How do I stop monitoring people's emotions constantly?
July 8, 2013 5:53 PM   Subscribe

I am constantly monitoring other people's tone, actions, facial expressions, etc. for signs of anger, frustration, irritation, etc. I am not conscious of it until something happens, and then I tense up, feel some adrenaline hit, and generally become really conscious of it until the situation is resolved. How do I reduce this impulse?

Just for context: I think some of this comes from the fact that my parents never, ever yelled at me so (despite therapy) I struggle to believe that yelling or even a frustrated tone aren't signs that something so bad has happened that normal voices aren't enough. I know intellectually that this isn't true!

This does have some advantages: I pretty much always appear calm despite (surprise!) my generalized anxiety, I'm a great person in crisis situations, I stay extremely calm and reasonable in arguments, and I'm awesome in job interviews, mediation, or court because I'm so practiced at appearing pleasantly neutral and ignoring any interpersonal distractions. But in my daily life, I pick up on stress, personalize it, and any expressed tension makes me tense up. It might also be a cultural thing: this has really come to a head when I moved to a bigger city, where colleagues and roommates are vocal expressers of tension in a way I never encountered in my previous smaller city. For them it's a release of negative emotion, which I then pick right up and carry around for them.

Relevant details: I'm in therapy, but there are higher priorities for me right now. I'm trying to have more self-compassion, as I struggle with self-worth. I'm an INFP, for what it's worth, and apparently this is a really typical characteristic of my personality type? I'm female and have a history/present of anxiety and depression. I was a mediator in tension between my mother and my sibling when I was a kid and teenager, so I think I learned a lot of my habits from being their venting places while seeing them rarely directly discuss their problems.

Okay, so. What can I do, overall, to cut down on my tendency to absorb and personalize tension? Living with vocal expressers of tension (a couple, no less) and working with others means that small moments of tension happen all around me. They're not a big deal for those people, but they set off alarms in my head, make me tense up, and make me subconsciously try to figure out how to fix things. I'm pretty good at external boundaries and not stepping in when things aren't actually a problem or my business, but not at believing those things aren't my problem and my business.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
You hang on to the intuitive part of this and lose the fear. Not as oblique as it sounds. You have some good tools buried in this mess.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:04 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Interesting. You are like a radio that's turned up loud and the dial keeps moving, searching for stress.

Have you tried meditation? If you get used to just experiencing things rather than being on tenterhooks about having to leap in and fix them, it might help you learn to not take on so much tension?

There's a good AskMe on meditation here.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:25 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi, are you me? I do the exact same thing, and am always being told by people not in my inner circle that I'm "so calm and peaceful." (Meanwhile, my close friends/partner giggle because I am the complete opposite. I will soak up every ounce of potential danger/stress/anxiety in the room and carry it around for all time.) I've tried meditation and know I should do it more regularly -- self-discipline is hard, though.

I'm wondering if part of this is your introversion, especially since you said you're now living in a larger city, and a need to have quiet downtime in order to regain perspective and not feel pulled to pieces by the needs of the world. Are you giving yourself enough alone time/recharging time away from the tense situations and dramatic people you find yourself surrounded by? (And, have you considered picking different roommates who don't trigger this anxiety... and/or transitioning to a calmer workplace?)

I'd recommend Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, which does touch on this character trait, with suggestions of what to do.
posted by whenbynowandtreebyleaf at 6:27 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am just like you! It is a relief to see it articulated so clearly. Seconding Sebmojo, meditation helps me put some space around myself and around these elements, which, like you, I can't help but sense. The idea that I'm not always right, and that it's not always important (learning to observe and let things pass and blow over) has been very helpful, though slow, slow to take hold.
posted by Riverine at 6:27 PM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Another book full of advice for people like you and me is The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron.
posted by Deodand at 6:35 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would venture a guess that growing up in an environment like that may have created the tendency to be ultra sensitive to others' emotions. Because I'll bet that even though they didn't express emotion all that well, it was there and you had to watch for tiny signs that your environment was going to change. Children of alcoholics often display this.

Regardless, part of getting over it is learning to trust others to express themselves. You may well be able to detect when people are upset, but they might not be ready to share what they are feeling. So in those instances, just be kind to them. Don't feel bad that they aren't sharing, because they probably aren't used to others noticing it when they are hiding their feelings. So when you react off of them, it freaks them out a little and the anxiety sort of spirals.
posted by gjc at 6:55 PM on July 8, 2013 [14 favorites]

One perspective that might help here: I have some friends who are like this, and the problem is that whenever I am having a bad day for ANY reason, these friends become aware of my frustration or irritation and then IMMEDIATELY assume it is all about them. So then the original irritation becomes compounded by the fact that I now need to explicate and justify that irritation while simultaneously reassuring this person "no, it isn't about you," it is, a little bit, because I feel like I'm never allowed to feel a negative emotion without that person freaking out.

