Create Emotional Independence by… | Counseling | Therapy

Create Emotional Independence by Responding Versus Reacting

Tonya McDaniel , MSW, LCSW, MED, ABD — Therapist, director of program development


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How many times have you walked away from an argument feeling worked up, overwhelmed, or defeated? Part of the challenge may be that you are too emotionally fused or codependent and end up being emotionally reactive versus objective during the conflict. If this sounds like you, then this article will help you learn how to create emotional independence by responding versus reacting.

Emotional independence is the ability to maintain one’s sense of self while in relationships with other people. It is not uncommon for people in relationships to start to blend or fuse together. When this happens, they have a hard time separating out their thoughts, feelings and desires from the other person in the relationship.

It can be very challenging to remain objective when a loved one is sharing their* experiences, especially if it includes any perceived missteps on our part. If your mother calls and pulls out the guilt card for the hundredth time because you don’t come home every weekend like “Neighbor Nancy’s perfect kids” or if your partner defeatedly exclaims that you never take their feelings into consideration, then it can be hard not to respond with appeasement or defensiveness. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to create emotional independence by learning how to respond instead of reacting during conflicts.

Ideally, both parties in the conversation would try to follow these steps to increase the odds of resolving the specific event that triggered the conflict, identifying systemic issues within the relationship that need care and attention, and finding ways to repair and grow the relationship. Many couples therapists utilize approaches similar to this to help teach clients how to manage their conflict, improve communication, and enhance intimacy. However, this approach is effective with individuals. Even if the other person is reacting emotionally, you may have a more productive conversation if you follow these steps and maintain a level of distance that allows you to respond with care, but not triggered by your own fears, insecurities, anger or frustration.

Responding Versus Reacting: Step 1 – Self-Sooth

The first step in the responding versus reacting process is to self-sooth. Often, when we anticipate conflict, especially if it is an argument that we have had repeatedly in the past with no real resolution, we move into an anxious mind-body state that can compromise our ability to react objectively. The following symptoms are commonly present when we are anxious: increased heart rates, increased levels of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol, adrenalin), decreased blood flow to extremities, decreased ability to problem solve or retain information (e.g., compromised short term memory), and increased emotional reactivity and irritability.

By engaging in self-soothing strategies prior to starting the conversation, you can begin to neutralize your anxiety so that you don’t start the conversation prematurely in an emotionally reactive way. You want to be able to hear what your loved one is saying to you without reacting from a place of fear, sadness, or anger. This is part of creating emotional independence. The objective is to create some distance between you and your loved one so that you can understand their experience independent of it being seen as a reflection of your value or the stability of your relationship. It is significantly easier to have a productive conversation if it started with a respectful, amical approach. Self-soothing prior to the conversation can help you achieve this goal.

There are numerous ways you can self-sooth, such as doing some grounding exercises.

Self-soothing examples:

  • 6/4/8 count breathing. Breath in through your nose for 6 counts; hold for 4 counts; and exhale for eight counts. Remember to expand your diaphragm (i.e., stomach moves out) during the in breath.
  • Do a meditation. Fortunately, there are a ton of YouTube videos to help guide you through a quick mediation to help calm you down.
  • Take a break. If things are getting too heated, take a 10 or 15 min break to cool down. Walk around outside. Sit quietly in a chair. The goal is to think about something relaxing or logically engaging (e.g., spell words backwards, do a puzzle) to help you contain your emotional responses.

Practical application tip:

Although self-soothing exercises are vital prior to the start of the conversation, they should be incorporated throughout the conversation to help minimize your anxious reactions and emotional reactivity.

Responding Versus Reacting: Step 2 – Understand Their Point of View

The second step in the responding versus reacting process is to really understand their point of view. There is a difference between listening to your loved one with the aim of providing good counter arguments and listening to your loved one to really see the situation through their eyes. When we are emotionally fused or codependent, it can be hard to fully appreciate how other people may see us or our roles in conflict. This can trigger our fears, sadness, anger or other emotions because we may perceive these sentiments as threats to our relationships or threats to our sense of self. In other words, when our loved one says that we are not sensitive to their needs, it can be hard not to internalize that statement to mean that we are truly heartless or selfish. An emotionally independent person might be able to separate out their self-worth and identity (i.e., caring, supportive person) from the feelings of others by trying to understand the situation in which the miscommunication or misstep occurred.

