One of the key things for holding effective boundaries, is knowing what is yours and what is not. Other people’s emotional responses create a real challenge here. On one hand, the person who is made responsible for how others feel can be subject to control and abuse, on the other, the person who pays no regard to their impact will likely become abusive and problematic to others. There’s a very delicate balance here. What are we responsible for, and what are we not? There are no tidy answers, but a lot of important questions to ask.
It flows both ways – because we are affected by others, and affecting others all the time. We experience, and we react, and to some degree that reaction is a choice. If something causes us to be angry, then we may say ‘this makes me angry’. If something hurts us, ‘this makes me upset.’ Our own thoughts can (but not always) play a part here. If we’ve had to infer or interpret in order to suffer, we’re partly responsible. “You said that, which means… and therefore… and now I am in pain.” Making other people responsible for our interpretations is hardly fair, but if we are not especially self aware, we can infer without noticing that we’re doing so, taking things that were not meant as we imagine and reacting accordingly.
Equally when what we do and say has an impact other people don’t like, we can all be really defensive about that. We justify it – we are not responsible for their feelings. We are giving them a helpful and useful challenge. We are just being honest and telling it the way it is. We cannot be expected to walk round on eggshells just because they are a bit delicate. We cast our behaviour as reasonable and theirs as irrational in order not to have to feel uncomfortable or consider changing.
The person who is too influenced by how other people react can become a ‘people pleaser’ – unable to express their own feelings, needs and wishes. Put a people pleaser with someone who can never be wrong, and they will suffer horrendously. If they are fortunate, they will have a story about how heroic, noble and longsuffering they are. If unfortunate, the story will be that they are useless and undeserving, such that they end up expressing gratitude and apology to the person who is hurting them.
We are all works in progress, all flawed, learning, prone to error. We all have our stories and wounds, our needs are not always obvious, neither are our fears and vulnerabilities. To do more than chafe along another person’s edges takes time and effort. It requires the trust to be honest about how we react, and the trust to listen to how other people see things. This isn’t a blame game, establishing one party as good and right while the other is bad and wrong. Blame games perpetuate relationship problems. If we start by assuming that what is heard is not always what is meant, what is intended is not always what manifests, what is painful is not always an attack, and that it is entirely reasonable to be asked to change and make effort in order to further a relationship… there’s a place to start building.
The person intent on digging in and being right, or huddling down and accepting they are wrong no matter what… cannot create good relationship. Only when we start taking into account that we are messy and flawed, and so is everyone else, can we open the way to working out how to relate to each other. We do have some responsibility for how we inspire each other to feel – for well and woe. Our behaviour is our own business, and how we choose to manifest feelings must be laid at our door. Unless a gun is held to your head, no one is ‘making’ you do or say anything, but in the desire to protect ourselves from perceived attack, it is all too easy to go on the defensive. I am inclined to think that if our culture favoured co-operation and did not reward competition so enthusiastically, this would all be good deal easier to sort out.