So the storm has arrived, and you’re in the midst of it. A friend or family member is hurt, angry, and/or stirring up discord for you and others. Now what?
The answer to that question depends somewhat on the characteristics of your particular storm, but many of them involve one or more the following:
• anger, hostility, yelling
• accusations of mistreatment, or blaming
• unwillingness to take personal responsibility for one’s behaviors
• inappropriate or offensive comments or behaviors
• self-focus, self-centeredness
As I stated last week, these storms almost always involve more than two people. One person who may have a legitimate complaint but a lack of awareness about how to address it appropriately stirs things up by involving others—usually those on the periphery who aren’t directly involved. Because gossip is a normal human tendency, we may participate by simply listening to it. Maybe we add our two cents, and now the storm is brewing. Sometimes when an individual is hurt or angered by something, S/he may directly confront the offending party, but this confrontation is done without those key ingredients of compassion, respect, and honesty. Accusations fly, only one perspective is presented as reality, and now we have a full-fledged hurricane.
Take a really deep breath. Now take another one.
You are in the storm, and you feel the winds whipping around you. It’s difficult to maintain your balance. Angry words pelt you like rain. You are vulnerable and at risk of emotional damage.
Remember that an argument requires two people; you can choose not to be engaged in this argument. The winds may swirl and rain may pelt, but you can stand firm in your own boundaries. You will feel unsettled and unstable—this is normal—but you must remind yourself that the storm will eventually end.
The intensity of storms varies (think “Category 1” versus a “Category 5” hurricane), so your response should be flexible. In a Category 1, it may be enough to keep your composure, keep breathing, and choose not to soak in the accusations. In a Category 4 or 5, you may decide that removing yourself from the situation for a time (emotionally, mentally, even physically if you're able) is the best choice. But regardless of the strength of the storm, be diligent about not fueling it. Don’t react emotionally to what you hear or see. Breathe. Slow down. Think before you speak. Remember not to throw angry slurs back in self-defense because this always escalates the intensity. Listen, as best you can. Respond with compassion, respect, and honesty: “I can see that you’re really upset about this. I’m sorry you’re feeling that way.”
Depending on the specifics of the storm—the person or people you’re dealing with, the content of their statements and behaviors, and your ability and willingness to do something to effectively change it—you may add statements to represent your own point of view, or take responsibility for any behaviors you can honestly own. In most cases, it’s best to allow the emotionality of the situation to settle before trying to resolve it. If the people or situations involved are just too challenging to deal with yourself, consider involving a level-headed friend, a mediator or therapist to help move toward change.
Now the storm has passed. You made it through, but probably not without some hurt feelings, an increase of adrenaline, and maybe no real solution. How do you deal with the aftermath?
The answers are complex and varied. “It depends” comes out of my mouth more frequently than I’d like. But there are a few things I encourage all my clients in these situations to consider. Whoever stirred things up, whoever initiated or fed the storm, remember that this person is a flawed human being like the rest of us. When we look closely and are able to examine all the facts, we often find that this is a person who is hurting—sometimes as a result of their own choices or behaviors, but suffering nonetheless. And there’s not a person on the planet who doesn’t know what it is to suffer. Individuals who create damaging storms generally lack awareness or understanding of how to do it differently. The emotional reactivity and “acting out” behaviors likely developed over a long period of time and, likewise, take months or even years to overcome.
In the aftermath of the storm, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Share them in confidence with a trusted other. It’s important to purge yourself of the negative energy. Think about how you want to proceed with the person or persons involved in the storm. Is the relationship significant enough to you that you’re willing to invest more time and energy in resolving the hurt? Are the others involved willing to meet you halfway and really hear what you have to say? Are there things you need to take responsibility for, and will you do your part? Or has there been too much damage, and too much fear of future storms, to continue this relationship as it is?
Storms are fairly easy to predict because we can recognize the signs. But remember that storms are also unpredictable, and we can’t know the extent of the damage until the winds have died down and the rain has stopped. If you are someone who finds yourself in too many storms to tolerate well, seek out a helping professional. Having an unbiased, qualified helper observing the storm from the outside can make a tremendous difference in how you withstand the damage and recover.