I’ve written about how we can get stressed over what might happen, when we jump to conclusions. Here I’d like to focus on one variant of this situation, the one in which we can almost forecast what is going to happen when someone reacts to what we say or do and, as a result, we stop ourselves from acting.

Restricting ourselves from doing something (which includes saying something) in order to avoid the reaction we anticipate getting from someone is quite a common occurrence. For example, we don’t talk to a third party because we are worried that our significant other will get jealous and punish us. We don’t mention to the boss that the operations plan they have prepared is almost certain to fail, because we don’t want to experience their wrath and perhaps even get fired. I’m sure you can think of lots more examples…

This avoidance of other people’s potential reactions is pretty normal human self-preservation in action. Why would anyone want to be subjected to the slings and arrows of those who react negatively to benign events and facts? For most of us, there is no good reason to willingly inflict pain and suffering on ourselves.

So, as a result, we walk on eggshells, we detour around situations which are potentially uncomfortable, and we generally restrict our lives. We also end up with more stress, as we are constantly monitoring our actions and words in an effort to not trigger some undesirable reaction from someone. This monitoring and expectation can in fact lead to tremendous stress, and ultimately result in an unhealthy relationship between us and the other person.

There are at least two stress circuits engaged in this example. There is our stress and there is the stress of the other person. Let’s take a look at each.

Our stress

As mentioned above, our stress mainly arises because we anticipate something negative is going to happen.This anticipation is based upon our prior experience with this person, and incidents in which we perceived that they were reacting negatively to something linked to us. I use the word perceived, because we can interpret someone else’s reaction as negative when it is not.

Humans come with some pretty fancy brain circuits for saving time and doing pattern matching. We see a chair, and even if we have never seen that particular chair before, and it has legs shorter than any previous one we have seen, and a slanted back, we can identify that it is a chair. This is thanks to the marvels of our brain circuits for matching the pattern of a chair with this image and then seeing enough similarities to identify the form and use of the object within a very short period of time. These circuits also enable us to instantly recognize as human all kinds of people.

These same brain circuits can cause us to mis-perceive actions and expressions, especially when cultural elements come into play. For example, in some places in the world, a particular hand gesture is friendly and in others rude. Differing cultural interpretations of gestures and facial expressions has caused many a problem over the years, and diplomats are now taught what is and is not appropriate action in each country they visit. A quick search on the internet turned up this page with some examples of how differently people will interpret something as apparently benign as using your fingers to form a circle. Where these brain circuits really can get us into trouble is when we assume that we know what another person is feeling based upon our brain databanks of previous experiences.

We see someone smiling and could assume that they are happy. In some cultures and for some people regardless of cultural origin, smiling can signify embarrassment or confusion or anger. In fact, for the same person, the same facial expression or gesture can mean many different things, depending upon their emotional and mental state. It is not wise to assume that what we see means what our brain circuits instantly tell us it means - we could be really off the mark.

Now, if someone is smiling, and laughing and tells us in a cheerful voice that they are really happy, odds are that our initial interpretation is correct. But if we only have one bit of evidence (their smile), and we assumed they were happy, we would be indulging in single factor reasoning - drawing a conclusion based on insufficient data.

The same thing happens when we read a message from someone and conclude that they are in emotional state X. They might actually be in emotional state Y, but our pattern matching is hard at work, saving us time and yet leading us astray.

In an episode of the Kung Fu TV series, there is this bit of advice: “Recognize that all words are part false and part true, limited by our imperfect understanding. But strive always for honesty within yourself.” - Master Kan

The best way that I have found to be more certain about how another is actually reacting to what we are doing is to gently ask them. We may even discover that the frown on their face is not because they are unhappy, but because they are puzzled. Just because our speedy pattern matching brain circuits are telling us how to interpret their response, does not mean that we actually know. And, the crazy thing is that people have spent years thinking that someone always gets upset when they topic A is brought up when in fact they were not at all upset. They may have just been sad, for example, and it looked like upset on the surface.

