All eggshells lead to me...
November 16, 2016 3:11 AM   Subscribe

I am the person all your Asks are about, the person you dislike or fear and end up walking on eggshells around. For nearly all my 38 years I have struggled mightily with anxiety and a host of low self-worth behaviors. I've taken medication, been in therapy (and currently am), read books, all the things. Along the way I've heard complaints that I'm too controlling. Too critical. Hold people to impossibly high standards. Knowing these things to be true has always saddened me deeply, but now it's reached a breaking point and I'm looking for hope.

You might've already guessed I was raised (as a cis female) an only child by a controlling and narcissistic mother (current relationship status: almost nil) and a father who did the best he could but I felt didn't stand up for me, and they were both very difficult to please each in their own way.
I've known the impact this has had on me for awhile, and have fought so hard not to continue the patterns. I'm not stingy with love or money or gifts (just the opposite, to the point that I had to pull back due to emotional exhaustion taking care of others' needs before mine) like you read in books about controlling types. I don't get jealous or control what partners or friends can do. However I can be very critical of people, both in my mind and probably out loud. And I must hold people to high standards bc I've spent a lot of time being disappointed. Not to mention the only child with a naturally strong personality thing. I'm used to things being my way.
I had a terrible brief abusive marriage in which I learned I had no idea how to fight. So now I do my best to fight fair. But still. Still the people I love tell me that I am too controlling and difficult to be with.
The reason for this specific ask is that my love, my heart, recently confessed to me that he thinks our relationship will never survive due to my 'control and abandonment issues'. He's a wonderful partner and the thought of hurting him and losing another relationship due to my issues has me feeling like a monster. When we talked about this, I told him that I was aware of my tendencies, and that I'd been working on them and making progress for awhile now (he knew I saw a therapist but I don't think he knew it was for those sorts of behaviors). So we agreed to work together to make sure we don't screw up our foundation with unhealthy behavior patterns (we've been dating a few months but it got serious on both ends right away).
I'll work on the larger issues with my therapist, but my day to day problem is this: the way I live and interact with humans is just...normal to me. How am I supposed to know when I'm overstepping if nobody tells me? I BEG them to tell me, when complaints arise. How can I learn to breathe air like everyone else when all I know how to do is breathe water, if it's not an intrinsically switchable thing? Is it irresponsible of me to ask for this feedback? I don't feel like I'm trying to push the responsibility off on to others, but maybe that's how it feels to them?
If you've been on either end of this eggshell, and made practical, in the moment, day to day improvements, how did you do it?
Please help me not be so terrible to be with.
Comments here are welcome but there's also
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a professional opinion or anything, but I've faced this problem myself in my own way, and I think getting others to tell you when you are off base isn't the right area of focus. To solve this, you need to develop an intrinsic sense for the impact of your commentary so that you can exercise control before matters get to the point where someone might need to give you feedback in the first place. You need to embed a pause prior to your criticism where you habitually consider the impact of the words you're about to use on the people you're speaking them to in the context of the goal you're trying to achieve with the criticism, and you need to be willing to abandon it if you realize that you can't offer it up in a way that won't cause upset or offense or is otherwise unproductive.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:30 AM on November 16, 2016 [23 favorites]

I have a tendency to be direct and to like my own way. I find that my immediate, natural, breathing water, reactions would be to contradict or whatever, often focusing on the words not the intention or general message behind them.

So what I try to do is stop the immediate reaction from coming out of my mouth. You don't always have to respond immediately. It is ok to make it a conscious process. I take a breath, a moment to reflect on what they want and what I want and that allows for a more considered interaction. It's a matter of practice. Start with low stakes interactions. Work you way up. It's easier to practice with interactions that are not so important.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:57 AM on November 16, 2016 [15 favorites]

You already have a therapist, I am not a psychiatrist, and I know that my personal experience dealing with someone with many of your issues isn't nearly enough information upon which to suggest something this serious, so take this with a grain of salt. Has your therapist ever talked with you about Borderline Personality Disorder?

BPD is way too complicated to address here. As I understand things, the best programs involve intensive therapy over several months—residential treatment is also an option, e.g., Northwestern University has a highly regarded program. The therapy is not easy, but it does seem effective for most people. You might be interested in this NYT article about Marsha Linehan, who is an expert on the subject.

