I often struggle with stepping back and accepting other people’s emotions, to simply listen and seek to understand, because I tend to take their emotions personally and become defensive. As a result of this sense of personal involvement, strong or negative emotions in other people make me incredibly uncomfortable, and my default response is anger and anxiety.
While learning about child development and respectful parenting has helped me a lot with distancing my emotional state from my children’s emotions (without distancing myself from them), it’s still a huge challenge for me with adults, especially in my family. So when I have even a small success – when I can remember that their emotions are not a personal attack before letting loose with angry words or falling into a panicky state – it is pretty exciting!
Yesterday my husband seemed to be upset; he was silent, morose, and sharp. My unthinking response was to wonder what I had done wrong to make him upset, and then to be angry at him for being upset about things that he hadn’t established expectations for (like our schedule for the afternoon, which I thought might be the cause of his stress or irritation). So I was avoiding him, not talking to him, not making eye contact, etc. – all the things I do to keep myself from saying something in anger. But as we sat in the car together I suddenly thought, yelling at him or prodding him to talk about things isn’t going to help me find out what’s wrong or make him feel better. It’s just going to bring us both down and make us angrier. I remembered all those parenting blogs that said, over and over again, to simply observe and offer presence. So all I said was, “it seems like you’re really upset about something.” I tried to say it in a way that would let him know he didn’t have to provide any information – I wanted to be non-confrontational and non-interrogative (not sure how that worked haha).
Maybe it was just because he saw that I wasn’t going to be mad at him, but he then opened up and told me all the things that were worrying him (none of which were about me, showing me just how unreasonable my initial reaction was), with a depth of connection that wouldn’t have been possible if he’d been saying things just to get me to leave him alone or stop being angry.
So I am now an even bigger fan of respectful parenting! This posture of respectful listening – of noticing negative emotion in the people I love without letting it unravel me or hurt our relationship – is something I want to cultivate more and more, now that I see how it benefits my adult relationships as well as my relationship with my kids. And it helps me stay far more relaxed and positive myself, which is never a bad thing.