Psychology for Living

Gwen Randall-Young
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When we are upset

We have all had the experience of being so upset with a partner or child that, regardless of how much love we have for the person, at that moment it is hard to like them.

It can be an almost frightening feeling to wonder if you even like your spouse or your child. You do not want to feel that way, but it can be hard to shift the energy.

What is happening here is that our attention has become focused on a characteristic or behaviour in that person that we do not like. The more we think about it, the more magnified that undesirable part becomes. Further, it may remind us of someone in our past, or even more disturbing, of some part of ourselves we do not like (although the latter may be unconscious). The result is that we begin to distance from the person, and perhaps even become angry because they are not fitting with the image of who we want them to be.

At this time, however, we are not seeing who they really are. Instead, we are viewing a negative characteristic (or one we dislike) under the magnifying glass of our own emotional reactions, and projecting that onto them as though is the totality of their being. No wonder we become stressed and unhappy! We can shift our perceptions, and when we do, our feelings will shift accordingly.

Take the example of a child with whom you have been completely exasperated. Finally you get the child to bed, and have a little time to yourself, to relax and calm down. Later on you peek in on the sleeping child, who now looks like a complete angel, and you forget the frustrations of the day as your heart overflows with love. It is the same child, but we are seeing the innocence as opposed to the frustrating behaviour.

A similar strategy can be used to move back into a place of love even in the midst of conflict or struggle. Instead of playing over and over in our minds a litany of complaints about the one who is irritating us, we can remind ourselves of that individual’s good points. We may even have to take a time out, forcing ourselves to sit down and write at least 10 things that we love and appreciate about the person. We may still be angry, but at least our thinking will be a little more balanced.

If we feel we have to work through our concerns with that individual, it can be very powerful to first share those positives with him or her. It can be devastating for anyone to think they are being defined in strictly negative terms. If we are upset with another, they too may forget that there are things we appreciate about them. Counting to 10 slows down our reaction time, but may not change the reaction. Counting 10 good things may transform not only the situation, but the relationship as well.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning psychotherapist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books or CDs, visit www.gwen.ca

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