Regardless of whether or not BPD is applicable, the fact that you are aware of your issues and actively seeking help means you have reason to hope you will get past this. I'm concerned that you already have a therapist and yet still feel a need to post this question. Perhaps you need to find a new therapist?
posted by she's not there at 4:08 AM on November 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't have this specific issue of being controlling, but I had other communication things that I had to fix that felt natural to me. And I wanted to learn to breathe air like everyone else instead of water, as you so beautifully put it. This is what I have learned to do. It is not a one time fix; it's a practice. A life practice. It makes things better for me.
1. Know that (IMOP) this is a direct result of having a narcissistic mother (or primary parent) because you didn't learn from the nonverbal, unconscious level that when someone communicates with you, they actually see and hear YOU. So communication feels anxious and easier as self expression than as what I'm going to describe next.
2. THis is the practice that works for me. Stop and remember explicitly as you speak everything you say is going TO the person, picture the words as a physical object you are tossing to them that they are going to catch, look at, feel, consider, take in, taste, eat. THen think about this actual person. Think about how the words you are going to say are going to taste and feel to them specifically. Seriously STOP for a second, stop the natural process that yes, it feels like everyone else gets to do unconsciously, and really think about how your words are something you are giving to them and imagine how they will feel about them as words.
3. This means I also have to remember consciously: I don't have to speak right away. I can speak later. I don't have to speak just to get it out. This way I stop the anxious speaking and remember as much as I can that what I'm going to say is TO the person I'm addressing, that my choice of words should be shaped to some extent by how they will be heard by receiver.
This might or might not help you; I don't have the controlling issue but perhaps this slowing down/remembering the audience consciously works with anything needing more awareness about one's impact. The fact that you want to change is enormous and half the journey. Good luck!
posted by flourpot at 4:12 AM on November 16, 2016 [44 favorites]

Wanting this type of feedback is often one purpose of group therapy. It can provide a way to examine and discuss interpersonal relationships in a controlled setting with the explicit goal of feedback. You could ask your therapist about it.
posted by mercredi at 4:26 AM on November 16, 2016 [15 favorites]

Oh, I was writing as koahiatamadl was posting. Should have used preview!
So: What koahiatamadl said. Maybe the fact that two of us are saying it is a good sign.
posted by flourpot at 4:26 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

My family comes from a culture in which criticism and control are simply woven into what care means. (E.g., a kid trips and falls. Response: "Why would you do such a thing! Didn't you see that stump? Look at what you've done to yourself!" which is intended to mean, "I love you, I'm sad you're hurt, I fear worse happening to you, I'm devastated your body was insulted", but to the kid, sounds like "You're an idiot and caused your own easily preventable pain". Or, you're a guest at someone's house. You like your pillows a certain way. The other person can't imagine how that could ever be comfortable, for anyone, and spends an hour arguing with you about it.) Getting into someone's business is just what you do when you love them over there. Almost everyone is like this.

Yet, with time, conversation, and boundary setting, some family members have stopped or slowed this behaviour. So it's possible, even when it's a pervasive and deeply ingrained cultural pattern.

The key is to understand, on a profound level, that other people are autonomous, and that their habits and preferences are (often) just as valid as yours, and have to be respected. Not that those habits necessarily deserve admiration - sometimes they're destructive, objectively not great. Sometimes someone is doing something in a way you can clearly see won't pan out. But, you can't change other people; they have to come to their own conclusions about things; micromanaging them will not achieve your immediate goal and will ultimately alienate them. You have to observe their basic autonomy.

Also, I think the fear behind controlling behaviour has to be addressed. What's the worst that'll happen if somebody "messes up"? How does it affect you? Why does the prospect make you uncomfortable?

I've yet to read it, but I have heard from people I respect that Codependent No More is a book that can help you come to terms with these things.

People are rarely going to tell you to stop negative behaviours. It's on you to prevent it or notice it happening. I think in the short term, if you see a negative response from someone, you could ask yourself: "am I telling someone what to do? do I really need to?". And generally repeat to yourself the mantra, "stop telling people what to do".

If you forget, or don't notice someone's upset, you could notice when you find yourself getting agitated. And take a little walk or breather, to give yourself time to calm down and question the dynamic. Then reaffirm to yourself that people are autonomous, and that you need to stop telling them what to do.

(This is all assuming you're not being gaslit or emotionally abused, currently, in the relationship that matters to you most, and relates to the feedback you've gotten from several other people.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:53 AM on November 16, 2016 [9 favorites]

Here's the issue with asking other people to tell you when you're behaving badly: they already have a history with you--of you reacting in ways that scare or upset them--and so you've trained them to be wary around you and placate you when necessary instead of calling you out on things. Asking those people to trust that they can give you honest feedback means asking them to trust--without any evidence to the contrary yet--that you are not going to blow up at them if they push back on your behavior instead of accommodating you. I have a few people in my life who I have had to walk on eggshells around, and I couldn't make myself start trusting them until they started behaving better--and I still don't trust them completely and am still not 100% open and honest with them, because that still feels too dangerous.