While our loved one is sharing their experience, it is important not to get defensive, critical or interrupt them frequently. Even though we may not agree with their point of view, there is very little hope of having a productive conversation until each person has expressed their point of view and felt like they have been heard. If you have ever been in an argument where you both are repeating the same thing over and over, then you most likely have not gotten past the stage of understanding each person’s point of view. So even though what they are saying might evoke some strong feelings, it is important to continue to self-sooth and try to understand their point of view objectively. This is when you need to recall your emotional independence mantra: their experiences are valid; they have a right to their thoughts and feelings.

While the other person is sharing their experience, you want to give them verbal and non-verbal feedback that you are listening and attempting to understand.

This can be accomplished by:

  • Minimizing distractions. For example, turn off the TV, put your phone down, or wait until the kids have gone to bed.
  • Minimize non-productive body language. If you are emoting through your facial expressions and body posture that you think the other person is crazy or completely wrong, then you will encourage emotional reactivity in the other person. Instead, try expressing concern and affection with your body and facial expressions.
  • Give non-verbal, attending cues, such as head nods and eye contact.
  • Give verbal, attending cues, such as “Ok,” “I see,” “Sure,” “uh-hum” or any other small vocalization that indicates that you are listening.
  • Don’t interrupt. If the other person doesn’t feel heard or understood because you keep interrupting them, then this could elongate the conversation and take it on tangents that would make the issues more challenging to resolve by the end of the conversation.

Responding Versus Reacting: Step 3 – Summarize

The third step in the responding versus reacting process is let them know you understand by summarizing their point of view. After they have finished talking and expressing what they needed you to hear, then you would summarize, without defensiveness, what they have communicated to you. Part of the challenge for some people in this step is that they believe by repeating back the other person’s experience, they are agreeing with it. There is a difference between understanding (i.e., empathy) and condoning (i.e., accepting their experience as absolute truth). Again, the goal of emotional independence is allowing other people to have their thoughts and feelings, even if they conflict with your understanding of the situation or events.

Here are a few examples:

  • “It seems like you are saying that by my leaving my socks on the floor you felt like you are not being treated fairly or that your needs aren’t a priority.”
  • “If I’m understanding you correctly, you feel like I don’t have your back and I’m not supporting you as a parent when I allow the kids to have a snack before dinner.”
  • “Ok. Let me make sure I understand what you are saying. It upsets you when I don’t return your calls because it makes you feel like I don’t care, and you then feel disrespected.”

After you have offered your summary, it is important to get feedback to make sure you really captured everything and didn’t miss the mark in some way. For example, you could ask, “Is that correct?” or “Did I miss anything?” If additional information was supplied because you didn’t capture it in your summary, then you would summarize the new information and ask for feedback again. You would keep repeating this process until you have successfully summarized and captured all the important elements that they feel like you need to understand.

Responding Versus Reacting: Step 4 – Ask Follow-up Questions

The fourth step in the responding versus reacting process is to ask at least two follow-up questions to get more data about the issue. These questions serve multiple purposes. First, asking questions can help you remain objective versus reactive by looking at the situation with a logical, critical lens. As previously mentioned in “Step 2: Understand Their Point of View,” it can be hard to listen with the intent to understand versus to argue. If you are thinking about two follow-up questions while they are talking about their experience, you are more likely to remain neutral and less emotionally reactive. Second, asking questions can help you better conceptualize the context in which the issue arose. Third, asking questions communicates to your loved one that you are invested in really understanding their point of view.

Here are a few examples of follow-up questions.

  • “How long have you felt this way?”
  • “What situations make this feeling worse?”
  • “What situations make this feeling better?”
  • “Has there been a time when this wasn’t an issue? If so, what do you think is different now?”

Practical tip application:

You want to avoid asking any loaded questions or counter-arguments disguised as questions. For example, “Are you aware of all the things I do around the house to support our family that I don’t make a big fuss about, including taking the trash out or yard work?” or “Do you realize how much you complain about everything on a daily basis?” The goal of the two questions is an effort to mentally “walk in their shoes” so that you have a better idea what events triggered their negative feelings and maybe even identify potential systemic issues in the relationship that need care and attention. For example, after having more productive conversations because you have created emotional independence by responding versus reacting, you may reveal common themes, such as one person not feeling valued, desirable or prioritized. After the common themes are identified, you can find ways to attend to those needs proactively so that they can diminish the frequency and intensity of conflicts when those needs aren’t met.

