Emotions, Boundaries and Manipulative Behaviour: The tough stuff

Tonight, in honour of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month for those who don’t know. Look it up. It’s real), I decided to write on the slipperiest, most difficult task known to human relationships. How do we express, handle and navigate big emotions when discussing difficult topics?

Big emotions are usually not a problem when they are positive. When I am super excited about my partner’s success in a triathlon, it is easy to express and easy for my partner to contain.  When I am really happy that I have blogged every day in the month of November (ha! like that’ll happen), those who are closest to me will revel in my happiness and be proud of me. It will all be well.

However, life isn’t always roses and unicorns is it.  How about when I get into a minor car accident in the rain while driving the kids to school and I have to tell my partner what happened? Or what if my dad keeps saying inappropriate racist things at the dinner table in front of my kids? These situations are harder to negotiate because they raise emotion in me and they elicit reactions from people with whom I express the emotions. These are almost always the headwaters of the big fights everyone has with those they love at some point or another.

Having in mind the way stories get told in my office, there is one thing I need to make perfectly clear.

Yes, a person is entitled to have emotions. Emotions are an important and unavoidable aspect of being a human. They are a source of information. If you think you don’t have to have them or you expect your partner shouldn’t have them, well, tough. They are there and they are inevitable.

When a “bad thing” happens to you emotions occur.  They may be sadness, fear, shame, anger or some combination of those feelings.  For instance, when I get in a car accident, I can expect to feel, anger at myself, shame and a fear of what other people will say, especially those who may be financially on the hook with me.  If my dad is racist at the dinner table*, I may expect to feel shame, anger and sadness about what it means to have a dad that says things like that, especially in front of my kids.

It’s what comes next that is the key to being either a responsible adult who is aware of their boundaries or a person who uses the situation to manipulate others for their own needs rather than the health of the relationship. When I say “their own needs”, I don’t mean needs in relationship aren’t important or shouldn’t be acknowledged. The “needs” in this context are usually unacknowledged core needs for acceptance, validation, love and reinforcement. That would be just fine too, but when they are sought out in a destructive way, they not only remain unmet, but set up a relational implosion that hurts everyone.

So, what does that relational implosion look like? I think most of you already have an idea.

I say, “Dad, what is your problem? Don’t say stuff like that in front of the kids! You never listen to me when I tell you anything. You obviously don’t care about me or your grandchildren, or you wouldn’t be so stupid as to say this stuff. If you can’t behave yourself, I am never bringing the kids over here again. I’m leaving and I won’t come back until you apologize!”

Dad may or may not have got a word in edgewise. It was probably something defensive, or possibly something about how impossible I’ve always been.  I just makes me madder and maybe I throw in a swear word or two in front of the children.

That exchange contained within it my deep sadness that my dad isn’t the kind of man I want him to be. I may feel unseen by him because he doesn’t understand how important it is to me to hold and express a world view where real equality is something we strive for and reinforce rather than undermine.  When he can’t grasp such a core value of mine, I feel he doesn’t know me, possibly doesn’t really love me and I have lost a possibility of authentic relationship because of that disconnect. That loss makes me, in a word, nuts, and I react, *POW*.

However, notice that even though the reaction is driven by a core value that is essentially good and noble, the effect of the response is utterly detrimental. I am modeling bad behaviour in front of my kids, demeaning my dad as a human being (exactly the thing I accused him of doing to others), and demanding that he do all the work to make it better. He has to change his whole personality and world view (and make me believe it) before he gets to see the kids again. Good luck, “me”, with making that threat stick and good luck also if I think he will comply.

This upsetting situation has triggered emotion in me but I reacted in a way that was destructive and manipulative.

Other common examples of this kind of conversation include:

If you don’t stop X behaviour, I will leave you (It’s a longer conversation than that, but that’s the message.)

It’s your fault I’m upset. If you would just stop getting upset at me for being upset, everything would be fine (This is really twisted up isn’t it? But it happens all the time.)

Up there in my title, I have the word, “Boundaries” and this is where they come in. In this context, boundaries are about communicating to another person what you can and cannot accept and then doing what you need to do to protect yourself from the unacceptable.  Boundaries are informed by emotions and are the things we can use to help us contain them. This is what a responsible adult does when faced with an emotionally charged situation.

In my example, my dad has just uttered a racist comment about the population of the local elementary school. I don’t fuel the conversation.  Perhaps I change the topic.  I am still really mad inside but I am determined to deal with this in a way the offers us both the best chance for success.  I ask to speak to him privately. I say, “Dad, I realize you have opinions about the population of the school and how that may or may not affect all the kids there. But when you generalize about one group of kids and say disrespectful things about their culture, it sends a message to my kids that it’s alright to dismiss people outright because of race. I don’t want to reinforce a message like that to them. I am letting you know in private that this sort of discussion is unacceptable to me. It is important to me that you refrain from voicing your ideas at the supper table like that in front of them because it undermines what I am trying to teach them.”

This conversation may go on at length. He may try to justify what he is saying. He may invoke free speech. I tell him I will choose whether or not to have the debate another time but I have chosen to instill different values in my children and I can’t have him undermining them. I will ask him to promise to avoid the topic and then we can carry on.

It may happen that I choose not to bring them back because he can’t contain his emotions around my challenge. That would be worst case. But notice that I am speaking from my position, my values, my actions and I am offering him the choice to disengage or shift. I leave it up to him. I’ve set a boundary.

I may still be emotional during all this boundary setting. I may cry and shake. I’m still sad that he isn’t who I want him to be. I am aware of all this and that is what helps me do what I need to do. I am not mad at him for making me upset, ruining the evening, or other highly dramatic tropes. I’m just bummed my dad is a racist.

Learning to do this is really really hard. The first step, however, is noticing what you demand of others when they upset you or something upsetting happens. If you are constantly let down by the response and feel demanding what you need always makes it worse, you may need to start thinking about setting boundaries as opposed to emotionally manipulating the ones you love. We’ve all done it and there is no shame in admitting that. The pain of it won’t cease when everyone finally does things the way you need them to because you’ve finally yelled, threatened or coerced in the right way.  Change really starts when you act like the adult you really are and set a boundary.

Go for it!

*For the record, while my dad wasn’t always a super politically correct guy, he never was overtly racist at the dinner table. He also, sadly, never met my kids. I’m making stuff up for effect. Sorry Dad. I did get into a car accident on a wet road driving kids to school. Sorry car.