So, I think that means you need to find ways to work on this yourself or with a therapist. MoodGYM would be one place to start. It's a free, online cognitive behavioral therapy workbook that has helped me in the past start noticing some bad mental habits I had. I think you should also start reading books to help give you some other models for behavior. The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner is a good one. You can also read the Dalai Lama's thoughts about the importance of compassion. There is also an interesting subreddit called abuseinterrupted. It's not very active in terms of discussion, but the mod posts lots of very interesting articles. And, finally, I think regularly reading through human relations questions here on AskMe can help you figure out a lot about healthy communication and what is appropriate and what isn't.
posted by colfax at 6:03 AM on November 16, 2016 [10 favorites]

How am I supposed to know when I'm overstepping if nobody tells me? I BEG them to tell me, when complaints arise. How can I learn to breathe air like everyone else when all I know how to do is breathe water, if it's not an intrinsically switchable thing? Is it irresponsible of me to ask for this feedback? I don't feel like I'm trying to push the responsibility off on to others, but maybe that's how it feels to them?

Yes, that is how it's felt to me. It might be different with a significant other though. They are probably invested enough, and close enough to you, to try doing this somewhat. "You're doing that thing again," is something I see people advised to try in a marriage/partnership context. You need to really be ready to take what they tell you on board though. If they try it and then you get defensive, or decide this is not really one of those instances, or whatever, they are going to feel like it is just another hoop you've asked them to jump through.
posted by BibiRose at 6:14 AM on November 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm going to guess that you are more controlling and fearful of abandonment with yourself than you are with other people. What I mean by that is that you walk on eggshells with your internal critic and that you feel like you are going to be abandoned by yourself. It's an uncomfortable and difficult way to live. The good news is that you don't need to find someone else to give you feedback -- you can give it to yourself!

Start to pay attention to the things you say to yourself. Do you insult yourself when you fail to meet the impossibly high standard you set for yourself? Or do you apologize to yourself for setting yourself up to fail and offer encouragement for the next time? How can you become a loving partner to yourself?

I know this might sound crazy but it has helped me be more comfortable in my skin and establish closer and more loving relationships with others.

I've told this on metafilter before, but the way I started was noticing how I spoke to my dog. I was loving and silly and supportive. So I decided that I would speak to myself that way. "Good job, me! I know that was hard but you did a really great job! I love you, sweetie."

Be gentle with yourself.
posted by mcduff at 6:26 AM on November 16, 2016 [27 favorites]

hey, except for the fact that I'm a trans guy, our stories are very similar and I can also be very controlling. Things that help, in no particular order:

1. anti-anxiety medication

2. meditation

3. therapy (I know you've got individual covered, but couples therapy would probably help a lot to shed light on your dynamic with your partner)

4. before I speak, thinking scenarios through - "what if my friend oversleeps and makes us late for the movie? yes, it's annoying but being angry is just going to make us both miserable, and overreacting about missing the beginning is not worth my friendship. I could go to another showing and see the beginning, or I could pirate it online, or read a synopsis..."

5. taking care of myself. Am I eating well? Sleeping? Exercising? Do I have drinking under control?

6. Getting out in nature and seeing a wider perspective. The world is HUGE and me and my concerns are an extremely small part of it. I am going to die and rot and in 100 years no one will care that Joanne made me late for a movie.

7. putting myself in the shoes of others. Joanne overslept because she is stressed out because she's scared she's not doing well at work and will be fired and then she'll be evicted and.... Not because she wants to annoy you.

I'm by no means perfect, and I have work to do with my family, but new people I meet now see me as a relatively chill guy. You can get there.
posted by AFABulous at 7:00 AM on November 16, 2016 [14 favorites]

Self-awareness is the first step and you are so great for setting out to work on this. While it may seem hard and hopeless at times, and like you're not making progress or you're just not cut out to breathe air, I know that it's possible for change to happen.

The things that help me be less controlling are to get clear on my values and priorities on a broad scale, and to find an inner sense that "things are going to be okay" regardless of what happens in a given situation. If I have that to fall back on, I can let people say (what seem to me to be) ridiculous things, or make inefficient decisions, etc. But if the locus of "the universe being all right" is in this room, with this person, dependent on what they do, there's going to be a problem because people are fallible, they're independent, they do what they want. And the problem is with me, not with them and their fallibility.

For me it also helps to appreciate the things that bother me. Like, you can appreciate the beautiful autonomy that each human has. It really makes life richer.

