Back in the day, if someone gave me the choice between going to my (now ex-) wife’s company holiday party or having needles stuck under my fingernails, I would have taken the needles. Without hesitation. Pick a different form and I’d choose the torture in a heartbeat. Please, please don’t make me go to the holiday party. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice.
Everything about that party felt uncomfortable. First, there were her IT co-workers who talked shop using all kinds of terms and acronyms that I didn’t understand. I felt stupid. Then, there was the fancy finger food at the buffet that was labeled with its French gourmet name but still left me clueless as to what I was eating. I felt like a complete country bumpkin for not being more worldly.
Perhaps the worst part was the “requirement” to wear an ugly Christmas sweater, which was supposed to be entertaining for everyone. I’ve never been accused of being a fashionable guy, but I was pretty sure that having people laugh at me for what I’m wearing reached new depths of humiliation. No thank you.
I’m not alone in saying that I don’t like feeling uncomfortable. This is true whether the discomfort is situational (my ex-wife’s holiday party) or painful thoughts and emotions we have in our heads. The problem comes when we interpret our discomfort as unacceptable and then try to stop it by avoiding it, distracting ourselves, or controlling it.
The problem comes when we interpret our discomfort as unacceptable and then try to stop it.
In our quest to get rid of our unpleasant feelings, we tend toward short-term reactions that take us away from things we value the most in the long-term like health, fun, interesting experiences, connection to others, relationships, and intimacy. For those of us who have harmed our partners but want to change, it’s important to know that avoiding uncomfortable feelings and emotional pain is the root cause of domestic violence.
Avoiding uncomfortable feelings and emotional pain is the root cause of domestic violence.
Avoidance means we skip the party because we think there will be some IT guy there who will make us feel stupid. But we also miss talking to the person who just got back from a hiking trip to a location we were considering. Avoiding also means we escape to the man cave rather than having a productive conversation with our spouse about the budget. As a result, she feels insecure and intimacy is lost. Avoiding painful emotions might mean we try stuffing them away and not thinking about them (good luck with that), but they come out anyway as anxiety, depression, or high blood pressure.
Distracting isn’t any better. Here we try to medicate our pain by drinking, smoking, using drugs, eating, gambling, shopping, viewing porn, or playing computer games—anything that takes our mind off of our unpleasant thoughts. The trouble is, of course, that using these as distractions leads us to addiction, which wastes our time, money, and energy, and which threatens our health, relationships, and freedom.
Then there is the control reaction, which has two different paths. If it is something we can control, the discomfort just motivated us to act. That’s good and how we’re designed to work. We turn up the heat when we’re cold. We take the rock out of our shoe.
On the other hand, we can easily slip into trying to control things we really don’t have control of—like other people. Sure, we can make a request that our partner not yell at us, or that he watches the kids while we shop for groceries. If he doesn’t do as we ask, however, our ability to control has come to an end and we enter the realm of things we can’t control.
We can easily slip into trying to control things we really don’t have control of—like other people.
In the moment, it can be hard to recognize when we are trying to control someone else. At least it was for me, although I’ve gotten better at seeing it. Actions like pouting, giving someone the silent treatment, or withholding affection might seem like “just what I do when I’m feeling hurt”, but these are really our subconscious way of trying to get the other person to give in to what we want. Same for using words to make them feel bad (put downs, shaming) or getting angry.
Controlling our partner’s time, money, thoughts, choices, or whom they talk to is an indirect way of trying to control them. Of course, threats, intimidation, restricting their movement, or hitting is also trying to exert control over another.
The actions in the second list fit the definition of abuse because they either injure the other person or they damage that person’s sense of well-being and independence. Even the actions in the first list, when done repeatedly, can wound them emotionally. Hurting our partner is inconsistent with having the kind of relationships we really want in the long-term, so therefore, it also hurts us.
What’s really going on when we avoid a person or situation, try to distract ourselves, or attempt to control another? All of these are short-term reactions of us trying to avoid uncomfortable thoughts or feelings: I’m stupid, I’m unsophisticated, I look ridiculous, I’m a failure, I don’t measure up, I’m not likeable or loveable, etc.
While we might not be fully aware of these deeper thoughts, they’re present and they feel uncomfortable. They are urging us to act so our discomfort goes away. By default, we react to this discomfort in whatever way we think might make us comfortable again. Yelling back at the person who yelled at us might shut them up. Taking control of the debit card might help us dodge any doubts about us as a provider.
Subconsciously, we make our partner’s environment uncomfortable so they’ll change in a way that (we hope) will relieve our own discomfort. Except, as we’ve already seen, it really has the opposite effect in the long term. It hurts the person we love and damages our relationship with them. Therefore, it prevents us from enjoying the good things in life that we really want.
Hurting our partner prevents us from enjoying the good things in life that we really want.
So what’s the solution? It starts with becoming aware of our uncomfortable feelings. Recognizing we have them before we take our pre-programmed approach to relieving them gives us options. One option is to challenge the assumptions that caused those feelings. If I don’t know IT jargon, does that really mean that I’m dumb? No, it just means I don’t work in the IT field. The other option is to accept the thought or feeling without judgment and move on. I’m not the snappiest dresser in the room. Hey, are those crab cakes? Either way, no avoiding, distracting, or controlling action is required.
The uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that get stirred up with our partners are heavier than tech talk and ugly sweaters, but the same principles apply. Practice being aware of your uncomfortable thoughts. Notice the physical signs of your discomfort. Journaling about it, even after the incident, will help raise your awareness over time.
When you do have unpleasant thoughts, challenge them by asking yourself if the thought is really true. If it is and it is something you can change without trying to change or control someone else, do it. Take the rock out of your shoe. If the unpleasant thought is true but is not something you can change on your own, let it go and focus on something else—like how you can live consistently with your values.
Think it over
What thoughts and feelings make you uncomfortable?
What short-term techniques (avoid, distract, or control) have you used to try to relieve that discomfort?
Have these techniques helped you get what you want long-term in life?
How can you respond to the uncomfortable situation/thought/emotion when it comes up next time in a way that is consistent with your values and that helps you get the good things in life?
An interesting thing I discovered about a relationship with God is that he never promises us comfort. In fact, we’re told that we should expect trouble. Following Jesus means not avoiding things that are unpleasant, but walking through them, knowing God is with us, giving us strength and courage in our trials.
Decades ago, a theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer, which does a great job of capturing how we can respond to pain, difficulties, and unpleasant circumstances. It also reminds us of his promise to ultimately make things right for those who believe:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with you forever in the next.