I was watching an episode of Hoarders during which a woman named "Jahn" whined, wept, and coerced everybody around her for almost the entire show. She terrified me to the point where I had to turn off the sound. It is precisely the way I react when scary movies get too much for me. I watched as Jahn's two adult daughters tried to help her understand her predicament. They struggled to help their beloved mother negotiate her emotional, financial, and practical issues -- and watched as Jahn went from defiant and angry to the part that really spooked me: petulant, girlish manipulation. When her daughters said, at the very end of the show, that Jahn needed in-patient therapy, I wanted to cheer. And I thought, "Whoa, Gina, you gotta get out more and get less involved in these shows" but then I thought, "It's the whining. You feel sorry for every other poor soul on Hoarders but you're allergic to whining."
It's like being allergic to shrimp or wool. Okay, so it's not toxic, at least not literally. But I do sort of feel my throat closing up when I'm close to whining; there's even a physical component to the whole business. And I get itchy when I hear people do The Whine, just the way I do when I've got wool next to my skin.
So what can we do about our "emotional allergies"? Can we do more than avoid them or weed them out of relationship landscape altogether? I mean, even if you're allergic to roses you might not want to eradicate them from the world's gardens, would you? Grab a tissue and let's see what we can do....
1. Know your own limits and make them clear to others. When students come into my office to explain why their work might not be ready or up to standard, for example, I stop them the moment they start to whine. Before they can launch into any kind of a sad rationale or student-sob story, I tell them that I am far more likely to respect what they're about to say if they offer a personal narrative that is straightforward and clearly stated. If the student bursts into tears, then I get out those tissues (see above) and listen carefully -- but that indicates a very different state than a student who comes in to wheedle and coerce.
2. Give yourself several beats before you speak or react because you are reacting in a way that other people would see as an "over-reaction." In much that same way that people who are not allergic to strawberries can eat them with abandon, but those with an allergy need to monitor themselves if they indulge at all, you need to stop and think before you respond. You might not be able to control how deeply you react internally, but you can control how you react outwardly.
3. Desensitization can work if you can do it without too much resentment -- meaning you have to want to feel more comfortable around people who push your most sensitive and irritated buttons. Often those who can push our buttons most effectively are those who installed them (Hi Mom, Dad, Sibs!) but, as we all know, people can have their inner-live rewired, usually with the help of a licensed professional.
4. Don't test yourself unless you're ready to handle the emotional version of a "patch test." You know what a patch test is, right? It's the kind of thing that chemical products, such as hair coloring, always suggest to do before applying the stuff all over: you're supposed to find a small, unexposed bit of yourself on which you can gauge your reaction. If you're going to be in the presence of the kind of person, or group, that drives you up the wall, make sure the wall has a door through which you can make a speedy exit.
5. Keep your sense of humor primed, but keep it to yourself -- at least initially. Humor is a great antidote and comfort, but if you use it as a way to keep yourself insulated while pretending to be vulnerable, then you're not doing yourself a favor--and will only encourage others to develop allergies to you.
Originally published in Pyschology Today.
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