Sometimes I get into a controlling space and I just really have to take a break and get back in touch with myself, with my sense of universal okay-ness, with my priorities. Then perhaps I think through how to live out my priorities in specific situations or conversations, and when I go back to the situation, I have scripts or mantras to use. I may choose a phrase to repeat to myself while refraining from comment. I remind myself that there are really very few things that *have* to be said out loud. And if I have to remove myself from the situation again, that's fine. Some of this comes down to practice. Doing a little better one day--maybe just holding back when you want to make a comment--is totally a success worth celebrating.

I think it does put a responsibility on others if you ask them to alert you when you're acting controlling. It puts the responsibility of noticing, articulating, and voicing it on them. That's in addition to them already experiencing the negative effect of the behavior on them. It's sort of like you're asking them to parent you. But you are now ready to parent yourself. I think the exception would be someone who is showing eagerness and willingness to do this for you; and I think this kind of dynamic would still not be fantastic for a relationship in the long run if it didn't lead to some change or you taking on more responsibility for noticing. It's better if you are doing all you possibly can to hold this responsibility yourself; and that other person is just there if you slip up. It is truly a gift for someone to do this for you. I have a lot of close friends but not many with this dynamic.

Why is this hard: It kind of puts the onus on them; since they're voicing the problem, it's almost like they are the ones with the problem. Then maybe it feels like an external suggestion which you can ignore, and it adds one step before you have to address the issue. When I've asked this of people, I think it partly was a delaying tactic. Part of the work for me is figuring out how to parent and monitor myself--that is not only the method by which you understand when/whether your behavior could improve, but also the method by which you improve it. So, it's better if you can notice it and voice it yourself ("I think I was acting controlling there, could I try saying that differently?" or "Could we come back to this later? I'd like to make sure I respect your autonomy here and I need some time to do that well"), or just address it.

Quick note on addressing your behavior: It may seem like you're not getting recognition for your hard work; maybe no one pats you on the back or seems to notice your superhuman restraint, and you think really you deserve some rewards for the fact you held back or joined in what they were doing without comment. The reward comes in the long term, as people feel safer with you and you develop richer relationships. And the reward is also in living out your values, in acting like the kind of person you want to be.

It's possible people are already signaling you about your behavior. There are nonverbal cues and cues in the ways people say things that can give you clues. Practicing noticing these can help if you use the idea upthread about imagining how people will taste, see, touch your words--it'll help you actually get a read on their response in the moment, so you can more accurately guess how they'll receive what you say next time.
posted by ramenopres at 7:13 AM on November 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Good for you on working with a therapist. I'm going offer only a specific practice which I believe reaches well beyond the domain of "issues" and is helpful in good communication practice for everyone. That is what it means to listen.

Our culture has a tendency to see listening as being the passive recipient of information in alternation with talking or expressing. I'd challenge you to turn this upside down. The most effective listening is when you are deeply perceiving and connected to what your conversation partner(s) is hearing while you express or talk. When you ask for something, do they perceive it as a request or a demand? When you express frustration or disappointment do they perceive it as emotional leverage? If you catch a glimpse that you have been received differently than you'd hoped, remember that it is your opportunity to shift something in that moment. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make that sound so demanding. It's really okay if you don't want to."

Make it your responsibility to spot when you are making others' uncomfortable, not theirs to notify you if that's the case. It is okay to check in. Especially with partners.
posted by meinvt at 7:18 AM on November 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

So now I do my best to fight fair.

What do mean by this?

Fighting, like bickering and arguing on a regular basis? Because even if that was the norm in your household while you were growing up, it's the not the norm with others.

Try to remind yourself exactly what you want: good relationships with autonomous human beings? Or resentment from autonomous human beings? Or no relationship with autonomous human beings?
It's a trade off. To put away the long held belief that it is your duty to keep them safe (control them!) in order to have them in your life.

Keep repeating that word to yourself: autonomous. My autonomous friend Diane, my autonomous boyfriend Bob, my autonomous neighbor, etc etc. remind yourself that they (not you!) have the absolute right to have the final say in their lives.
posted by Neekee at 7:24 AM on November 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

And adding on to what meinvt wrote. If you are constantly bickering and fighting and arguing, people are going to be tense around you. Always. It makes it much harder to realize when you are doing something wrong if tension (and resentment) is the norm.

Start paying closer attention to when people are happy vs tense. Is there a correlation between your behaviors & attitudes and their unhappiness ? Take it as a challenge, a puzzle to be resolved.

It's really really hard to tell a controlling person that they are being controlling out of fear of backlash. So asking them to point it out to you can make them really uncomfortable.
posted by Neekee at 7:35 AM on November 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

s it irresponsible of me to ask for this feedback? I don't feel like I'm trying to push the responsibility off on to others, but maybe that's how it feels to them?

