As published in Tiny Buddha, August 11th, 2016
“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” ~Eckhart Tolle
“I don’t believe you,” I jutted out my chin like a petulant toddler. Collapsing back into the tufted leather loveseat, I conceded, “I want to believe you, but I can’t.”
My therapist had just explained to me that I am not responsible for regulating other people’s emotions. My mind couldn’t process this truth.
There were too many decades of owning the moods of those around me.
In my younger years, if a parent was stressed, I felt it was up to me to calm them down. I prided myself on acting as a mediator between my siblings.
In high school, I drove my boyfriend crazy trying to cheer him up when he was in pain from frequent sports injuries. Later, I would allow other boyfriends to dictate how I was feeling each day, according to their mood.
And here my therapist was pointing out that it wasn’t up to me to help other people regulate their emotions. I had been doing it wrong all these years.
Undoing “Good Daughter” Habits
If you struggle with this, like me, chances are there was some chaos in your early years. I’m not necessarily talking about major trauma (although that may have occurred), but as a child you found yourself trying to compensate for the emotions of those around you.
The good news is that you can break free from this habit.
Trust me. It’s necessary for your mental health and for the well-being of your relationship to let this go.
As my therapist would say, even within a marriage it’s not my job to regulate the emotions of my spouse. I’m responsible for my own emotions. And it turns out that I’m not very good at helping “fix” my husband when he is stressed.
Changing the Dynamic
My first chance to change this pattern came in the form of a Saturday breakfast at a local coffee shop.
You know that feeling you get when you place your order with a trainee, and you have zero confidence that you are going to get what you ordered? It was one of those situations.
Thirty minutes later, our order still hadn’t arrived. My husband was getting agitated, and I could feel my blood pressure rising in response. It suddenly occurred to me that this was my big opportunity to approach things differently.
Step 1: Observe.
I noticed my husband was grumpy. I watched his scowl and listened to him mutter.
I noticed my heart race. I noticed that I wanted to say something to make it better.
I also noticed that I wasn’t upset about our food order. I had my coffee. I was okay to wait.
It was my husband who was upset, not me.
Step 2: Own your emotions.
If I am feeling stressed, I know how to calm myself down: pay attention to my breathing, reframe, and refocus.
But in this situation, if I were by myself I would have been fine. So there was nothing that I needed to do at that moment to deal with my own emotions.
I just needed to fight my urge to take on my husband’s frustration.
Step 3: Give the other person space to regulate themselves.
“Are you mad?” I timidly asked my husband.
“Nope,” he said, “just hungry.”
“Okay. I’m gonna just sip my coffee and read.”
“Thank you for not trying to fix me. I will be better after I eat,” my husband mumbled as he scrolled on his phone.
Ouch. I actually got thanked for leaving him alone. Further reinforcement that I would have been making it worse by taking on his frustration.
Step 4: Relax.
The world is not going to end if my husband is “hangry.”
My brain was trying to tell me that I was in danger, but sometimes our brains give us the wrong information.
My husband is a mild-mannered man. We’ve fought less than five times in fifteen years together—and it was me doing the yelling. I was definitely not in danger.
I was okay. He was going to be okay.
I just needed to let go of my fear that something would go horribly wrong if I didn’t intervene.
And guess what?
Everything was okay.
An Exercise in Humility
It’s hard to let go.
But the key insight in this process is that, even within a committed relationship, each person is responsible for themselves. We must give each other the opportunity to manage our own emotions.
If you are with somebody who doesn’t have the skills to regulate themselves, that’s a separate conversation. Do they want to learn those skills? How would they prefer to learn: a therapist, a book, or a trusted coach? Even so, it’s not your job to force them to acquire those skills.
We can only own our behavior. The world does not rest on our shoulders.
And the irony is, when we step back and let go of control, the fear starts to go away. We feel freer to relax.
Practice Makes Perfect
I encourage you to think of the last time that you tried to compensate for your partner’s frustration or stress. Think about what you could have done differently, now that you are more aware.
Even if you don’t manage to navigate all four steps smoothly, reflect afterward what went wrong and decide what you will do differently next time.
You’ve got this.
Pssst…I’ve got a free cheat sheet for you! To grab your Secondhand Therapy two-page cheat sheet, 5 Steps to a Big Decision, just enter your info below. These five steps work really well for smaller decisions, too!