as stubborn. In reaction to feeling like a pushover, I think I may have begun acting like the extreme opposite, and become far too unyielding and inflexible.

Examples: 1) I lived with my friend in NYC for a few months about a year ago, and we shared a bed. She also had an empty bed in the living room, and, since she had a hard time sleeping with two people in a bed, wanted me to sleep there sometimes. I refused, and was basically thinking ‘I am not going to let her take advantage of me.’ In retrospect this seems like a stupid thing to dig my heels in about. 2) One of my 9th grade students has a birthday on Tuesday. She asked if we could cook in class (which we did last week) and I said no, but I would bring cupcakes in for the class. Briefly afterward I felt like that was being “too nice.” 3) I dated a guy about a year and a half ago who didn’t have a car. I would go pick him up, but I worried if I was encouraging him to take advantage of me. 4) One of my 9th grade students was handing out stickers for a school event and pretended like he was going to give me one, then snatched it away. I laughed it off but on the inside I was thinking, “He doesn’t respect me” and felt awful. I didn’t know what a “normal” person would do in response or if my feelings were normal, until I asked my friend and realized I was being silly by letting myself get upset over it.

I am not trying to act like a brat, but I think I come off as one sometimes. I really want to stop worrying about being taken advantage of and people respecting me, because I feel like it is damaging my relationships. I teach high school and was so paranoid at the start of the year to lose control over my class that I think I was far too harsh. As a result, the kids didn’t respect or like me. I have tried to chill out recently and they have been responding a lot better. I feel like I incite power struggles where I don’t need to. One of my kids the other day yelled at me in class to “stop bothering him” when I was checking to see that everyone was working and I just didn’t react. I am going to have a meeting with him (so his behavior won’t go unnoticed) but I didn’t let him provoke me into feeling that I had to defend my authority in front of the class as I sometimes do.

Complicating all of this is the fact that I have come to distrust my emotions and reactions. I do sometimes wonder if I should be hurt/upset when it is a perfectly legitimate reaction, for ex., someone will snap at me and I will wonder if I have a reason to be hurt or if I am “overreacting.” (For example, complaining to my ex about my job and him saying, “I have enough problems, I don’t have time to listen to yours.”) So now when I have an emotional reaction or feel upset by something, it is very difficult for me to figure out if my reaction is legitimate or is caused by this fear of being taken advantage of. When I am genuinely upset by something, I want to be aware of that and act on it so that I can be true to myself and interact with people in a productive manner.

I realize this sounds like a big complicated mess (and that’s how it feels) and the internet probably can’t sort it out for me. Basically, I want to stop overreacting to “threats” to my authority (in the classroom), behave in my natural accomodating and caring way in all my relationships, and still be able to recognize when I am upset and need to assert myself. This has definitely not been a problem for me all my life (just the last few years), but I can’t seem to be able to get myself back to “normal.”

Thanks! I hope this makes some sense.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
1. Why would you sleeping in different beds, especially considering that your friend preferred sleeping alone, have anything to do with anyone taking advantage of anyone else?

2. You're overthinking your conversation with your student.

3. Maybe. Who knows?

4. Huh?

All in all, I think that you may have some issues about overthinking/overanalyzing things. I'm not sure how any of these have anything to do with respect or advantage.

I'd recommend the Feeling Good Handbook.
posted by k8t at 12:27 PM on April 2, 2011

When someone does something you feel is unreasonable (such as snapping at you), or when you find yourself in a habit you don't like (such as doing all the driving in a relationship), do you feel comfortable speaking up about it? Does it occur to you to speak up about it? Something like, "Why did you snap at me? Are you angry with me, or upset about something else?" or "I'd like to find a way for us to see each other without my driving every time. What can we do to make that happen?"

I ask because your friend's request strikes me as utterly reasonable. If there are two adults and two beds, and one of those adults (you) is a guest/subletter--why wouldn't the guest/subletter take the spare bed? Yet you seem offended that she would ask you to sleep in the spare bed. Do you think that making that kind of request is wrong?

I think you should consider talk therapy to work on recalibrating your sense of what is normal in adult relationships. It does seem that, as you've noticed, you're becoming unyielding. It's like you know some people might take advantage of you, so now you suspect everyone is going to and you're preemptively guarding yourself.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:53 PM on April 2, 2011

You should talk to a professional.