This is emotional labor. It may be worth it for people in relationships, it often can be, but yes it's making them do some work to work on your issues.

I have been, in the past, controlling because of similar issues to yours. It still comes out occasionally when I am really stressed or anxious and my best self-care is keeping the stress and anxiety down so that I am not my anxiety and I can be more responsive to situations around me and not just in my own head having reactionary "No this needs to be this way because of REASONS" responses. The thing about working this stuff out with a partner is a few things

1. Often people like us wind up with partners also conditioned to sort of deal with controlling people, who are maybe laid back to a fault. Mine is easygoing. This is great for chilling with him but there literally are some times where if I don't say "You need to do this thing" then he won't, he'll space it and it might be an issue in the real world, not just the world of my head's worst case scenarios. So I have to learn to balance, what's important from what is me just wanting things just so. He thinks he's relaxed and I'm uptight. In reality, I am a little too uptight and he is actually a little too relaxed so we work towards the middle. You can't have a thing where you're the "broken" one, and your partner shouldn't want that either.

2. Once you've been really down on someone, regaining trust is work. And every time you "slip" it feels like a little thing to you but it's HUGE to them, sets the clock back to zero or closer. So that's a thing you have to own and it has to be part of helping your partner feel safe.

3. You can start with separating your controlling instincts from your controlling behaviors. Things like "Hey thanks for doing the dishes, however it makes me agitated watching you balance all those plates like that so I'm going to go into the other room and work on my coin collection. Love you!" You can admit you're feeling weird but you don't need to stand there being barky because someone is helping you wrong.

I have a friend who is a good friend but who has bad habits (like we all do). One of them is that she is somewhat self-involved. She is working on her self-esteem a lot. Part of this is that she claims she wants to know ALL the things she is doing that are a problem for our friendship. But realistically all this means is that we talk about her even more when I bring them up. And honestly, it's exhausting how much our time together is all about her. She's a good friend when I'm having some sort of crisis but the rest of the time it's all about helping her.
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 AM on November 16, 2016 [16 favorites]

One common feature of controlling behavior is that controlling people find ways, consciously and unconsciously, to discourage others from starting conversations that they don't want to have. That can take many forms, from the dramatic, down to subtle cues of expression and body language. I strongly suspect that, as much as you really do want this feedback, there is also some instinctively anxious part of you that really would be much happier if you never had those conversations, and that part of you will do everything it can to sabotage those conversations.

So, I think one of the most important first steps you can take is looking at how you respond when someone does push back on some of these behaviors, and working hard on taking a deep breath and taking in that feedback before you respond. It's really easy to fall into a pattern of knee-jerk responses, and it doesn't take much to send strong conflicting messages. You can say "I want feedback on when I'm being controlling" all you want, but if you become defensive, or even if you just heave a great sigh and roll your eyes as soon as anyone gives that feedback, it's easy to give the impression that you don't actually want that feedback. (Similarly, it may be counter-intuitive, but rushing to apologize can be just as bad: if you're interrupting someone with a torrent of apologies in the middle of explaining why they're frustrated with something you're doing, it can easily seem as if you're more interested in ending the conversation than you are in actually understanding what you did that frustrated them.)

If you make a point of stopping to listen to feedback with as calm an affect as you can muster, and then thanking the person for giving that feedback, you're much more likely to get timely feedback.
posted by firechicago at 7:57 AM on November 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

I am struck by your statement, "I've spent a lot of time being disappointed." I can honestly say that I almost never feel 'disappointed' by people, and I wonder if there is something to work with there. Because feeling disappointed means that you are assigning some pretty deep emotional weight to the behavior - it means something to you, personally.

And the reality is, it's almost certainly not about you. People have whole, huge, rich, complicated lives to live, and they have a million reasons for doing what they do, and '...but how does it impact my friend eggshells' is usually very far down on the list - and that's OK! And at the same time, you can give yourself loving permission to sometimes take care of your own needs even if someone, somewhere, might feel disappointed.

So, in terms of wanting to 'clue in' to when your thought patterns or behavior are out of whack, maybe when you find yourself feeling disappointed it could be a good time to step back and re-examine.

It's great that you're thinking about this and working on it - you're doing something brave and hard.
posted by Ausamor at 7:57 AM on November 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

You can't put the burden on other people, at least those close to you, to tell you this. BUT this is something you should be able to role-play with a therapist or maybe even a support group and get feedback from *them* as well as watching others do it. Discuss this with your therapist.

