Recently I told a dear friend that I thought he should break up with his girlfriend. I spoke with a lot of love and care but he was offended and reacted strongly. So much so that he doesn’t speak to me anymore.
There’s a lot to be learned from the way we respond to things that people say. Our emotional reaction can actually be a good way to assess whether their words are true or false – irrespective of the immediate thoughts we may have.
If we’re not stirred at all emotionally, then there might not be much that warrants investigating. If something can be shrugged off from a place of neutrality then perhaps the person is off the mark. But if it pushes something uncomfortable inside and we experience a strong emotional reaction in opposition, then there’s a good chance that there’s some medicine of truth in what’s been spoken. We might be immediately inclined to dismiss the information or opinion as being completely wrong. We might feel it’s completely outrageous. But if we think something is incorrect, and it’s coupled with some degree of outrage, then it’s almost a certainty that we’ve been presented with an uncomfortable truth.
If my friend had responded with the neutrality of surprise, disbelief or simple disagreement to my suggestion to break up, then you could presume that there wasn’t much to take notice of in what I’d shared. It could have been brushed off as something inconsequential, even readily dismissed as a far fetched idea. But the fact that his response was so extreme as to cut off our friendship suggests that there’s a great deal of relevance in my suggestion. It’s just too uncomfortable for him to contemplate.
These strong reactions occur when something buried has been uncovered. Some backlog of repressed or denied feeling has suddenly been punctured. Do we bark or attack in response to the intrusion, or do we surrender ourselves to be rearranged in the chaos of what’s been unexpectedly revealed?
Our relationship to the truth is pivotal to our evolution. Do we fight and deny or do we yield?
I was talking with someone who was upset because one of her oldest friends had recently accused her of being emotionally manipulative. She felt that manipulation was a terribly strong word and she was hurt and tearful for a long time from what she felt was a completely false accusation. And yet as we investigated the situation, she came to realise that her friend was in fact correct. She’d initially preferred to feel outraged rather than question herself about something so distasteful.
Strong emotional reactions can be a great deterrent to keep others from the things we don’t want to own up to. Some people will lash out in anger, some will collapse in tears, some will twist an argument around into attack, some will point in blame, others will turn on the silent treatment. There are different emotional flavours according to different personalities. Whatever the strategy, essentially we employ it in an attempt to dismiss the messengers of truth.
I have another friend who employs a “poor me, I’m so fragile” tactic. Whenever a situation demands that he take responsibility and act with maturity that he feels is beyond him, he’ll cry. He’ll duck and weave for a while but if that doesn’t get the person off his case then he’ll break down in tears. But they’re not real tears of genuine suffering, they’re decoy tears to gather sympathy and sidestep the issue at hand. Most people fall for his trick.
Our willingness to face or deny the truth can determine the degree of emotional drama we’ll mobilise in the face of confrontation. The stronger the resistance, the more we’ll ratchet up our emotionality in defense.
All the way to death there will be endless opportunities to discover ever greater truths about ourselves. It can be welcomed or resisted at any turn. The more graciously we invite the truth, the more clarity and peace we’ll enjoy along the way. And the more we’re surrounded by the same willingness in others, the deeper our bonds of real connection. Vulnerable honesty invites true intimacy.
Those who are prepared to take responsibility and face the truth will be much more approachable about sticky issues. These people welcome feedback, they listen to complaints and they take time to feel their internal resistance and discomfort rather than acting it out. They know that no matter how uncomfortable, the truth is their ally. It offers a precious key to growth, transformation and connection.
How someone reacts to our truth is beyond our control, but of course we can choose our response. And it’s this response that can determine whether or not we enable them in their denial, or present them with an opportunity for change. The trick is not to buy into these reactive emotional patterns – these addictive defenses. It’s a worthy practice to allow people to run out their own emotional storms and not step in to make them feel better. A neutral witness will have them question themselves in a way that enabling never allows. When someone comes along and doesn’t play by the rules that they expect, then their bluff is called and the exposure can better pave the way for the possibility of them facing the truth.
When I shared that I thought my friend should leave his relationship, he was shocked. His emotional strategy is to shut down and retreat. He does that with his girlfriend all the time. It’s a seemingly effective strategy with her because she goes into a frenzied panic whenever he does it. He’s trained her not to push him too far or he’ll abandon her. She runs after him every time.
I’m not buying into it in the way he’s accustomed to. I’m standing back and allowing him to embrace his retreat for as long as he chooses. Maybe it’s forever. I have to risk that and be willing to stand my ground if I’m to give him a chance of rewriting this pattern that disables him.
Great relationships can only be built upon courageously honest foundations.
If someone’s emotional strategy is to get angry, let them. They’ll be used to scaring people into submission with their rage. Don’t flinch. Don’t retreat. There’s no need to meet them in their anger, just remain present with neutrality and don’t buy into their bullying tactics. Persist with your case and completely ignore their anger. Eventually, they’ll either burn themselves out and surrender or they’ll move on and turn their attention to someone else who they know they can dominate.
If someone responds with hysterical tears, let them. You’ll know if they’re genuine tears of grieving or if they’re tears born out of an addictive habit to shirk responsibility and more mature behaviour. Hold them to account.
If someone chooses distance and silence, let them. What they want is for you to seek them out and make amends on their terms. Don’t reach for them, don’t call them, don’t search for them. Leave them to find their own way out of the isolation that they’re attempting to force upon you.
Anyone who bucks against the truth denies both their own opportunity for growth and deeper intimacy. They’re used to their emotional strategy being effective at getting people off their case. Don’t stand for it. This non-compliance can sort people immediately into two camps: those who are rubbed up the wrong way, get resentful and dig their heels in, and those who take the opportunity to transform themselves with humility.
Never fear rejection from those in the first group. We mustn’t be afraid of having them disappear from our life. As they refuse to learn and grow, our relationship with them will become stale, because as they fight their own evolution they will also resent and resist it in others. The truth should liberate, not imprison us.