My armchair thought: reaction formation. You don't have a strong barometer for your own personal boundaries and assertiveness, which makes you anxious, so you adopt a bratty demeanor and sometimes unreasonable boundaries to mask that anxiety.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:56 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

I just want to chime in and say this is something that I struggle with also. I think at least in my case a lot of it is a self esteem thing-- I bend over backwards for people because I think they won't like me otherwise, and then I start to feel resentful, and then I find myself overcompensating and blowing little stuff out of proportion in my determination not to be a doormat.

I think having more trust in myself about my judgments and my worth to other people is the thing that has been most helpful to me, which was a gradual process that I'm still working on. But now, since I have more trust that the initial judgement was right/that the people I'm around aren't trying to take advantage of me, I don't feel that need to overreact and protect myself.
posted by geegollygosh at 1:05 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Did you parents take advantage of you a lot? Were there always power/dominance games going on in your family? I think that it might benefit you immensely to think about why this is so important to you.

I used be similar, in terms of constantly measuring relationships in terms of who is "up" or who respects whom or who is in charge. It's exhausting. It's because in my (abusive) family of origin, there was a lot of disrespecting boundaries, insults, and manipulative behavior and I constantly had to be on the defensive. After realizing that and purposefully re-framing situations, plus being in a positive and supportive relationship, I'm a lot more relaxed about everything. It took a lot of time and practice, though.

The first step was really examining my family of origin's relationship patterns and recognizing what was hurtful and why I felt the need to be so invulnerable/defensive all the time. I often had to remind myself that the things that went on weren't okay, and that no one had the right to treat me like that.

In the same way, I had to be vigilant that I wasn't taking advantage of other people, but empathizing with them as much as possible.

I also had to work on allowing there to be win-win situations, instead of constantly trying to figure out who was losing or being taken advantage of.

This was very difficult and I am still working on it. I know this is disjointed and personal, but I hope it's helpful.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:14 PM on April 2, 2011 [7 favorites]

Oh, and in terms of romantic relationships--it doesn't matter if you're overreacting. Feeling like you're overreacting or constantly second-guessing yourself is a sign that you're in an unhealthy relationship. It doesn't mean the other person is a bad person necessarily, it might just be an unhealthy matchup that is hard for you.

Some people just push my buttons. I have an ex who drives me batshit insane, not because he's a bad person, but for whatever reason his behavior triggers my insecurities and so I feel less confident, less secure, less happy around him. I used to worry about overreacting before I realized--you know what? Not everyone has to react to the same way, and I accept my feelings as valid even if someone else might have reacted differently.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:19 PM on April 2, 2011

From your stories, for the most part, I see you disrespecting other people or trouncing their boundaries more than anything else.

Complaining to your ex when you probably should keep it light or not speak together at all, the bed thing is such an imposition on your part, saying "no" to cooking in class might be OK but comes off as petty when you admit to double-thinking your proposed compromise.

You sound (I'm sorry!) childish in your interactions. Do you think you've always been this way, or do you think you are maybe reverting to childish patterns because you're around kids all day long??

I think it is awesome you've asked this question! I know it took a lot of courage and I am not out to insult you... so if you are looking for feedback.... yes, your emotions seem "off" but I don't detect a respect issue, I detect an emotional maturity issue. Or maybe it's self-esteem?

To me, the nearest obvious answer would simply be a case of you unconsciously mirroring your students.

What do you think?
posted by jbenben at 1:35 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

Don't look at it in terms of respect, because that is an attempt to read other people's minds.

Look instead at behavior. When you feel like you aren't being respected, take a moment to ask *why* you feel disrespected and go with that.

From your examples:

1) How is this a lack of respect? They told you their reason, it seems valid.

2) How is telling someone "no" being too nice? Or was it that you didn't feel comfortable saying "no" because it was an inconsistent decision, and you wanted to make up for it by bringing cupcakes?

3) What could he have done to show you he wasn't taking advantage of you?