I feel like the "lowest hanging fruit" of controlling behavior is almost mindless "I think things the way I like them/my way is right" behaviors: I like the dishes done X often and loaded Y way in the dishwasher. I like to shower in the morning before work because it's better than at night. I don't like to drive at night. I like to watch dramas before 9pm and comedies after. Maybe do some gratitude/mindfulness exercises to start consciously identifying all these things you like in your life...and asking yourself if other people around you might like things too, on their own terms, as fully-fleshed humans who might actually need the shower in the morning for purely practical reasons that are better than yours. Start to identify places where you can give in - and giving in does not mean you lose, there is no lose - and let someone else have what they like and it doesn't actually hurt you any.

This stuff is hard to face, it's embarrassing when you widen your perspective, but at the end of the day most of it's just habits. They can be changed.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:03 AM on November 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

Here is some great advice from comedian Craig Ferguson:
There are three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything.

Does this need to be said?
Does this need to be said by me?
Does this need to be said by me now?
This article addresses the advice from a business perspective but you can apply it to your own situation.
posted by AFABulous at 8:15 AM on November 16, 2016 [14 favorites]

Excellent comments here, especially Lyn Never's. A lot of controlling behavior is "because I'm feeling crappy about myself, I need to control something RIGHT NOW!!" And when someone else calls them on it, they still find an excuse to be right about the controlling because it's so important to feeling better in that particular moment. (How do you know all the glasses won't break if they're put in the dishwashing the wrong way?? Why aren't you supporting me over this little thing?? etc.) I swear I've had arguments with my mother where I calmly refute what she says/refuse to engage/politely point out the positives, but she just keeps escalating and escalating until it finally comes down to "THE SKY IS BLUE, RIGHT? JUST AGREE WITH ME THAT THE SKY IS BLUE!!" And I'll say fine, you're right, the sky is blue, and she'll gloat and I'll go home and eat a bag of Doritos, because this kind of engagement is, for me, effing exhausting.

This Askme comment has stuck with me over the years, in its simple message: "All choices have consequences." Yes, you can refuse to have sex with your spouse because you don't owe anyone sex ... but then the spouse may leave. Can you think about what the consequences of your behavior might be before engaging in it? Obviously we don't want people to walk all over us and we need to truly stand up for ourselves for the important things, but asking AFABulous's excellent question "Does this need to be said by me now?" goes a very, very long way. All choices have consequences.
posted by sockerpup at 9:27 AM on November 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

And I must hold people to high standards bc I've spent a lot of time being disappointed

I would suggest you've spent a lot of time being disappointed because you hold people to high standards.

A question I ask myself a lot these days is:

"What do I want to happen as a result of what I'm about to say?"

It has helped.
posted by French Fry at 10:45 AM on November 16, 2016 [13 favorites]

If you already have a therapist and you still need to turn to the internet to address a deep-seated history of toxic thoughts and behavior stemming from childhood treatment, you need a better therapist.

I see these questions a lot. I highly doubt anyone has ever suddenly reversed a longstanding pattern of toxic behavior and harmful thought patterns from advice they've gotten on the internet. These issues are not that simple and never will be.

Go to a psychiatrist and get a therapist who can actually help you, because we are simply not qualified for that.
posted by Amy93 at 1:09 PM on November 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is emotional labor. It may be worth it for people in relationships, it often can be, but yes it's making them do some work to work on your issues.

I think this is a really important point. It's not "irresponsible" to ask those who care about you to do some emotional labor on your behalf. Any decent, social person does all sorts of emotional labor on behalf of the people who they care about. But it's important to recognize what you're asking for. You're asking your partner and others to identify moments when they are frustrated and stressed out by your behavior, take a step back, and articulate that frustration in a caring and thoughtful way back to you, and trust that you will have a positive response to that, even though you may be stressed out yourself in that moment. This is not an easy thing to do. On the scale of relationship asks, this is less "could you please take out the trash?" and more "could you please get up early every weekday morning to drive me in to work?"

Again, not to say that it's not something you should ask for, it sounds like it could be really helpful for your relationship if you did, but it's important to recognize the seriousness of the request and honor the work that goes in to it.
posted by firechicago at 1:28 PM on November 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm going to be brief, so please take everything I say with the kindness I intend.

1. Stop with the expectations you place on others. Sometimes they're okay, such as expecting your partner not to cheat on you. But expecting your friend to answer your texts immediately? Nope. Give up expecting things and you will find yourself pleasantly surprised when people live up to what your ideal is, and completely fine with when they don't.

2. Work on not using negative speech patterns.

3. Use the THINK acronym: is what you want to say True? Helpful? Inspiring? Necessary? Kind?

It took me a long time and antianxiety meds to get to this point myself. You can do this!
posted by wwartorff at 2:25 PM on November 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

The key here, I think, is learning how not to white-knuckle through this process. Yes, you can stuff down your initial gut reaction, learn to pause or wait before speaking, but that's just part of the solution.

