I hate being misunderstood. In fact, it can be very frustrating when I can’t seem to get someone to understand what I’m trying to say. But what’s worse is when it’s an angry or hurt misunderstanding. Even more, is when they react so quickly that I don’t have a chance to clarify my meaning. Ugh! I feel like I’m being pulled into a whirlpool and its just going down. I can reach out for something to cling onto, such as a defensive response, but it’s just going down too. How do I stop this downward spiral?
Don’t Stop It — Just Get Out!
After a couple initial attempts of “I didn’t mean that” or “Wait a second let me explain what I meant” fail to stop the tornado, then your best choice is to step away and let the storm blow over. Because if they’re so caught up in their beliefs about what you meant and they’re emotional reaction to those beliefs, then they’re not going to be able to hear you anyway.
There’s no stopping the spiral from inside of it. If you stay in there and struggle with them, trying to wrestle understanding out of them, you’re only going to make it worse. Just like them, you’ll get caught up in your own emotional reaction and won’t be able to think straight or listen either.
Manage Your Emotions
They’re having emotions and now you are too. You can’t do anything about their feelings but you can manage your own.
Sure, it’s annoying. When it happens to me I always wonder, “Why can’t people just read my mind?” or “Don’t they know me enough to know that I wouldn’t try to hurt them?” You can start to feel frustrated or angry with them, wondering “Why are we fighting? I don’t want this!”
And then the feeling of helplessness kicks in. Yes, sometimes you really are helpless when someone’s having an emotional reaction to something you’ve said. If they’re really revved up, you can’t stop them from feeling what they’re feeling and thinking what they’re thinking. Nobody likes the feeling of being helpless. Feeling helpless can stir up panic, anger and resentment. It can even trigger old traumatic experiences of helplessness. But you don’t want to be pulled into all of that.
Being misunderstood can also trigger feelings of embarrassment. “Did I say something wrong? Am I stupid and unable to express myself clearly? Am I socially clumsy?” Being misunderstood can trigger shame. Shame is a really unpleasant feeling. When we feel unpleasant feelings it can often trigger anger inside of us. We take out that anger on whoever triggered the feeling of shame for us. Don’t go there!
Step back. Take a breath. Calm yourself. You are more powerful than you think. You can do this and you’ll feel better about yourself if you do keep control of your emotions. Notice the feelings that are surfacing in you, “I’m feeling like screaming,” “I’m feeling like running out of the room,” but don’t give them more power than they deserve. They’re just feelings. You don’t have to act on them. Wait for the other person to calm themselves. Remind yourself that there’s no use talking until you’re both calm enough to listen.
Don’t Shame or Be Ashamed
You could try to shame them for misinterpreting you or being so emotionally reactive. They could try to shame you for expressing yourself in an inconsiderate or confusing way. Finger pointing, shaming and blaming will not help.
Is there anyone who hasn’t experienced both sides of this type of misunderstanding? We’re human. We’ve all experienced being hurt or hurting someone else due to an insensitive or simply mistaken misunderstanding.
Shame Stops Communication
If you resort to shaming each other than the opportunity to understand each other will be lost. When someone feels shame, they close up to protect themselves. You won’t be able to have a real honest, open conversation with a closed person.
Of course, you can’t control the other person, so they might try to shame you. You don’t have to take the bait. You can take the high road. As long as you’re not shaming them and not letting yourself feel shamed, there’s still a chance. Hopefully if they realize that you’re not trying to shame them then they’ll put that weapon down too.
Hint: You don’t need words to shame someone. If you’re standing there, cool as a cucumber, looking at them with an air of superiority, you’re still shaming them.
Empathy and Understanding vs. Shame
You can help yourself resist feeling shamed by reminding yourself that you’re human. Even if you did say something that could be interpreted negatively, that’s still no reason to be ashamed. You’re not perfect. If you’re committed to doing your best in your communication and relationships, you don’t need to beat yourself up for stumbling along the way.
You can stop yourself from shaming the person who misunderstood you by trying to understand them. What are they feeling? Could there be something in this person’s past history that makes them sensitive to this particular thing? How did this person learn to express their feelings in their families? Are they still learning to express their upset in productive ways?
Put a Positive Spin on It
Rifts, ruptures and misunderstandings are inevitable in any relationship. What makes a relationship really great is your ability to work through and recover from these conflicts. So don’t look at this misunderstanding as a sign that this relationship is no good. Consider it a building block for a better relationship.
Ultimately, you are learning to be more understanding and forgiving of each other. Whether it’s forgiveness for insensitive communicating or forgiveness for emotional reactivity, that forgiveness and understanding is what will allow you both to feel free enough and safe enough to learn from these misunderstandings.
If you’re interested in counseling, contact Rena Pollak, LMFT for a free 15 minute phone consultation. I have a private practice in Encino where I see individuals, couples and also provide group therapy.
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