4) I don't know what that was. But there is a conflict between your internal reaction and your external reaction. You didn't like what the kid, but you laughed. This encourages that kind of behavior.
posted by gjc at 1:45 PM on April 2, 2011

The young rope-rider's got this one. From the sound of what you report your ex as saying, yeah, it sounds like you've spent some time among heavily invalidating people, which can really mess with your ability to accurately monitor and trust your own feelings (and by "your" I mean "my", *smile*). Reading "Feeing Good" by David Burns is a good idea, and so is finding a compassionate and intuitive therapist.
posted by facetious at 2:08 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think a lot of you guys have a piece of it.

jbenben, I do feel a lot more immature than I used to, which drives me crazy because I don't know how to change/overcome it. It's like I get into this "he's taking advantage of me" mindset and just start to act irrationally. I do feel less mature than I did before this problem started, but I really don't think it was set off by my kids. I think that teaching, since it does involve a power imbalance, just sets off that part of me even more strongly, so it comes out more. I feel like I am disrespectful sometimes, but I don't mean to be, I just can't recognize it in the moment because I am so wrapped up in defending myself.

The ex I mentioned in the OP was a recent one, and that conversation was while we were dating, and we were long-distance and he was sort of neglectful in the first place. I might have leaned on him a little too much but I was pretty lonely and having a hard time. I don't think I really overreacted in that case, I think we were just a bad match overall.

facetious, this all started pretty much after dating a guy who was pretty invalidating ... a guy who used to do things like call me fat (I wasn't), then when I would get upset and ask for an apology/try to explain that I was hurt, he would get hurt and offended that I was upset with him. I don't want to play the victim and I think that might be a part of my problem, but I considered myself very mentally well-balanced before him and didn't have these current issues.

Anyway, I do feel quite immature at times in how I react to things and that's why it's hard to trust how I feel, because I don't want to give myself full license to feel however and then act like a brat. But, beating myself up for being immature doesn't seem to help a whole lot either. I just need a way to eliminate my defensiveness.

gjc and Meg_Murry, yes, I feel like I acted unreasonably with my friend. Her request was reasonable, which is what I mean when I feel like I am unyielding. I just don't recognize it in the moment, but I really want to stop.

Thanks you guys! I know this is sort of a confusing issue, but even typing it up has maybe helped clarify it for me a little bit. I want to go to therapy but I'm unfortunately in a foreign country for the next 3 months.. when I get home I will.
posted by queens86 at 3:16 PM on April 2, 2011

Rather than "was I too nice? Did this person take advantage of me? Am I being disrespected?", you should practice in your own head what you would do if someone DID take advantage of your or DID disrespect you. However, it sounds like your own internal respect barometer is a bit whacky.

For the cupcake example - do you like making cupcakes? Are you doing it to give your students a treat or so they'll like you more? If it's the former, and you don't mind, great! If it's the latter, then maybe you have a deeper problem with approval and needing it from everyone.

If you feel like you are doing more than your fair share, can you explain yourself in a mature and not overly emotional way? For the boyfriend with a car scenario, it seems like if you want to pick him up, do it! Does he otherwise treat you well? Is he the type of person who would only stay with you for the rides? Does he insist on you giving him rides places?

If so, you say something like "Boyfriend, you'll have to find a way home today. I can't give you a ride." The end.
posted by amicamentis at 3:31 PM on April 2, 2011

amicamentis, it's more things I want to do or don't mind doing, but then I worry maybe I'll be perceived as "too nice." For example, I really don't mind bringing cupcakes for my kids, and they are good students so they deserve it.

With the (ex) boyfriend, I didn't mind picking him up, and he made up for it in other ways and never made me feel like I was being used. I was just paranoid that I was setting myself up to be used.

I know it sounds weird. It's like I lost my internal barometer for when I feel disrespected and when I truly want to do something, and I feel like that caring and somewhat sympathetic part of my personality has been lost (not completely, but in these incidents). Before I began teaching, a couple people told me I was "too nice" to teach, so I felt like I couldn't be myself and still be an effective teacher. It's only very recently that I feel like I have been allowing myself to genuinely connect with my students, and I feel like our relationship has improved a lot for it.

But, for example, in my last relationship, I feel like I invalidated a lot of how I felt with him and ended up blaming myself for our problems and staying with him for far too long. I wasn't happy with him, but I thought that if I changed how I acted enough I could be. So I know that I also sometimes have a hard time treating my emotions as valid when they are ... I question myself and stay quiet because I think maybe I am just overreacting and seeing things in this screwed up way that I seem to. For ex, sometimes my students WILL act badly, wander around the classroom, not work, act disrespectful etc and I will ignore it because I don't trust my perception.
posted by queens86 at 4:00 PM on April 2, 2011

amicamentis, it's more things I want to do or don't mind doing, but then I worry maybe I'll be perceived as "too nice." For example, I really don't mind bringing cupcakes for my kids, and they are good students so they deserve it.