You have to learn (and man, is it hard sometimes) to REALLY be able to let go of your expectations. It's ok to have hopes, preferences, and feelings, but remember that other people have them too -- and its ok if they are different than yours. Learn to ask, not to tell. Learn to communicate in a way that isn't confrontational and rigid. Non-Violent Communication is a great resource for this.

Notice the positive, pleasant things, and let them weigh in your mind as much as the not so nice things. Practice gratitude for the good stuff. Rescript uncharitable thoughts. Practice breathing through anger and frustration until it becomes ingrained.

You're not a bad person. You have some bad habits, and bad habits can be replaced with better ones. Do you know anyone who is serene and calm in their dealings with people? Use them as a model. It's tough for people who didn't have good behaviors modeled as children, but it's also something you can find as an adult.

Good luck.
posted by ananci at 5:36 PM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your question really resonates with me--I'm a cis gendered lady who's derailed relationships through my extremely controlling behavior and standards. I have difficulty forming close relationships in general because, inevitably, people come to deeply annoy me.

For me, this has ended up being all about anxiety. Things I didn't even recognize as anxiety have ended up being anxiety. Through cognitive behavioral therapy over the last 3-ish years, I'm at a place where I'm recognizably my high-strung self, but I'm not ruled by my anxiety. It's been life-changing.

In short: goal-oriented CBT. Even once you tackle the most obvious of your issues, though, dig in and work on the others too--I'll bet they're related.
posted by mchorn at 6:39 PM on November 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this will helpful, but I thought I'd share:
posted by Neekee at 6:40 PM on November 16, 2016

It sounds like you are doing deep and thoughtful work. Perhaps this has already occurred to you, but I would just encourage you to take a look at who is telling you are controlling. If you have been in unhealthy relationships, it is possible people have told you this without it being the case - it could be a part of the abuse. That being said, you may be controlling and I don't mean to negate the hard work you have done. It just jumped out at me as a possibility, as I spent years thinking I overreact and even went to therapy for it and it wasn't till a later therapist that I realize, no, I don't.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:19 PM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am not qualified to diagnose you or not with BPD, but, having grown up with a BPD mother, I don't think you have it. What I *do* think you have is fleas. Especially if, as you mentioned, you have a parent with NPD (both NPD and BPD are Cluster B personality disorders, and they share a lot of traits).

One thing to note: how do you feel after these interactions? I can have a tendency to blow up at people. I hold EVERYONE to impossibly high standards. And after I lash out I feel really, really bad. Do you feel bad too? I mean, I think I know the answer, because you're asking this question. One way to distinguish a personality disorder from fleas is that people with fleas feel pretty fucking guilty about them. It used to killllllll me to think that I was treating my husband the way my mom had treated me.

So, here's what you do. Take that guilt. Take that terrible, shitty feeling you have after a fight with your SO. Take it and hold onto it tightly. Because that shitty feeling, that's your reminder for what NOT to to. For how you never want to feel again.

I remember the first time I heard the word "equanimity". I was in a yoga workshop. I thought it was strange because I consider myself a pretty adept wordsmith, and it wasn't just that I didn't know what the word meant, but that I'd never heard it before. It means the ability to respond instead of react. See, I had always had kind of a hot temper. And I grew up believing that that was just the way I was made. That I had no control over it. But the idea that our personalities aren't fixed, that we live in choice in this world, and that choice includes determining how we're going to respond to any given thing that happens to us — that was revolutionary to me. I also came to realize that a lot of my high standards that weren't being met by other people weren't being met specifically because I wasn't communicating them. Like, I just expected my husband to get the groceries on the way home instead of actually asking him to do it. The workaround for this is having regular "alignment" conversations, which, to be honest, are kind of tedious. But waaaaaay less tedious that an actual fight.

Someone mentioned it above, but the very purpose of meditation is to give you the space to stop and decide how to respond to the world instead of approaching everything with a gut reaction.

And here's the deal. You are still going to fuck this up.* You are still going to lash out sometimes. Your brain is going to forget to take pauses before you react. But the more you practice at this, the better you'll get. And the practicing, the effort, is going to mean a lot for your relationships.

*And for that I am thankful you posted this question. Because I too am still learning and working on this, and it has been helpful seeing the other responses here.
posted by Brittanie at 4:35 AM on November 17, 2016 [9 favorites]

This is my new-agey response that stems from my own experience: First, I love your question - it resonates with me and I would think with most people who want to shed old behaviors- and connect with others. I also believe the fact you are asking this question/ searching for answers is evidence of “hope.”

