Can someone really ‘make you feel’ bad?

Someone says some harsh words to me. Immediately, I feel bad. The causal link seems so easy to see – they ‘made me feel’ bad. But is it really that simple?

Feelings 101

I go to see my family and they are all together when I arrive. I enter and announce “Hey everyone, I’ve got tickets to Paris!” How do I ‘make them feel’?

  • My sister feels excited (she’s never been to Paris before)
  • My mum feels sad (my grandfather died just after their last visit to Paris)
  • My brother feels scare (he hates flying)
  • My dad feels anger (when I arrived, he was just showing everyone his new camera)

Did I really ‘make’ all this happen? My intention, my invitation was that people would feel happy or joyful. But it seems like I don’t have that much control over the situation.

Each of my family members has a unique part of themselves that they are bringing to the situation. I may ‘intend’ or ‘invite’ happiness, but each individual responds to my intention in a unique way. If I believe I’m going to ‘make them all feel happy’ then that’s quite a grandiose idea which discounts the individuality of my family members.

I know now that ‘taking control’ of everyone’s feelings, setting out to please them all, is not the way. A better approach is to check in advance who would like to visit Paris with me.

Similarly, if someone believes they can ‘make me feel hurt’ by what they say to me then that too is grandiose. It discounts an individual part of me that may deal with what I hear in a very individual way.

The sound that reaches me from the voice of another is a short period of pressure waves in the air between us. How can that be so impactful? It’s comparable to the sound of a passing car or a ‘phone ringing.

When I hear someone say something intended to hurt I could respond to these pressure waves in the air by;

  • accepting the invitation i.e. responding like I did when I was a lot younger, feel small, feel threatened and feel one-down like I was used to doing back then. I may show this in my face and my posture. I may feel about seven years old! This also shows the other person that I’ve accepted their invitation
  • responding with ‘intimacy’ i.e. recognising that I’ve been invited to feel small but staying with “…it’s like you want me to feel small around you but…” or more angrily “How dare you use that voice with me…”.

Strong invitations to ‘feel bad’ are harder to refuse. Very threatening words may offer strong invitation to feel fear.  This invitation to feel authentic fear is useful – here’s some information about an imminent risk. Effectiveness means finding a way to escape unharmed then avoiding any future threat. An ‘intimate’ response like “I feel really scared when you say…” or “…it’s like you want me to be sacred right now” may discount my safety and may not be the only option to consider in the heat of the situation. Playing ‘small’ might be a more effective way through, but ideally this is happening decisionally, ‘in awareness’ rather than from a reactive, one-down position.

If we automatically respond with a one-down, I’m not OK, ‘feeling bad’ response to what people say we’re probably reinforcing decisions we made early on in life. These decisions were made at an unconscious level and way back in childhood. In early family the decisions were childlike ways to ‘keep myself safely attached’ to the early family setting. But these early decisions are not so useful in the adult world. Recognising that there are other more adult and intimate responses available to the invitation means that we have options.

Responding with the other, more intimate options that keep us ‘OK’ in the situation takes some practice. But simply to recognise that the other options exist challenges the idea that others can ‘make me feel’ bad.

In situations such as office bullying, the bully believes (out of awareness) they can ‘make their victim feel bad’ by what they say to them. And the victim believes (out of awareness) that the bully can ‘make them feel bad’ by saying things. Both beliefs are inaccurate, but each keeps the other in place. Both people give the other person evidence that their beliefs are true. Their beliefs and behaviours interlock. Bullies don’t pick on people who choose not to reinforce their beliefs. Either party may break the deadlock by resorting to intimacy;

  • Victim; “It’s like you want me to feel small right now, but that’s not happening. Let’s talk about what each of us needs…” or (angrily) “How dare you speak to me in this way…”
  • Bully; “Sometimes, when I speak, I see you shrink before me…and I wonder what’s happening for you at that time?…”

These ideas are part of Taibi Kahler’s powerful Process Communication Model. The model points to four ‘myths’ around communication which appear as two pairs;

One-Up myth One-Down myth
Feeling I can make you feel bad by what I say to you (Persecutor) You can make me feel bad by what you say to me (Victim)
Thinking I can make you feel good by doing your thinking for you (Rescuer) You can make me feel good by doing my thinking for me (Victim)

The ‘Persecutor-Rescuer-Victim’ labels come from Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle. These four ‘myths’ are Child contaminations of our Adult ego state and hence, technically, delusional.

Getting support with feelings

Remember that everyone is different and any self-help process can only offer ideas in general terms.  It may be that ‘dealing with feelings’, especially uncomfortable ones, means  working with someone who is qualified to support you. Why not book an initial assessment session with a counsellor/therapist who is registered with a nationally recognised professional body (such as BACP or UKCP in the UK)?
Feelings 101

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