Have you tried attributing painfully mundane causes to the moods you're sensing, rather than taking the monitor (and, necessarily, the interpreter) role? I, too, am very sensitive to moods, but I also decided awhile ago that if grownups were frustrated with ME, then they could say so. Otherwise, I assume that the people who seem irritated or on edge slept through their alarm, or got bad feedback on a dissertation chapter, or her dog threw up right as she sat down to dinner last night, or his sister did that passive aggressive thing again, or traffic was a nightmare, or IT still hasn't fixed the glitch on his desktop and yet he doesn't have administrative access to fix it, or her ex-girlfriend made another snide comment on facebook, or he's not paying attention because it's a well known fact that he never pays attention to anyone ever, or she's wondering if that grant application is being processed right now, or or or or or. Can I do anything about ANY of those things? No. Is it going to help any of those people for me to borrow the weight of their anxiety and frustration? Almost definitely not. Is it going to add to that anxiety and frustration if I act as though I need to be reassured that any given bad mood is not about me? Almost definitely yes.

That assumed position as mediator is a bitch, and I was definitely the mediator/peacemaker in my family growing up. It took me some time to realize that I didn't have to serve the same function in the world at large, and that people would often take it ill if I even TRIED to do that on everyone's behalf. When that alarm in your head is going off, instead of responding with "how do I fix this," try thinking "maybe the barista made his coffee wrong" or "maybe she found a bug in her salad." They seem petty, but a lot of people get bent out of shape over petty things every single day. The world won't end if you stop paying such close attention to the infinitely shifting moods of every person you encounter on a daily basis. The ongoing crappy but petty details of the universe are not your responsibility, I swear.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:11 PM on July 8, 2013 [42 favorites]

You tell yourself you are probably wrong a lot. You say yourself you are "pretty much always appear calm despite (surprise!) [..] generalized anxiety." I work with a man that is brilliant, but he always looks confused, lost, and a bit dull. I'm angry a lot. I also expend a lot of energy to disguise chronic pain. It's really difficult to read people, really easy to believe you can. I have a friend that seems pissed off at everything, but only really see him get entry when people tell him he seems angry.

Take $200 to a casino and see how well you read people at the poker table.

Understand you really have no idea what is going on in a person's head and deal with their actions not what you think they are feeling. Chances are you are wrong.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:19 PM on July 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

Watch this video:
You are not responsible for other people's feelings!

I'm an INFP/ENFP, and can relate to how you feel in tense situations. Over time I've come to expect people to communicate with me if I've done something to hurt them. Otherwise, I assume that the person who might appear upset has his own reasons for keeping his negative feelings to himself, even if they might be apparent on his face. You just can't know exactly what's going on inside someone else's head if you don't tell you. That other person doesn't experience or express his feelings in the same way that you do. It's nice to be concerned and sensitive, but ultimately it's futile to dwell on what someone may or may not be feeling if they're not opening up to you. Take some of that wonderful concern for others you have, and focus it on you! Try to redirect your thoughts to a concrete detail, or task to perform in that moment so that you can get your mental hamster off its wheel!
posted by sunnychef88 at 7:40 PM on July 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

It sounds to me like you are perfectly normal. One person's bad mood can infect everyone around them. I try to avoid negative, dramatic people as much as possible. And when I have to be around them, I try to infect them with my calm, perky mood. This can be lots of fun. There are those who will be easily infected and will leave my company feeling really good about themselves. These people love me. Then there are those truly black hearted people who hate my good mood and will do anything and everything they can to break through what they consider my fakeness (I'm never fake). I take special joy in being extra perky around them and watching them get really irritated with me. They complain about the rain, I am thankful that the flowers are getting watered. It's awesome! And playing this little game distracts me from their mood and keeps me from being easily infected by them.

Try it, you might like it.
posted by myselfasme at 8:01 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have heard this called Hypervigilance.
posted by Miko at 8:03 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

You know what? I've lived in a big city for nearly 10 years, and when people get aggro, I still get away quickly. I don't think urban living is necessarily a good reason to build up tolerance to vocalized tension. I appreciate that there may be a fine line between hypervigilance and hyperperception/hyperacuity, but it's okay to get away (or gently deflect, or excuse yourself politely, or just tune out) when people are being angry/weird. Maybe don't be so hard on yourself about this? Chalk it up to a difference, not a deficiency on your part. Can you find roommates (or align yourself with colleagues) of a similar temperament? Can you figure out how to feel okay with leaving, or how to feel less obvious/exposed/bad about ignoring the situation? I don't think it's the case that this is something you need to suffer through, to be a better (or more normal) person. You stop monitoring their emotions because you physically leave, or because you fantasize about leaving later, or because you doodle, or count backwards by 7's from a large arbitrary number, or otherwise tune out.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:04 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have this problem too (INFJ here; I think people who test as INFx often track with this.) I deal with it in part by not quite having full meditation sessions, but practicing detaching from my feelings, observing them as I have them, and labeling them. It's easy to mistake your feelings for reality and get all swept up in them, but they're just feelings. This is easier to learn how to do if you've practiced a little mindfulness meditation first--I'd recommend carving out even ten minutes a day for a while (it doesn't have to be this big thing where you sit in a lotus position on a pillow for an hour) and reading some of the guides on it. Just search for mindfulness on the site, you'll find a ton of info. Sebmojo's link is a great capsule description of the process.