You say you’ve reached a breaking point, which to me sounds like the “rock bottom” like many addicts find themselves in. This is good news because this ‘crack’ is the space where a new/ healthier version of you will emerge and grow.

I find it extremely interesting that you use the terms “breathe the air” and “in the moment/ day to day.” For through your breath, you will find more of the self awareness, as well as more stillness (i.e. thought & emotional awareness) where the space between stimulus and response can develop and expand. (The stimulus being your emotions or thoughts that lead to your unwanted reactions/behaviors).

Your controlling/critical nature was probably an early-developed, natural reaction to protect yourself. But it has served it’s purpose. You’ve already gotten the feedback, from yourself and others, that it’s not working. It’s not unifying. It’s not healthy. It’s corrosive, narcissistic and destructive… possibly abusive. So the answers are already there, within yourself. You already, intuitively know this isn’t your path. You’re bravely looking at it in the eye and starting to let it go.. daring to not let it have power/ control you.

So, I would say your task now is two-fold: 1) quiet your life, cultivate stillness & 2) start building new patterns of engagement. How? 1) Turn off all the media you possibly can and start to lower the mental noise and explore further deep self-honesty. Begin a daily meditation practice, spend quiet time in nature… to deepen your awareness, including those controlling/critical urges. You might discover “why” your personality has been that way… you might not.. in the end it doesn’t matter.. What matters now is expanding the skill of being aware of your urges, not judging them… but just noticing them including their triggers etc. Become aware of your inner resistance. Catch your negativity before you ‘broadcast’ it.

2) Start to go out of your way to cultivate encouragement, nurturing, gratitude and protection... to yourself and those you interact with. Actively Listen to others. Avoid the urge to react, react, react. Go out of your way thought by thought, comment by comment, action by action to create, build, nurture, care, support and find solutions. Opportunities to do this are all around. Get creative with it.

You can have boundaries without being a malcontent. You can have standards without being disagreeable. The need to control, criticize, tear down and blame is ego-driven, destructive and isolating. Note how great it feels to inspire and encourage. Drink it in, radiate it, build on it…. slowly, deliberately.. naturally… like a mandala.. Loop by loop, stitch by stitch. It's frightening at first to let go of old ways of being.. but your relationships will likely heal, you will develop strength and you will walk through the world with love and light and as a blessing to others who would receive your positive energy...
posted by mrmarley at 10:01 AM on November 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not in any way diagnosing you, but I suspect it might be helpful to you to work with a therapist with experience and training in treating personality disorders. Even if you don't meet criteria for a diagnosis yourself, some of your behaviors might overlap (and, as Brittanie pointed out, it's possible some of your behaviors might result from your caregiver's possible personality disorders). A therapist with training in that area is likely to be much more helpful to you than a therapist without it.
posted by lazuli at 8:16 PM on November 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

No time to read every response. But I saw the one about BPD.

What I read in your post was PTSD, which is constantly mistaken as BPD. PTSD produces the behavior patterns associated with BPD, all the time. I have PTSD myself. I only learned about it in the last couple years (and has everything to do with my disappearance from Metafilter for a good while), and I'm 59. This happens with childhood trauma.

All that is to say, if you have not looked at your issues through the lens of trauma therapy, you might want to look at that. It's only advice drawn from my own experience, which may be completely inapplicable to you. Or it may be crucial.
posted by Goofyy at 3:49 AM on November 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of the most controlling people I've ever known is also the most seemingly generous. He loves to give extravagant gifts of all kinds. It's a way of building up indebtedness. If he tries to control someone and they turn out to be uncontrollable, he then has a fit about all he's done for them.

It's not your job to hold other people to standards -- certainly not other adults. They hold themselves to the standards that they see fit, and you decide whether those standards work for you. To attempt to hold someone to a standard is often a boundary invasion: it tries to replace someone else's moral core with one's own.

Nor are people responsible for holding you to standards. To answer your question: yes, I believe it is irresponsible for you to beg people to tell you how to behave. There are people who get paid and trained to do that work, though: DBT professionals, for one.

A lot of DBT is pretty much behavioral change in a box. It sounds like you've gone fairly deep into a therapist-led kind of self-understanding, but it hasn't done you a lot of practical good in terms of knowing how to act in nondestructive ways. Given that your narcissistic mother is not actively involved in your life now, I think you should switch therapy modalities to something more behavior-oriented and get back to worrying at the deep familial roots of your issues once you've stopped burning down your close relationships.
posted by sculpin at 12:58 PM on November 19, 2016

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