Anxious ‘because of someone else’? Communication with yourself is key.
Until recently, I had arrogantly thought of myself as remarkably free of hang-ups and baggage: a straightforward and easygoing guy. (In the main it’s probably true to say that I enjoy good relationships with people, and have no special difficulty making and retaining friends.) When I experienced difficulties with people, I told myself that the problem was most likely them. With superficial acquaintances, this attitude is not necessarily an issue. One only has so much time and energy, and it may be best to shrug one’s shoulders and move on.
Cycle of fallings-out and reconciliations
However, in the last few years I experienced what seemed to be an inexplicable, stressful, exhausting and depressing cycle of fallings-out and reconciliations with someone I respect. Following our most recent falling-out, I decided to really take on board the commonly expressed wisdom that one can only ever have any control over oneself, and that it is pointless to blame or try to change other people.
In the meltdown phases of this acquaintanceship I was in a state of high anxiety, feeling that I had been misunderstood. This was causing me to desperately try to communicate through whatever means I could think of, which was then having an effect opposite to the one intended – it was driving the person away, which, because I had no insight, was exacerbating my anxiety and the resultant behaviour: a vicious circle.
Having decided to assume full responsibility for the situation, a near-complete realisation of what was happening and why came to me in the middle of the night. I woke up at 3:15 a.m. and it was obvious! My state of anxiety was making it impossible for me to think clearly and act appropriately. This state of anxiety (panic) was triggered by my seeing present circumstances through the lens of previous traumatic experiences, and several of these came to mind.
Previous traumatic events
In fact, I can now think of five such events (possibly others will emerge from the shadows of my memory). So that you can fully appreciate what was going on, let me outline those five events:
1. Undermined by a colleague
A colleague in a new job, who presented himself to others as an ebullient, friendly, extrovert, life-and-soul-of-the-party guy, took against me. He undermined me in subtle ways in public and, when there were no witnesses, was outright nasty. This was systematic and calculated bullying. I felt increasingly marginalised and excluded, and became increasingly withdrawn.
As he had been in his position for years and was thoroughly established, I couldn’t see how I could complain and be believed, and in any case his attacks had been such that my self-confidence was low. Furthermore, he was gay, and – rightly or wrongly – I was frightened that if I complained about him he would accuse me of homophobia, something I am not guilty of. (Ironically, I felt his attitude to the often-traumatised adult refugees whom we were teaching English – and with whom I identified, being fully aware of global horrors – to be condescending and racist.)
It got to the stage where at a public meeting he denounced me as ‘not a teamplayer’ and ‘not pulling [my] weight’. By this stage I was severely depressed. I felt judged and condemned, without having had an opportunity to explain myself. Feeling nauseous and utterly powerless, I had no option but to resign.
2. Attacked by a client
I had many traumatic experiences when I was a vet (hence my book), but one of the most traumatic saw me quit the profession for good.
Vets often see clients and their animals on their own in closed consultation rooms. One meets a wide spectrum of people, all with their own values, assumptions and expectations. To cut a long story short, one very uptight client misunderstood me rather badly (I thought I had been very patient with her and her difficult dog) and complained to my employers. They called me to the office for a meeting. As the complainant was a longstanding client and I was a relatively new employee, I could tell by their manner that they believed her account and had already decided that I had been in the wrong. As there were no witnesses, it was the client’s word against mine. I was given a formal warning. Once more I felt powerless to explain what had happened. After days of coming into work feeling mistrusted and watched, and consequently sick to my stomach, I decided I had no option but to resign.
3. Misunderstood by a colleague
Again, a veterinary example… I thought I was getting on well with everyone in a particular practice. I had been impressed by a nurse’s work and complimented her in a jokey way. After that the atmosphere became frosty. Months later, it emerged from a casual conversation that she had completely misunderstood what I had said and had taken the opposite meaning. I felt as if the floor were opening beneath me – horror. How could I possibly make amends for the months of suffering and resentment I had inadvertently caused?
4. Misunderstood by a flatmate
I had several diverse and interesting flatmates during the time I lived in Paris. One of these was a young Japanese woman who requested my assistance with her master’s thesis. I helped her to the best of my ability, giving her honest feedback and advice over months. I thought of her as a friendly acquaintance and flatmate, no more and no less, and imagined we got on very well. (We would sometimes jointly entertain guests etc.) When she left, she left me what I can only describe as a hate letter, telling me that I had caused her enormous pain, and that she never wanted to hear from me again. I had no means of finding out what I had said or done that had upset her, far less of explaining or making amends. I was bewildered and immensely hurt. To this day I have no idea what I did that caused such offence.
5. Misinterpreted by a visitor
Friends of mine, who lived in Germany at the time, contacted me to say that a colleague of theirs would be visiting Edinburgh – would I meet her and show her round? Thinking that this person was someone they liked, I accepted. Well, this woman turned out to be one of the most difficult people I have ever encountered. She seemed to interpret everything I did or said in the worst possible way.