With the (ex) boyfriend, I didn't mind picking him up, and he made up for it in other ways and never made me feel like I was being used. I was just paranoid that I was setting myself up to be used.

Notice how in both of those situations, your attempts to either stand up for yourself or not appear as a pushover are both entirely bidden to the perceptions of others - you can't let yourself make cupcakes or pick up your boyfriend without wondering what other people think! Your overtures at independence and not being taken advantage of actually come from a place of wanting to appear a certain way to others, according to their perceptions and judgments.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:23 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a person who has a Hell of a time letting anything go [anxiety disorder], it helps if you remind yourself about 100 times a day that other people have a lot of things going on in their lives, & most of the time when they're assholes at you, it has nothing to do with you.

I'm going to guess you're still fairly young...20s? Early 30s? Part of getting older is figuring out your own personal metric of what is and is not going to be accepted in terms of other people's behavior. Your feelings about what happened & your evaluation of how you handled things versus how it panned out are the baseline for future decisions.

In my experience, a journal really is a *great* way to process this sort of stuff. Writing these things down, having to attach thoughts to them and describe feelings, really helps with self-analysis. It also helps you identify recurring themes. Just the act of writing.

Regarding your specific examples: (1) no one likes being kicked out of bed. Refusing may have been the right thing for your self esteem at the time, the question is whether the cost was worth the payoff. (2) Ehn. That one could have played either way. As long as you don't end up having to bake cupcakes for everyone's birthday, I'd just let it go. (3) In some couples this would be one person using another person. In others, this would be a fine example of two people who thought they could be something together "making things work." What did it feel like to you? If it felt like being taken advantage of, will it help you recognize advantage-takers in the future? Or was it just part of the give-and-take that occurs in most relationships? (4) Sounds like a schoolkid being a schoolkid. He probably thought it was hilarious. Understand that They (the schoolkids) do not consider you as an Us, or even, in a sense, the same species. Develop thicker skin, you're bound to run into this crap a bit as a teacher.

I guess my point is, most of these aren't black and white. They're just high water marks, and they are going to aggregate as a much clearer picture of what does and does not fly in your world. Once it gels, you're going to like the new, more confident you.
posted by Ys at 4:24 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why would you worry about being too nice? This is a hard, difficult world and there's not enough kindness in it. There's a big different between being kind (like cupcakes for class) and being a doormat (like your friend who let you sleep in the bed—I'd never let a subletter near the same bed with me, only a lover. If there weren't two beds and there wasn't a natural disaster/serious emergency, no one would be staying).

Being kind is being there for other people as much as you can. Being a doormat is letting people violate your boundaries. Never worry about being too kind—it's almost never possible.
posted by Maias at 4:41 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

You seem to equate "nice" with "pushover". They're not the same thing at all. It takes very tough, confident people to be nice sometimes. Really, it seems like you're behaving in a knee-jerk way that doesn't even seem consistent (and it seems like you're aware of that). You might want to think about what it means to be nice and respected and confident,Is nice a superficial politeness, or is it behaving toward others in a thoughtful way? Then think about the people you know, real or fictional, that have those qualities. See what behaviors you can model yourself.

Too nice is rarely a problem in the real world.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:08 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think there's some good advice above - concentrate on looking at the action itself, not trying to intuit motive or how others will perceive it.; finding a supportive therapist (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy might work).

On the subject of your classroom, I recommend talking to a more experienced teacher whose style / manner you respect about your concerns and how s/he manages. Youth need to test boundaries by being "disrespectful" and there are ways you can defend your personal and professional boundaries while still supporting them and being accessible.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:22 PM on April 2, 2011

Try practicing this way of thinking:

It is OK for people to think they are taking advantage of you as long as you are OK with what you are doing. If you decide that you don't like what they are asking you to do, then take a minute to think "what is my limit here?" and "if they cross my limit what am I going to do?"

In other words, don't try to read the other person's mind. Don't try to guess if they are taking advantage of you or not. Judge the situation based on how you feel about doing the actual activity. If you are OK going to the airport or bringing in cupcakes then do it. If you are not OK with someone calling fat, then figure out how you want to respond - for example, "if you are going to be disrespectful and call me fat, then I will end the discussion and leave the room."

