Setting Boundaries to Others' Negativity

Blog: Ask Isa: Setting Boundaries to Others’ Negativity

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

Question: I would like to know what you think about the idea of people being a mirror to us. For example, if you find yourself irritated by someone who is always crabby with you, are they a mirror to you? Or are you just meeting someone crabby or irritating?

I really appreciate this question. Because so many of us, once we have dedicated ourselves to the goal of becoming more conscious human beings, can find it challenging to discern how to use everyday difficulties as the means for moving toward this goal.

The fact that you have reacted to another person’s mood or behavior does not necessarily mean that the other person is holding up a mirror and showing you, through their behavior, how you actually are. It is often true, when we judge other people unfairly, that we are doing so because we are rejecting an aspect of ourselves that they are demonstrating. In this case, the other person’s behavior may be holding up a mirror. But this is just one of the deeper patterns that our reactivity to another person might reveal.

It could also be true that you are taking another person’s crabbiness personally and wondering whether, somehow, their unpleasantness is a reflection on you. If this is the case, you may be trying to find something wrong with yourself rather than standing up for what is good for you when you are being harmed.

In this way, your reaction may be showing you that you have trouble taking care of yourself in the face of another person’s negativity. If you are around a person who is crabby all the time and you don’t do anything about the effect that this person’s crabbiness has on you, it is important to ask yourself why you are allowing yourself to be exposed to that crabbiness all the time. Why do you put up with it? Why are you letting someone be unkind to you? As you consider these questions, it may also help to think about whether there are other relationships in your life in which you allow others to be unkind to you.

It can be hard to acknowledge that we actively maintain relationships that make us unhappy, especially if they are family relationships where we may feel a sense of obligation or where we may think we are supposed to enjoy or feel grateful for people’s presence in our lives. In these cases, it can be easy to invent other reasons for why we are unhappy rather than acknowledging the true root of our feelings. For if we do acknowledge a relationship is making us unhappy, and we acknowledge that we are actively maintaining the relationship, we have to face the way that our own choices are contributing to our unhappiness. We have to face the possibility that we need to change the way we relate to someone if we want to be happier.

Often, we are not aware of why we stay in disagreeable relationships. We may believe that if we just do or say the right thing, everything will be better. We may be attached to being the kind of person who is strong and committed and who can weather a storm. We may not want to admit that we can’t fix the relationship. We may be afraid to be alone. Or we may not believe that we deserve to be happy.

The trouble worsens when, in order to stay in a relationship that distresses us, we detach from our discomfort using denial, numbing, addiction, self-blame, or any other technique we may use to prevent us from feeling our negative emotions, taking responsibility for our experience, and making changes to protect ourselves from being harmed. On the other hand, if we acknowledge our feelings, and take responsibility for the discomfort we are experiencing, we empower ourselves to change the situation. We make ourselves less vulnerable to being exploited by people who are not capable of or not interested in loving us. When we value our own happiness and wellbeing, it invites others to value us too.

You don’t have to endure the kind of energy around you that this crabby person puts out. You have choices.

Editors’ Note: This Ask Isa post draws from ideas that are presented in Isa Gucciardi’s forthcoming book Coming to Peace in much greater detail. You can pre-order a signed collectors edition here.

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