Let’s talk about the people who get under your skin. You know who I’m talking about. These are the people who can get you all revved up. Maybe it’s your child’s significant other, your boss, your neighbor, a member of the congregation, or a court-appointed therapist. You can barely tolerate being in the same room with them. It’s clear to you that THEY are the problem. End of discussion.
Let’s talk about what you do to people who get under your skin. You blame them! You blame them for getting everyone worked up. You blame them for how they make you feel. It’s clear to you that this person is “not normal” and therefore MUST change. It is the only solution. If you’re human, you’ve probably said this to yourself and, on occasion, out loud.
An alternate reality may enter our conscious mind to suggest that the situation is more complicated. If you listen carefully, you can hear people vacillate between two realities. On the one hand, we get worked up about someone’s behavior. On the other hand, we recognize that we all behave in ways that challenge others. Even though we try not to blame others, we just can’t help ourselves.
Directly or indirectly, my expend energy to try and change the other person. The direct approach is, well simply: “You need to change your behavior!” The indirect method is much subtler. But the desire is still the same. We keep hoping the other person will get the message and change.
Have you ever wondered how someone’s behavior gets under your skin? Have you ever noticed that your level of irritation with them fluctuates? When I coach clergy, I hear stories of how parishioners can get them revved up. The clergy diagnose and blame others for the problems in the church. Some clergy sound very convincing. What’s remarkable is what happens when I ask a simple question.
Where does this bad behavior occur in your family? I first heard this question over a decade ago while participating in a clergy group. It’s a question I’ve started to ask myself and others. What’s remarkable is that I’ve never had someone answer with, “nowhere.” The longest I’ve had to wait for an answer is about five seconds. Almost immediately, clergy can identify someone in their family.
It turns out that it’s not people that get us revved up. It’s the relationship process that takes place in between people. It’s the back and forth process which is automatic, reactive, and reciprocal. It’s back and forth because the other person is reacting to you and other people just as much as you are reacting to them and to other people. It’s automatic because the emotional system hijacks the prefrontal cortex. It’s reactive because the other person’s behavior makes you uncomfortable. It’s reciprocal because individuals in a relationship system are always adjusting to find a sustained level of comfort.
Pretend that Andrew is a member of your congregation. Andrew loves to tell people what to and how to do it. He is more than happy to complete a task for someone who isn’t as organized as he is. If you need something done, Andrew is your guy. The downside is that no one will work with Andrew.
Everyone is unhappy on the committee Andrew chairs. No one talks during the meetings and Andrew continues to take on more and more responsibility. The meetings typically end with everyone being frustrated, including Andrew. You decide to take Andrew out for coffee.
“Tell me what it was like growing up in your family,” you ask. Andrew begins to tell you about being the oldest of six siblings. Andrew grew up on a farm. His father died when he was sixteen, leaving him responsible for the farm and the family. After his father’s death, his mother became depressed and less available to Andrew and his six siblings. This left Andrew with the additional responsibility of parenting his siblings. Under these circumstances, Andrew learned how to keep the family afloat. His siblings graduate high school except for one sister who dropped out. She still lives with their mother and is unable to keep a job. Andrew, who still lives close by, makes daily trips to the house to keep his mother organized and the sister out of trouble. You leave the conversation with a new appreciation of what Andrew is up against.
On the way home, in the car, you think about your family and wonder who exhibits this same challenging behavior. It’s your mother. When she is stressed, she tries to organize your life. When this happens, you find it difficult to maintain your level of functioning. You decide it’s time to take more responsibility for your functioning, so you create a plan to not depend on your mother’s over functioning. A good coach, trained in Bowen Theory, can be a helpful resource in figuring out how to address this reciprocal, relationship challenge.
The key to dealing with difficult behavior is to get on the other side of it:
- What challenge is the other person facing?
- How does their behavior function in a way that makes sense?
- What part does my reactivity play in perpetuating the problem?
- How can I function differently in a way that is more responsible?
- How is a more neutral, mature response different than the way I’m responding now?
Getting on the other side of someone’s behavior can make a difference in developing strategize for working on differentiation of self. One can discover that the other person is doing the best they can with what they have. And while we can all do better, I can do better while working on my part of the problem. Getting factual about what someone is up against in their life is one way to develop a mature response to a problem. What will it take for you to get on the other side of a problem so you can be the best self you can be?