If you think that someone is going to get upset every time you do Action G, and you don’t verify what is actually happening, it is quite likely that you are going to end up stressed. You’ll be seeing something negative happening in the future and wanting to avoid it. This anticipation and viewing of the movie of the future might even trigger stress responses in your body, as the mind can barely distinguish between reality and imagination - look at how you react to a scary dream or a horror movie. There is no scary person there in the room and yet your body is reacting as if there was, with your heart rate and breathing changed, and perhaps some sweaty palms…

Now if it was possible to simply think that the other person was going to react totally calmly to whatever you are considering doing, then all would be well. Unfortunately, we’re not wired that way. Our brains in our gut (enteric brain) and in our head are connected and store up all those memories and associated emotions from past occasions when we interpreted negatively something that was happening. The part of our head brain that does the thinking is not the same as the part that deals with emotions, so just trying to think your way past a fear does not work - you’ve got the wrong circuits in play. (This is why the AER process for Stress Elimination involves more than just thinking about an emotion when we want to release it.)

In order to start afresh with an openness to what are possible responses (positive, negative and neutral) from the other person, we need to de-energize those brain circuits that store our past interpretations and emotions. Once these memory circuits are de-energized, we are able to contemplate from a more neutral starting point. We won’t have past experiences crowding in and telling us that it is written in stone that we’re going to get a negative reaction if Person X hears Topic Y.

One of the many ways that we can feel stressed in this scenario is when we start to feel resentment about not being ourselves around that other person. I’ve seen many cases of people being able to discover a brand new way of relating to someone by releasing the stored emotions and memories concerning this person and giving things a fresh start, without the influence of pattern matching.

The other, very common form of pattern matching which can lead to stress is when we pattern match experiences with different people to someone new. We see what looks like a familiar pattern, maybe get a feeling about it, don’t verify to ensure that appearances and perceptions match reality and voila, person X is now seen and treated exactly the same as one or more people from your past.

Their stress

We’ve seen how complex this whole area of stressing over how another person might react can be. But, we’re not done yet.

Let’s say that the other person actually does react badly whenever you say or do something. They shout at you, or give you the prolonged silent treatment, or say negative words about the subject, sneer at it, belittle it, whatever. If you assembled an independent group of observers and asked them to evaluate the reaction you get, they would vote in the majority for it being considered a negative response. And, they would say the same thing consistently over time, so you have an accurate observation of the pattern of behaviour.

More than likely, this reaction that you are getting is the result of the stress being experienced by the other person, and triggered by whatever you are doing. Much of the time, when people react strongly to something, it is because they have some unresolved issue that has been triggered. Don Miguel Ruiz calls these wounds and they certainly behave as a wound would.

Imagine that you hurt your leg, cutting it on a sharp edge. Until it heals fully, each time you touch that wound it will hurt and while it is still healing over, can be re-opened and start bleeding again. Our emotional wounds are much like this. The main difference is that emotional wounds are not as easy to spot as physical ones. At least, not so easy at first. Having worked with a fair number of people in the role of facilitator of their emotional release work, I have seen first-hand many times how some issue appears in a form different from its reality. Someone may be sad, for example, and yet appears to be angry. Someone else may be grieving and come across as rude. These surface expressions are not the real feelings, but are masking feelings that seem to be easier to have than the others. The whole discussion of empowering versus dis-empowering feelings is going to need another article to cover it properly, but suffice to say that some feelings, like anger, feel better to us than others, such as grief.

It is entirely likely that when someone responds negatively to a neutral or positive action of yours (I’m still including what you say as an action), you are not seeing their real reaction to your action, but actually some issue of something like self esteem, a fear of rejection, etc.

Like most people, they blame how they feel on the outside world. And since you are the person who is doing something which triggers them, touching that unhealed wound, they direct their negative response at you. Animals with injuries do the same thing to protect their injured parts - they snarl and snap to keep you at a safe distance. It is not about you, but about them protecting themselves. And, for humans, there is going to be a lot of stress involved.

The solution for these people is the same as for you - release the stored emotions and all of a sudden things start to look different. It does not matter what these stored emotions are about - if they are inside us, they stress us and distort our perspective of the world, ourselves and our possibilities.

So long as we hold unresolved feelings inside, everyone in touch with us suffers in some way.

Copyright 2009 Robert S. Vibert, all rights reserved

Author's Bio: 

Robert is an Applied Researcher and teaches AER - Awareness Expression Resolution, a system for Stress Elimination and emotional wellness. Find out more at vibert.ca