my capricious friend

At various times I have been told I am passionate, emotional and overly sensitive. Being labelled as passionate is usually okay with me, depending on who says it and the context in which it is said. On the other hand, being told I’m emotional or overly sensitive irks me. I believe these terms are too often used to gaslight women*. And what does ’emotional’ even mean? Expressing emotions is critical to interaction with other human beings. As long as they’re expressed in a way that doesn’t harm others, I see them as a positive characteristic of humanity. And as far as calling someone ‘overly sensitive’, why should someone be criticised for expressing hurt or frustration at the inconsiderate or rude behaviour of another?

None of this is to say that I express my emotions constructively at all times and never hurt others with my words or behaviour. I read somewhere that every personality trait can be both beneficial and detrimental to our happiness and success in life. For example I care deeply about the natural environment and the consequences that climate change is having and will have on biodiversity and the inhabitability of our planet. I also care about people and I feel incredibly angry every time I hear about the latest developments in Australia’s inhumane refugee policy or the fact that transgender people are far more likely to attempt suicide than cisgendered people or that in Australia one in three girls and one in six boys is sexually assaulted before they turn 18, not to mention the rates of sexual assault against women more generally. It is my anger at injustice that prompt people to tell me I’m passionate. Regardless of what it’s called, I consider my anger in these situations to be my ally. As a non-religious person, my attentiveness to justice for people and the planet is a key way in which I define my morality.

However the flip side of my passion for socio-ecological justice is that I can express my anger in a negative way towards people who upset me. It is under those circumstances that I have been called emotional and overly sensitive. Unfortunately for the people who have pulled out the E and S words, I am usually too busy disregarding their facile attempt at emotional manipulation to notice that my initial anger impeded what could have been a constructive conversation about the way their behaviour made me feel. Which brings me to a little technique I’ve been trying to use lately when confronting someone who has upset me. It goes like this: you approach the person, calmly ask them if you can talk to them about something that’s bothering you and then say “it makes me feel [insert relevant feeling] when you say/do [insert relevant behaviour]“. You’ve probably heard of this communication technique before. You may even use it. But if you’re anything like me, chances are that sometimes you forget civility in the heat of the moment and all of a sudden you’ve said something you wish you could scrape off the floor and shove back down your throat.

I first came across this technique a few years ago when I realised that I needed to learn how to express my anger more constructively, otherwise risking alienation of those I care about and making myself very sick and unhappy. For a long time I didn’t like the structure and wording of the simple sentence. It seemed rigid and artificial. I couldn’t see how one sentence could be applied to more than a handful of scenarios let alone prevent a cataclysmic argument. My preferred approach was much more confrontational. I wouldn’t call people names but I would tell them exactly what they did and why it was wrong.

It didn’t work.

In fact it failed monumentally. And more than one relationship was destroyed.

Why? Because I came off as arrogant and self-righteous. And because there is no universal or objective truth. My anger was most definitely not my ally in these situations. Which is why more recently I’ve been trying out the technique I mentioned. And guess what? Most of the time it works! If the person I approach cares about me and if I also listen to and consider their perspective, expressing my concern in terms of how it makes me feel is the best way I’ve found of resolving an issue without ensuing resentment. How wonderful that something so simple can literally transform relationship dynamics!

Have you ever said something you regret to a loved one? What is the best way you’ve found to resolve an issue between yourself and another?

*For a good article on gaslighting see: http://thecurrentconscience.com/blog/2011/09/12/a-message-to-women-from-a-man-you-are-not-%E2%80%9Ccrazy%E2%80%9D/