Have you ever been here?
You’re going through your day, minding your own business, when suddenly someone else’s emotional energy takes over your space – usually in the form of anger. Maybe your parent or another adult had a habit of doing this when you were a child. Maybe your spouse or partner occasionally does it now. Maybe this has happened with a colleague or your boss. Perhaps you’ve even been the angry person and created this situation for someone in your life.
In the situation I’m describing, the person in question may or may not express their feelings out loud but you might find yourself being very aware of their presence and feel yourself start to respond emotionally, maybe even physically.
Do you choose to do one of the following?
- Gently question and cajole the person into talking about what’s wrong. Help them to recognize their emotions and decide what to do about them. Try to facilitate their learning without challenging them (so that the anger doesn’t get transferred to you).
– OR –
- Do everything you can to pave the way for them to calm down emotionally. This might include stopping what you’re doing to help or intercepting things (or people) that seem likely to aggravate them. All of this is done in the hope that this will allow the anger to dissipate so that you can go back to your day.
This type of de-escalation is a common response – especially for women. In both of the examples above you’re taking it upon yourself to do emotional work for this person. This situation might sound a bit extreme when it’s laid out so explicitly, but the dynamic is often more subtle. The fact is, it can be so automatic you might not even realize you’re doing it.
This dynamic is one I’ve taken part in myself and heard described by dozens (if not hundreds) of women. It’s not exclusive to women* – but women are particularly susceptible to being pulled into this emotional work because of our cultural conditioning. In situations like the one described above, the urge that many women feel to soothe, calm and fix can be overwhelming because we’ve been conditioned to see this as our role.
As a woman the anger of other people, particularly men, can feel unsafe. It can trigger our nervous system and put us into de-escalation mode before we realize what’s happening unless we learn to recognize it. Even if we don’t feel threatened, sometimes it feels easier to jump in and do the emotional work for someone rather than dealing with their behavior or put up with a bad mood.
The problem is that not only does this take up tons of time, energy and work for women, but it also prevents the person we’re dealing with from becoming more emotionally literate. Women – mothers, friends, daughters, sisters and partners – play an enormous role in helping men circumvent doing the emotional work that’s necessary for personal growth and emotional wellness.
When we do this work for men we’re robbing them of the opportunity to do it for themselves – and, most importantly, learn from it. This behavior props up toxic masculinity.
It can be hard to be with someone who is silently fuming or perhaps acting out. But letting someone experience their own emotions and then choose how to handle them on their own can build necessary emotional skills. Or not. They might choose to numb their emotions or do something counterproductive. Either way, it’s not your job to fix it and there may still be something learned in the process. If they want help, they can ask for it and then you get to choose whether or not to participate.
This situation can get uncomfortable, especially in relationships where patterns have built up over long periods of time. But being uncomfortable is a key ingredient for personal growth. Without discomfort we might never have the need to grow and change. When we allow the men in our lives to sit in their own discomfort, we’re allowing a catalyst for change to be created. When we allow ourselves to sit in the discomfort of staying in our own lane, we get to be a catalyst for ourselves.
*There is often a power dynamic at play in these situations, where the person in a position of social dominance relies on people with less power to absorb and assist in the processing of their emotions – but we’ll save that for an article of its own.