down the rabbit hole: reflecting on a conversation

My boyfriend and I had an experience today that caused a mild level of strain. Because it can be hard to talk about the bigger things I thought it might be nice to reflect on this more manageable “mini-crisis” and glean lessons from it.

I called my boyfriend John earlier in the day to talk about some happy stuff: his new clothes, my mission to get my hair trimmed. Just silly little things. He seemed gruff, which is my description for when he sounds annoyed and gives short responses to things. I asked him about it and he said nothing was wrong. I know in times past he’s said this but, when pressed, revealed that he was upset with me. So I began to worry that he was upset with me.

Since I know that unclear communication can sometimes be a problem for us, I mentioned a few instances in the past where his communication had been lacking and noted how it made those situations more difficult. I didn’t belabor the point, but I gently suggested that perhaps he could try being more upfront and he agreed that that was a good idea. We hung up on good terms. Success! I was clear about my needs without crossing his boundaries or trying to exert undue control.

Later, though, John called. I happily asked him what he was up to (I’m trying to do everything lately with sufficient happiness and pep and casualness, good grief, so as not to add any more emotional pressure to anything). He seemed to ignore the question, immediately launching into a discussion about plans for the upcoming trip we’re taking. I was thrown off by this abrupt beginning to our conversation and the fact that he sounded gruff and annoyed again. We struggled to work out trip plans because of some date conflicts, which underscored my feelings that he was upset. Then an exchange like this occurred:

Me: So what’s wrong? What are you upset about?

John: (Sounding annoyed) I’m not upset.

Me: Okay. ‘Cause you sounded gruff on the phone earlier today and you sound gruff right now, too. And so I just worry you’re upset with me. There has to be a reason you sound that way. If  you could just explain, even if it’s something silly, it would help me.

John: (Annoyed) The reason is… well, I didn’t know I sounded annoyed at all, and I don’t know why I sounded that way, and I’m sorry, whatever.

Me: (Realizing he’s feeling pushed and feeling anxious about pushing any further, but still worrying about why he’s annoyed. Realizing I need to somehow exit this conversation, wondering when and how to do so, and battling with my anxiety.) Okay, okay. Even that… if you could just say that when I asked: “Oh, I didn’t realize I sounded annoyed. I’m not actually feeling annoyed,” or “Oh, I’m just annoyed about planning this trip, I guess, but I’m fine.” Even that would help me understand what was going on and not worry.

John: Well, I said that.

Me: Well, you said you weren’t annoyed but that didn’t explain why you sounded annoyed. (Realizing the conversation needed to stop) Okay, well. I’m going to go.

John: (Hearing the anxiety in my voice) Well, are you okay?

Me: Yes, I’m fine. Well. It’s just hard when you sound unhappy and I don’t know why, and I worry about it. But I’m fine. I’m going to go ahead and go. Goodbye.

John: Goodbye.

Throughout this conversation I recognized both that there was a real issue that needed to be addressed (John often does not communicate in an upfront and clear way, probably both because in the past I’ve overreacted to some things and because that’s just not his personal way of handling things) and that we were going down an unproductive rabbit hole trying to address it.

If I hadn’t made myself end the phone conversation politely when I did, I know that my feelings of worry and frustration would’ve gotten out of hand. Particularly since we are in a hard time in our relationship in general, I would have started experiencing secondary guilt about my worry/frustration, and secondary worry that my original feelings were straining the relationship more. I then would’ve started feeling emotions about these emotions about the original emotions, and so on!

And really, even though I did end the conversation before that happened, I could have handled the entire thing better.

Here are a couple of thoughts I have about the conversation:

1. Acceptance versus approval.  I don’t have to approve of the way John handled things. If he was gruff with me then perhaps the most reasonable thing to do would’ve been to be forthright in communicating about it. It would’ve quieted my anxiety and set healthy precedents for our relationship (because I could’ve reacted to it appropriately, reenforcing his trust in the safety of being honest with me.)

Even if all of that is true, and I don’t have to approve of the way he handled things, I must learn to accept his choices. Acceptance is not the same as approval. Giving acceptance just allows me to let the unpleasant circumstance pass through me like a wave. It lets me move on. It benefits John as well, by giving him the space he needs from the situation. I get annoyed with myself reading over that conversation, so I’m sure he was frustrated, too. We both needed for me to accept.

Here are more resources about acceptance versus approval that are helpful for me: 1, 2

2. Being mindful of my emotions to give myself space. I need a buffer between my emotions and my reactions. The other day John told me something that felt way too big for me to handle, and I just lost it in ways I won’t even bother talking about. If you’ve been there, you know. Later that same day (after handling the situation incredibly poorly — remember, I’m new at this. I’m trying.) I was able to get the slightest sliver of hope. The next day I felt like maybe I could manage after all. I just needed time to sit with what was happening and gain an appropriate sense of perspective about it, but my tsunami of emotions did not afford me that time. I was too terrified of being left alone with the weight of my emotions and immediately started to flail and panic to try to fix them.

This inability to sit with my emotions before reacting to them is something that also affected me in the conversation above. In the first phone call, I handled things well. When John’s attitude still bothered me in the second phone call, I should have been able to notice my emotions and let them pass through me like waves instead of trying to find some comfort and reassurance from John. (This sounds judgmental of myself, I realize, so I’d like to note here that I’m not feeling guilt right now or feeling trapped in a cycle — just thinking for next time.) Recognizing my emotions and observing them mindfully could’ve led to me reaching conclusions in “wise mind” instead of my conclusions in “emotional mind” to keep asking for clarification. I could’ve focused on the positive (John had said nothing was wrong, we were planning a trip together, I was watching a nice movie on Netflix) and arrived at the acceptance I mentioned above.

Here are more resources about emotion regulation: 1, 2

I feel like overall, things didn’t go so poorly. It’s neat to see how far I’ve already come in dealing with little things. Now here’s hoping I can continue to apply skills and deal with even bigger waves (though God willing, we’re moving towards calmer seas.)

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