Just one catch: you have to be honest with yourself about whether you are really OK with what you are doing or if you are just doing it to please the other person but secretly resent being in that situation. Therapy can help you figure out what is OK with you if you have trouble with this part.
posted by metahawk at 9:15 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure how accurate this is, but a few things come to mind when reading this:

- You are caught up what other people think of you (and maybe wanting them to like you) in an extreme way

- You are deeply suspicious of their motives and why they're doing what they do

I used to be like this to a certain degree. Some of it had to do with self-esteem, some it had to do with learning to trust myself and set boundaries and some of it had to do with growing up.

A few things that helped me:

1. Learning how really so little (almost none) of what happened to me, or how people reacted to me, was actually about me. I was so deeply self-centered (which I don't think is really all that abnormal btw), that I thought that people were REACTING to ME, which made me then in turn react to THEM and it became this negative feedback loop. Except what I didn't realize was that it was more likely than not a one-sided feedback loop and if anything, people were looking at me and thinking - wtf?

I wouldn't go so far to say that I thought lots of people had some kind of a personal vendetta against me, but that wouldn't be far off the mark. I tried SO hard to be SO nice to people and I never understood why people weren't the same kind of nice back to me. One the one hand, this assumes that everyone has the same world perception and same idea of what "nice" is as I do and that is inaccurate. On the other hand, people have so much going on in their own lives and heads, and a lot of the same kinds of insecurities and baggage and whatnot, that chances are better than not that they are probably wrapped up in their own personal issues and really have no idea how they are affecting me. When I came to that conclusion, it was a great freedom to no longer have to take everything so personally.

2. I had to learn to choose my battles. No one can really tell you if the way you interact with another person is "right" or "okay" or not (excepting the obvious "not okay" things, like abuse), because it really just depends on what is okay with YOU. Just as metahawk said:

It is OK for people to think they are taking advantage of you as long as you are OK with what you are doing.

I might put up with some behavior that some other people wouldn't. I'm okay with that, for any number of reasons. One of my good friends is quite a high level neurotic, and most people can't take her. She doesn't bother me because I understand what's going on with her. Having dealt with problems with depression and anxiety myself, I feel a sense of compassion for people who struggle with similar things. I know how a lot of people couldn't or wouldn't tolerate me at one time and how hurtful that was. Plus, she's always been an awesome friend to me and is one of the most clever and creative people I know so I enjoy her company.

But yeah, choosing my battles. I used to make everything into a big issue and I found that in the end, it was hurting me more than anything and not really accomplishing anything at all. So I had to make a decision on what was important to me and what was okay to let go of. I stick with it and I'm much more relaxed and easygoing as a result. If people for some reason think they're taking advantage of me, I don't really care, because I know what I am okay with in my life and I know what I will not put up with. I am really solid on that and if I feel good about it and am okay with it, who cares what they think about it?

3. Do not let other people's behavior dictate how you should behave. This was a revalation to me and something I still work on. You have ideas in your head of what are right and wrong ways to treat other people (independent of how they treat you). You sound like a pretty nice and thoughtful person, so STICK WITH THAT. Here's a silly example from my own life - I think it is common courtesy to smile and say hello to my coworkers as I pass them in the hallway at work. For some reason, some of my coworkers DON't RESPOND. I mean, not even a mumble. They just put their heads down and walk straight past me. At first I took this very personally. Like, what have I done to make them dislike me so much? Then I spoke to a few other coworkers about it and they said that the same people did the same thing to them. This made me realize that it wasn't about me; that these people were likely shy, had poor social skills, were assholes in general or whatever (once I know it's not about me, it doesn't really matter to me anymore what it might be about). So my first inclination might be - well, I'm not going to smile and say hi anymore. NO. It is still common courtesy to say hello to someone when you pass them in the hallway, to say good morning when you arrive in the office, whatever, and these things are not behaviors could reasonably be construed as infringing on anyone else's personal boundries (IMO), so I say hello as I pass them because good manners and friendliness are part of my personal value system and I won't let that be compromised because of someone else's bad bahavior.

4. Finally, with all this talk about trying to deal with people who we don't always click with, I'm always reminded of how easy it is to forget what's important - love the people who love you. They are out there, these people who love me the way I am; and when I remember to stop putting so much of my focus and attention on the people who don't, and give my thought and attention to the people who do, my life becomes so, so good.

Hope this helps.
posted by triggerfinger at 12:49 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

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