Feeling obliged to try my best (for the sake of my friends), I persevered and tried to be jolly and upbeat, but things went from bad to worse. With hindsight, some of the misunderstandings seem funny, but at the time I felt I was sinking ever deeper into quicksand. She drained the life force from me, to the extent that I ended up depressed and mute. It later turned out that this woman had a reputation for being negative and obnoxious, but the damage had been done.
With this background, it is hardly surprising that when I think I am being misunderstood (and I don’t think it happens that often) I tend to go into panic mode and, driven by anxiety, to try to explain, pacify, cajole… In some circumstances this is effective, and situations are retrieved. In others, it has the opposite effect…
Attempting to communicate may be inappropriate
There are, I now see, at least two circumstances when attempting to communicate myself out of anxiety triggered by perceived misunderstanding are inappropriate:
1. When the other person simply wants his or her feelings to be acknowledged.
The stereotypical scenario is that of a man trying to solve a woman’s problems, or to comfort her by saying things such as, ‘It’s not really that bad; things will work out’. This is interpreted as: ‘You are not listening to me and taking my feelings seriously’. From the sterotypical male perspective, trying to fix things or comfort a woman by explaining that the circumstances ‘are not that bad’ is, in fact, taking the woman’s emotions seriously! This sort of misunderstanding is, I think, both sad and all too common, and it may of course occur in all gender combinations. Shut up, listen, and simply reflect back what you are hearing.
2. When the other person’s unhappiness with you is related to a need for space.
Persistent attempts to communicate can be perceived as invasive. People feeling that their space is being invaded are not going to hear any message you are trying to convey. You need to respect this and withdraw.
In my state of anxiety, I was unable to think rationally and understand the above and, on automatic mode, simply always went into communication overdrive. I would like to think that from now on, as soon as I feel misunderstood and anxiety coming on (as it still will, when circumstances that remind me of past traumas arise) I shall be able to take a deep breath, pause, and examine the situation for what it is, and then take appropriate, rational action.
Having had this epiphany, I decided to see what the I Ching would have to say. To those of you who think of the I Ching as superstitious mumbo-jumbo, I would say that it can simply be viewed as a book of ancient Chinese philosophy and advice. Its semi-cryptic messages, accessed randomly (from a scientific perspective) can be seen as a means of stimulating lateral thinking or of giving one a fresh perspective. Another interpretation is that it enables one’s subconscious internal wisdom to come to the surface. In any case, I don’t think you need to believe in anything ‘weird’ or supernatural to find things of interest in it. (Incidentally, as part of a novel I am writing, I am working on an overarching philosophy which I am provisonally calling ‘Magari’. It’s sort of the opposite of religious and scientific dogmatism. An element of it is an open-minded ‘allowing’ of various personal ways of viewing things, while accepting that these may not be ‘legitimate’ in certain formal contexts. It will take at least one chapter of the novel to explain it fully.)
Arousing: ‘…safeguarded against terror’
The hexagram for the present came up as 51, ‘The Arousing’. Within the text associated with this was this line:
When a man has learned within his heart what fear and trembling mean, he is safe-guarded against any terror produced by outside influences.
You may judge for yourselves the relevance of this.
The Joyous, Lake: ‘…refreshing and vitalizing’
The hexagram for the future came up as 58, ‘The Joyous, Lake’. Within the text asociated with this was this passage:
Knowledge should be a refreshing and vitalizing force. It becomes so only through stimulating intercourse with congenial friends with whom one holds discussion and practises application of the truths of life.
Hence, this blog post! 🙂
A tune wrote itself
While I was making the above discoveries, I also found myself composing a tune (which I don’t claim is of any particular originality or merit), or perhaps I should say that a tune wrote itself through me! I have called it ‘At last we have sorted it out!’ The ‘we’ in the title refers not to myself and the other person mentioned at the start of this, but rather to my mind and my emotions. I feel a lot happier now that I understand what has been happening, and I think this mood comes across in the tune, not least in the upward run of notes at the end. Here’s a piccolo version of it, recorded by Kristin Howry Grant. I hope that you will be able to download it and listen to it. Huge thanks to her for this and for corrections/suggestions!
Why does this keep happening to me?
In conclusion, when you find yourself feeling shaken by a situation and asking, ‘Why does this keep happening to me?’, an internal dialogue such as the following might be helpful. I have called the two characters in it A and B. They are both aspects of you.
A. Why does this keep happening to me?
B. What really keeps happening to you?
A. I am interpreting present events as being identical to previous traumatic ones, and that causes me distress and anxiety.
B. Ah ha. Could it be that the present situation might not be identical to previous ones, and that the distress caused by your possibly faulty interpretation is then preventing you from seeing that your response might be inappropriate?
A. I suppose so.
B. Why not make a list of previous circumstances and see whether these are likely to have profoundly affected the way you feel and react?
A. OK, now I have some perspective and therefore some control.
B. Yes, and what is the take-home message?
- Know thyself.
- Difficult situations can often be viewed as learning opportunities.
- When you feel acute distress, stop and recognise what is happening and why.
- Don’t run on automatic.
- Don’t project your problems onto others.
- Take control.
- You can only ever control yourself.