Now I can hear the rest of you saying, “This sounds like it’d be really squirmy and difficult to do,” and guess what? You’re right. It can be hard. The best relationships are filled with squirmy difficulty from time to time. Not only do you have to actually know your own emotions and what you want, you also have to be willing to be a little bit vulnerable and let the other person in on what’s happening inside you. Admitting that certain kinds of jokes upset you, or that you need comfort, can make you feel naked and exposed. But if it’s someone you’re close to, showing vulnerability can only serve to make you closer. If your sincere requests end up being fodder for jokes, or dismissed, maybe this person isn’t someone you should have a close relationship with. Good thing you found out now!
But how do you do it? How do you break this “unreasonable expectation → inevitable disappointment” pattern that’s created when you expect people to read your mind? Even though I strive for transparency and fairness in all my relationships, I still have to work on it too, as you’ve seen. Here’s what “working on it” looks like for me:
1. See what’s happening from the outside.
First off, for interactions that feel too full of emotion for me, I imagine that I am watching what’s happening between my husband/mom/friend and me on television. (What a boring reality show this would be.) This is a great technique any time you find yourself reading between the lines of an actual conversation too much. If someone were watching your interaction on television, would they be like, “Oh smack, he’s totally ignoring her!!” or would they be like, “Here are two people discussing what they want to eat”? If the viewers at home can’t tell how you’re feeling from your words and body language, maybe your crush/dad/BFF can’t either. Bringing this level of blindness to your interactions, now what do you do? Glad you asked:
2. Now go inside: figure out what you’re feeling and why.
When you feel disappointed by what a loved one said or did or didn’t say/do, what is going on inside you, where no one else can see? Do you expect that on your birthday, the whole day should be devoted to celebrating? Other people may not know that. Did you get a haircut, and then get irritated when no one mentioned it? You may love your haircut and want your friend to gush about it; hate it and think that your friend’s silence means she hates it too; or you may feel neutral about it and are waiting for your friend’s judgment to help you figure out how you feel about it. Any of these things could be true, but from the outside, you just look like a girl sitting there quietly with a fresh new haircut. If you can articulate why you’re disappointed, you might be able to spot the point where you were expecting telepathy from other people, and then go back and communicate what you need. And no fair saying “I’m just mad!” Anger always comes from somewhere, and it’s often just a mask for fear or sadness. What are you actually feeling? Be honest with yourself. You might have to keep digging for a while, asking yourself harder questions until an answer comes up that rings true.
3. Figure out what you want, how the other person can help, and whether it’s a reasonable request.
Now that you know how you’re feeling, you can start to focus on what you want. How can the other person help you feel better? What would make you feel cared for; what would give you the little morale boost you need? Examples of perfectly reasonable desires and requests: extra attention, a latte, to be left alone, for someone to clean up after themselves, to be not teased. These, on the other hand, are examples of unreasonable requests: “Stop being stupid.” “Just understand me.” “Take care of everything.” Reasonable requests are specific and (somewhat) easily done; unreasonable ones force the other person to translate what something like “understanding you” means. If you don’t know concretely what you want, neither will the other person.
3. Communicate your request.
This is where all that fun vulnerability we discussed earlier comes into play. Take a deep breath, look the other person in the eye, and use this setup: “I am feeling ____, and would like you to ____. Do you think that’ll work?” Always keep things in terms of what you are feeling and what you are requesting (not ordering) from the other person, rather than how they “messed up” and how much it hurt you. The key here is “I statements.” Instead of saying, “You are really bad about knowing when I’ve had a bad day,” say, “I’ve had a bad day and would love it if you could give me a neck massage.” It just frames things more positively. Now, if the situation involves onions on your sandwich, you might feel like expressing how you’re feeling is a bit much—in that case you can skip straight to the request. The most important thing is that you communicate your desires clearly, rather than using sneaky backdoor methods to get what you want. Sneaky backdoor methods, by the way, include things like (a) crying when you’re not that upset in order to be comforted, (b) picking a fight with someone about something random when you’re irritated that they’re not reading your mind, and (c) guilting someone into doing things for you.
None of this is going to come easily for you right away, especially if this is a pattern you established a long time ago and have been perfecting for years. But if there are things you want in this life—and I hope there are—you are going to have to make your desire for those things known, no matter how risky that feels. The alternative is that you never get what you want, and you simmer with resentment about it for the rest of your time on earth. There is no third possibility wherein everything you’ve ever dreamed of just magically falls into your lap, however much I wish there were.
People are terrifying, and relationships are hard, but people are also the best, and relationships make us human and everything else more bearable. The millions of ways we interact with all of the people in our lives will always (I hope!) be a forest we’re all stumbling through together. But it’s nice to have a couple of signposts to guide us along the way. ♦