Doing this doesn't completely banish that rush of adrenaline, but it helps you float above it a little bit and carve out a little more of your mental space for yourself.

The other big help for me, though, is just plain getting away from the situation for a bit to let the synaptic static die down. You don't give a lot of specifics about these situations, but it sounds like they happen in both your professional and private life with some frequency, and in either case, I'd suggest that you get outside for a little bit. Anything that gives you a little space to breathe is bound to help. When I start feeling like this to the point that it's disruptive, I either go for a walk or I find an empty office or conference room to use for a bit until the adrenaline surge is gone.

I think the answer to your direct question (how do you stop monitoring) is: you don't. It's part of who you are--that's part of what being intuitive is. It's just a matter of being able to monitor your own reactions and deal with them appropriately. You already show a pretty high degree of self-awareness, which is a huge step toward that. The therapy for the anxiety-depression combo will help you with the historical stuff that you mention, and some sort of meditative practice will give you another tool to work with in the moment. But don't be afraid to just cut out for a few minutes either, if it's a situation where you can.
posted by Kosh at 8:12 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do this too, and I grew up in a similar family. It's an ongoing process and I wish I could tell you I had the problem fixed, but I don't yet. Right now what I do is remove myself from the room (if possible) to give myself a break from the tense air. Even just a long, leisurely bathroom break to slowly wash my hands and take some deep breaths is useful.

Another thing that helps is keeping a daily journal. I do "morning pages" and write three pages in longhand every morning when I wake up. It serves as a nice way to dump the bilge and debris floating around in my head and prevents stress buildup. I would even consider keeping a small notebook with you and jotting down when something starts to gnaw at you: Jan is in the next room arguing with her mom on the phone and it is really making me tense up. It's a quick way to get it out of your system and you sort of let the journal "worry" about it for you on your behalf.
posted by castlebravo at 8:13 PM on July 8, 2013

I had this and then I went to EMDR, Al-anon, and did a lot of self-talk to convince myself that whatever came up I could handle it. I could even handle it ON THE FLY. I did not have to prep for it.

I also self-talked a lot about how I was safe. Even if my friends were mad they weren't going to get violent towards me or other things. (This assumes I'm in a place that's true of.) I also would go through a list of resources that I have that I didn't have when I was a kid. I could hit back AND IT WOULD BE OKAY. I could run away AND IT WOULD BE OKAY. I could ask people for help AND THEY WOULD HELP. I could even call the police, AND THEY WOULD HELP ME if I was being attacked. All things not true when you're a kid.

Not sure this applies to you, but over time it made a big difference for me.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:48 PM on July 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

How do I reduce this impulse?

By becoming more aware of it. Everytime you sense this is happening, scratch your chin. This will make you become aware of it and if you keep reinforcing the noticing of it, it will start to decrease.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:27 PM on July 8, 2013

I'm super-sensitive to people's emotions but over the years I've learnt that it doesn't mean I have any clue about they are actually thinking or feeling - that dawning realisation made it easier to question my urge to react, and exercising that muscle has made it easier to tone down the vigilance a bit. Think about why you feel obliged to 'pick up' negative emotions that others express - where is that feeling coming from, is it a physical discomfort? The chin-scratching technique mentioned above might help you to start understanding the specific triggers. Then try thinking about opening a window to let the emotion out instead of picking it up to carry, or visualising distance between you and the person so that you can see their emotions dissipating into the air around them rather than onto your space.

If your living situation is generally stressful you might just need to find calmer room mates - we live a pressurised, hyper-stimulated world and having to deal with conflicting coping mechanisms at home makes it much harder to manage.

Then there are those truly black hearted people who hate my good mood and will do anything and everything they can to break through what they consider my fakeness

It wouldn't see it that way. People can be 'negative or dramatic' for many reasons but usually it's because they are unhappy and/or frustrated, and having a 'happy person' enjoy getting a rise out of them is simply compounding the situation. A bit of compassion can actually deflect a lot of negativity, and you can totally call people on their vibes without escalating the situation. A simple 'Having crappy day huh?' with a sympathetic smile or nod whilst wending on your merry way is all the response required.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:39 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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