Have you ever felt terrified to tell your boss how much you needed their help or support? Or perhaps you’ve avoided bringing up an issue with a close friend or colleague because you didn’t want to seem inadequate or unlikeable. You may have decided that the person doesn’t like you. Your suspicions could be true, or perhaps you have a miscommunication. This happens because we’re afraid to have our needs trampled upon, rejected, or unfulfilled.
Where do our feelings of vulnerability come from? This is heavily influenced by the earliest relationships we’ve had. Reflect for a moment on your childhood. The more predictable, loving, and stable your relationships were with your parents, teachers, and friends as you grew up, the fewer apprehensions you’ll have about allowing others in on your feelings, needs, and concerns once you become an adult. If you were deprived of adequate attention, given mixed messages, or abandoned in your early years, you may tend to expect the same painful treatment from everyone else in the world. The most fulfilling relationships involve ironing out issues, maturely discussing differences of opinion, and rectifying mistakes. Addressing your fear through self-awareness and acting on your needs is part of ongoing, healthy relationships. Here are five steps:
Touch base with yourself and your past. Keep track of how you’re feeling.
Try writing down the tensions you feel in your body, the emotions you notice when you take some deep breaths while concentrating on each tension point, and then see what your needs are. If you feel fear, the need you have is to keep a valued asset or avoid a loss. Notice how you have been behaving. Becoming more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors help clue you into what’s really going wrong and what needs to change for you to feel better.
Talk about it. Once you get clear on what you’re feeling, bring it up with others.
Talking about what’s going on with you (without blame or judgment) can open up intimacy and mutual understanding with the other person. For example, during an organizational restructuring at work, my role was moved under a new boss who I was convinced didn’t like me. I was so worried that I considered quitting my job! When we had our first meeting, in spite of my discomfort, I told my new boss that I thought she didn’t like me and that I really had no idea as to why– just a vibe I was getting from her. There was an uncomfortable silence, and then she confirmed she was turned off to me due to an incident a few months earlier when she was offended by something I did. This led to my apology, her return apology for not discussing it with me earlier, and we talked things through. We became mutually supportive colleagues and close friends for life.
Get a reality check by talking with close friends you trust or the person you are worried about.
We all hold beliefs about reality that can confuse how we interpret another’s behavior. The best way to get a handle on reality is to check in about whether others see you as overreacting, tense, or critical. Rather than invalidating what you’re feeling, it can help get you a different perspective on whether your emotions and the actions that follow from them are in line with the facts.
Ask for what you need so others can understand.
You might ask another person to tone down their criticism. You might want to request, for example, more support of your needs, or more time to get a project completed. Ask for what you need in a calm and warm approach, without a judgmental tone, nagging or accusing. If your colleagues or boss care about your well-being, chances are they’ll understand. Try something like, “I am fully committed to this project and our partnership on it. However, when you speak to me with a tone that seems like impatience, I feel anxious and hurt, and it triggers me to want to shut down. Can you try delivering your feedback a little more gently?” Or “I love the texts and chats with you during the day, but sometimes it results in my getting less done. Maybe we can try chatting during our breaks or updating each other after work?” This approach can lower your chances of constant fear or relationship breakdowns.
Use empathy to create some psychological safety with the other person.
Turn bad vibes into a good strategy by listening without interrupting, and then paraphrasing what they have said in your own words in a way that captures their intentions. This isn’t easy, but your goal at first is to ensure you understand their point of view. Help the other person to sort through their feelings by asking something like, “how did that cause you to feel?” or “you sound like you felt angry, is that right?” Then, turn that feeling into understanding by saying something like, “I can understand how you might have that reaction.” Be careful not to get defensive or justify your intentions. You will have time for that after the other person feels you fully understand them and their feelings. Empathy means you can guess what a person is feeling in a given moment, and understand why other people’s actions made sense to them. This creates a sense of safety and can help build trust.
It takes self-awareness and a getting a few communication skills under your belt to create the mutually satisfying connections you seek. While this is sometimes scary, it is what enables us to enrich our lives and grow.