I can’t be the only one who, in a tense conversation, has desperately wished the other person’s thoughts would just appear above their head in a little cartoony bubble.
For being such an important part of building thriving, healthy relationships, communication sure is a muddy skill to master. First, there’s the challenge of articulating our piece – finding the right words, sharing them in the right tone, and putting both through the right filters to make sure we’re approaching the situation with focus and sensitivity.
Then on top of that, because productive communication can’t just flow in one direction, we also have to master the art of being on the receiving end of the dialogue – how to really listen, how to relate to and make sense of new information, and how to frame our responses.
Mastering both sides of the equation almost calls for a sixth sense that lets us tune into how another person is feeling, or what they’d respond best to. We might classify it as empathy, or emotional intelligence, but frankly, I think expertly navigating sensitive conversations or emotionally heightened situations calls for a combination of the two, along with a little bit of magic. A certain je ne sais quoi that helps us feel especially plugged into the situation, and the people we’re communicating with.
As compassionate people, that last part about tuning into to other people’s needs and states of mind tends to come more naturally to us than most, partially because we choose to prioritize it. We pay particular attention to that little instinctual hiccup that says, “nope, can’t say that, unless I want this whole thing to escalate. Better reframe it.” before the words escape our mouths. We can find the words when others may struggle to. We can sense when the other person is clearly not getting what they need, and we feel that urge to dig deep and offer something that will fix it.
But let’s be honest – even that little extra boost of emotional tuned-in-ness is no substitute for superpowers, or a crystal ball.
The fact is, while we may have a few extra emotional tools at our disposal that help us emotionally plug-in more easily, we’re not mind readers or emotional magicians. And frankly, that’s not our responsibility.
I point this out because I think it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that because we naturally do something well, it’s our job to do it thoroughly and often – and that’s just not true. No matter how strongly we value our gifts of emotional intelligence, or how compelled we feel to swoop in and emotionally rescue someone we love when unhappiness or tension bubble up and we believe we know what they need, the fact remains: being someone else’s emotional hero is not our burden.
And I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can recognize that the urge to rescue someone we love in that way is at least partially self-serving. Personally, I know how much I hate conflict, or when the harmony in my relationships is disrupted – so finding a way to restore the other person’s happiness serves us both. It sounds like a win-win, right?
Consider how it might feel to know that someone close to you - a good friend, or even a partner - was putting themselves through the ringer to make sure you were emotionally taken care of, maybe even at the expense of their own happiness. You’d never ask or expect that of them, right? And wouldn’t it feel sort of terrible?
Just like no one else is responsible for untangling our wants and needs, or muting their own inner compass to find a resolution that serves us, it’s not reasonable to take on the responsibility of doing that for someone else. No matter how much we care about them. And realistically, that’s not a winning situation for anyone.
So what do we do when we feel that inner tug-of-war between desperately wanting to be a Helper or a Fixer when things start spiraling, and needing to draw a line in the sand?
The first thing to remember is, we can show compassion without having to rescue anyone. We can recognize someone’s unmet needs and express empathy around them, without having to meet them ourselves. And that can be super tough to remember when tension is rising and all we want for the love of all that is holy is to find resolution. But the second we start prioritizing someone else’s resolution as the ultimate goal at any cost, we start setting ourselves up to make compromises that don’t align with our values, our priorities, or who we are.
There are plenty of gestures we can offer to show support and humanity when someone else is suffering – supportive words, heartfelt hugs, small gestures of generosity, honest-to-god empathy – that carry real value without magically fixing anything. And sometimes, offering one or two of them is the most we can do before the best decision is to simply step away to emotionally reboot, and find our center again.
When we feel ourselves losing our sense of emotional groundedness and starting to focus solely on ‘their’ feelings and ‘their’ happiness, that’s a perfect cue to walk away, tend to ourselves, and find some clarity.
For a while, I was seeing a really amazing therapist – we’ll call her Suzanne. Week after week, I was showing up to my appointments with Suzanne, and spending all my time talking about my partner-at-the-time. What he wanted, what he needed, what he wasn’t getting, how he was reacting, and how hard I was working to (often unsuccessfully) be the solution. I remember feeling exhausted from all the inner work it took to understand what this other person needed to be happy, and to try on all the ways I could change my own beliefs and behavior to better align with those things.
At some point during all this, she offered me a lovely piece of wisdom that really hit home, and continues to stick with me years later:
“His stormcloud is your cue to offer love or support, and then go do something for yourself.”
I love that. It was hard to hear it first, honestly, but it’s a great reminder of how important it is not to totally lose ourselves in someone else’s struggle (even when we love them). Sometimes the hardest part is removing ourselves before we get completely pulled under by someone else’s emotional ten-foot wave, while there’s still a chance to restore our own energy and emotional roots back to a healthy place.
And in those moments when walking away is the best choice we can make, it’s helpful to have something to do next, or something specific to focus on. It helps to have a toolkit you can immediately turn to in those moments, to help jumpstart your process of self-care or re-centering when your emotions are trying to pull you back toward rescuing someone else. Knowing what to shift our attention to can help us feel less weird and lost.
I’ve created a free Emotional Reboot Starter Kit for you to use when you know you need to walk away and take care of yourself, but aren’t sure what to do next.
Because often, rather than staying engaged in trying to rescue someone we love from their own distress, the best thing we can do is walk away, turn inward, and focus on tending to ourselves.
No matter how we choose to extract ourselves, the important thing is to remember that exiting a situation to preserve our own wellness is not selfish. If we don’t have a point at which we’re willing to walk away or say no to engaging further in someone else’s distress, we risk losing sight of ourselves, or getting pulled further and further away from the outcomes we want - whether that’s a feeling of inner peace, fulfillment, balance, or simply having our own needs met.
Sometimes walking away in the short term is the best way to preserve our wellness, our perspective, and our ability to stay generous in the long-term.