Don't Be Upset; It's Upsetting Me
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2014 (edited 2018)
Our response to a partner's upsets builds or destroys closeness. These difficult moments are where trust and safety is created.
We reach limits, pushing our tolerations beyond the tidy boundaries of self-control and we explode. But rarely does the explosion resolve the upset. Rather it furthers the separation, weakening trust. These trying moments demand empathy. Empathy bridges crevices and paves roads to connection. During difficult conversations, one of the partners must make this leap—a leap of faith, into the heart of the emotion; feel what the partner is trying to express with their flow of inadequate words.
The precious moments of conflict, when empathetically approached, build the bridges of trust and safety—the foundations of intimacy. Empathy is a process of the heart, but also, a cognitive process—we observe and absorb emotions. We feel what the other person feels. Empathy creates appreciation for another person's experience. Sharing emotion is not always welcomed. Our empathy charges our soul with the discomforting emotions of a partner. If we stumble over our own discomforts, a partner’s emotional upsets become troublesome. Their upset can be very upsetting.
Our mind absorbs and then reflects outside emotion; the emotions then reverberate through our own system. We experience emotion based on our interpretations of their emotion. Processing emotions is a skill laced with biological sensitivities. If we are sensitive to emotions, the negative feeling affects is distasteful. We don’t like it. We rush to resolve or escape. When resolutions fail, the sensitive, untrained in processing emotion, become frustrated with the sadness, anger, guilt or whatever emotion they are charged to absorbed. They are confronted with a relational paradox of wanting to support but unwillingness to hold the associated emotions.
We build intimacy through emotional attunement, accepting and holding partners during the emotional existence of living. In ability to stay with an emotion creates deep fractures. Instead of comforting, the incapable partner becomes irritable, failing to embrace the partner in their bid for support. These actions demand, “Don’t be upset!”
Emotions provide an opportunity for connection. Emotional expressions give insight into the other—their past and their present; fears and insecurities are exposed. With intimacy, a partner feels these expressions and connects, providing understanding and comfort—not necessarily resolving. Dismissing a partner’s discomforting emotions limits the richness of the relationship, driving a wedge between partners, making the emotional experience isolated and not understood.
As a child, caregivers largely determine the environment. The child has limited control. The child’s reliance on others severely limits her options. When an environment is dangerous, abusive or unpredictable, the child must adapt. Often the child escapes the anxiety by constructing protective mechanisms in the mind. When soothing of emotions is unavailable in the environment, we internalize the problem to create a solution.
"Dismissing a partner’s discomforting emotions limits the richness of the relationship, driving a wedge between partners, making the emotional experience isolated and not understood."
As adults, we a wide array of options to negotiate difficult circumstance. We have measured control over our environments. We can plan, organize and change circumstances to create stability. Yet the old habits mind stubbornly continue, haunting new-found freedoms. The escapes used in childhood infiltrate experience in adulthood. The sensitive child becomes the sensitive adult. Limited in emotional maturity, the adult still seeks escape through internalized answers. When a sensitive adult absorbs the emotions of the partner and lacks the skill to hold emotion, the feeling is painful, creating insecurities. Instead of comforting, they retreat. The abandoned partner—alone in their pain—quickly learns emotions are unwelcomed, creating deeper problems of disconnection. Facing aloneness during adversity is not what most desire from a relationship. The emotionally abandoned partner must internalize their experience, feeling shackled to lonely existence, hiding emotions to not upset the child living inside of their partner.
If this is your partner, have patience. If this is you, seek help to improve your skill to compassionately hold emotions.
Life is full of positive and negative effect. We feel life. Inability to process the emotional flow of living is extremely limiting. Learning to productively process feeling enhances our existence. The developed skills open our hearts to the experience of others, creating stronger bonds. When a partner is upset, we also feel upset, but with emotional maturity, we smoothly hold that upset, providing healing comfort.
Our partners may not have this skill yet. A partner unable to patiently hold emotions will seek escape—physical or emotional, like a frightened animal, they may aggressively strike back, our expressions of emotions exposes their vulnerability. Our Emotions are threatening to them. Being upset, upsets them. We can’t unload the entire heap on their sensitive souls.
By being patient and understanding (even when upset), we can help partners productively experience emotions through careful and measured expressions. A screaming match only destroys the progress. When they are upset, we can create a safe base for their honest expression or respect their need for solitude. Strenuous and repeated efforts to solve a partner’s underlying problem often backfires. A more productive approach is a compassionate presence, supporting the emotion and providing continued acceptance. Of course, there are limitations. When a partner’s emotions are destructive hurtful and dangerous, we must seek safety. Absorbing emotions should not include physical or emotional abuse.
A loving partner willingly ventures into the internal landscape of a partner’s world. Trudging through the discomforts and fears may be awkward, encountering our own discomforting responses; but to intimately connect, we must travel down this path. During emotional moments, when we compassionately feel and hold a partner’s experience without judgment or correction, we exhibit love, showing them, they are not alone. These are the precious moments of vulnerability where we can provide safety. These moments of compassion tear down walls built in the early years of living, and open widows to the delicate and beautiful souls of others.