Personal growth: Responding during uncomfortable situations

Over the past year, I’ve been spending more time than ever before learning about who I want to be and how I want to interact with people around me. The more I develop personal values, the more I desire to speak and act in accordance with those personal values. I find it helpful to reflect and articulate in order to grow through my mistakes and continue developing my vision of who I want to be.

I’ve written this note to help understand how I feel and react during uncomfortable situations. I feel awful when my reactions have made an uncomfortable situation worse, and feel proud when I am able to turn an uncomfortable situation into a positive experience. I’ve found that many of my strongest relationships have come out of navigating uncomfortable situations in a positive way.

To start: what is an uncomfortable situation? For me, an uncomfortable situation is one in which my sense of self is challenged. This happens when I find myself in a situation where I feel confused about how to act in accordance with my values, or when I’ve engaged in an interaction that is wildly off from my expectations, or when I find myself experiencing thoughts that are different from who I want to be.

In the past, I’d often power through these uncomfortable situations by turning on some sort of auto-pilot mode. I’d not worry about any sense of self and plug right in to the environment. This would allow me to actively contribute to the situation, but in retrospect I’d feel wrong — as if I hadn’t really been acting in accordance with my values. I do think this sort of auto-pilot behavior can be useful, but if I sense an opportunity to strengthen a relationship (or if the need to engage is so overwhelming) then I might leave auto-pilot, focus on my internal response, and engage.

I will focus on three feelings I experience when I leave auto-pilot mode. They are: (1) feeling hurt, (2) feeling judgmental, (3) and feeling empathetic. I am most proud of myself when I shift to feeling empathetic, and I am very very wary of engaging unless I have managed to find that empathetic response within me.

Feeling hurt: My expression when feeling hurt is “Why did you cause me this pain?” I find myself thinking that the other person has committed an unwarranted, antagonistic behavior that contributed to the uncomfortable situation. Though most often I have an avoidant response, I may interact in this situation by acting defensively or by increasing my aggression in response. The biggest dangers here are an implicit assumption of intentionality on the part of the other party and the accompanying implication of maliciousness on their part. A statement like “You hurt me” can carry those implications. A positive conversation won’t happen if there is an implied victim-aggressor dynamic.

Feeling judgmental: My expression when feeling judgmental is “Why didn’t you act differently?” I find myself thinking that my discomfort is due to the other person acting in a morally incorrect way and that I am being forced to respond. Though I may just distance myself from the “bad” behavior, I may interact in this situation by asserting my own sense of self, attempting to preach or to change my surroundings. The biggest dangers here are again an implicit assumption of intentionality on the part of the actor and the accompanying implication of superiority of my worldview. A positive conversation won’t happen if there is an implied better-worser dynamic.

Feeling empathetic: My expression when feeling empathetic is “Can you help me understand why you acted this way?” This is the ideal response. I find myself experiencing a deep, human sense of curiosity to learn about and understand the other person; even though I am feeling uncomfortable, I am able to avoid assigning blame and am able to focus on the complexity and depth of the person and the situation. When feeling this way, I will interact by expressing support, asking questions, and attempting to create a comfortable shared environment. This is a positive conversation: the goal is to achieve understanding of intentionality and awareness, and there is a sense of equality coming from the desire to hear and learn from each other.

It is unavoidable to feel hurt or to feel judgmental. It is important to recognize when I’ve been hurt, and it is important to help people realize that they have hurt me. It is also important to realize when behavior around me differs from my internal compass, and it is important to share my internal compass with others. However, if my goal is to strengthen relationships and help others grow, then it is critical I focus on achieving that feeling of empathy when defusing or discussing an uncomfortable situation; a positive relationship is not built from “victim-aggressor” or “better-worser” dynamics. Sometimes I get to a place of empathy on my own, but it can be difficult. The stronger my relationship with a person, the more likely we will be able to co-navigate those initial feelings of hurt or judgement thanks to a trust that we will eventually reach that place of empathy and positive interaction.

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