Responding Versus Reacting: Step 5 – Provide Your Objective Perspective

After you have understood your loved one’s point of view, summarized and asked follow-up questions, then it is your turn to provide your perspective. It can be helpful to respond to their underlying feelings first and then your point of view. For example, you could say, “I’m sorry that you felt unsupported. I care very much about you and your dreams. I misunderstood what you were needing from me when you asked if you should quit your job. I thought you wanted input about the logistical consequences of that decision, but it seems like you were looking for confirmation that I would support your decision.”

When sharing your objective perspective, it may be helpful to:

  • Describe the situation in a neutral way. “When you told your parents that we would spend the weekend with them without asking for my input, it upset me.”
  • Express your feelings. “I felt hurt that you didn’t include me in that decision because it made me feel like an outsider or that my input wasn’t valuable. Additionally, I felt angry because I have a lot of stuff to do this weekend and I feel like if we cancel then everyone will hate me, and I don’t like being in that position, especially, when I feel like it might have been avoided if we had discussed and made this decision as a couple.”
    • Be careful not to express “faux feelings” or arguments disguised as feelings. For example, “I feel you would rather make your parents happy, instead of doing what’s best for our family.” Instead, focus on how the other’s behavior makes you feel (e.g., sad, scared, angry, helpless, hurt, happy, excited, confident). If you struggle with identifying feelings you can use a feeling list to help you.

Here are additional tips to help you convey your perspective objectively:

  • Stay away from polarizing language such as: “always, “never,” “every time,” etc. Often, when these qualifiers are used, the conversation gets derailed to highlight the exceptions. For example, if you say, “You always forget to unload the dishwasher,” your loved one may interrupt you to point out all the times they did unload the dishwasher instead of trying to understand why you are upset now.
  • Use “I statements.” When we start off sentences with “you,” it can often be perceived as accusatory. Whereas, “I statements” help to neutralize the sentiment by presenting it as a subjective viewpoint. Consider the difference between a “you” versus “I” statement:
    • “You don’t help out around the house and I have to do all the work.”
    • “I find it hard to get stuff done with all the demands on my time. I worry that my ‘to-do’ list just keeps growing and it really stresses me out.”
  • Don’t criticize; complain without blame. When we criticize other people, it is natural for them to respond with defensiveness. Defensiveness and emotional reactivity can impede our ability to fully understand each other and find constructive solutions to our challenges. Criticisms often attack the personal character of the other person, whereas, a complaint usually focuses on a behavior that you would like to change.
    • Criticism: “You are so selfish. You only care about yourself and never think about helping me out.”
    • Complaint: “I react better when there is less clutter in the house. Our dining room table gets overwhelmed with stuff that everyone has dropped on it, including your gym bag, work documents, and other miscellaneous stuff. I would appreciate it if we could come up with some system that encourages everyone to put stuff away so I don’t feel so overwhelmed with all the clutter.”
  • Include positive strokes. Obviously, if this is a loved one, you have very fond feelings for them. If we come from a place of assuming good intentions and express those thoughts, then this will help to decrease everyone’s emotional reactivity. “I know you didn’t mean to change your plans at the last minute. Work is very demanding right now and you are doing the best you can to provide for our family. But, when you call last minute and tell me you won’t be home for dinner, it is very frustrating and overwhelming for me. Again, I know it’s not intentional, but I feel abandoned and I feel angry because I have to manage all the dinner and kids’ bedtime routines by myself.”

Practical application tip:

If both parties in the conversation are following the responding versus reacting steps, then steps 2 through 4 (i.e., understand their point of view, summarize, ask follow-up questions) would be repeated for the second person after they have provided their objective perspective. This way each person has an opportunity to share their experiences and have their feelings heard and hopefully understood by the other person.

Responding Versus Reacting: Step 6 – Find a Solution

Step six in the responding versus reacting process is to find a solution to your conflict. Communication is goal oriented. What do you want out of conveying your perspective to your loved one? Do you want acknowledgment of your feelings? Do you want behavior to change? Do you want reassurances? Sometimes you may not even know what you want until you start to express your feelings. However, once you have an understanding of what you need, then you can communicate that to your loved one and have a better chance of getting your needs met. For example, if you just want to feel understood, then you may tell your loved one that they can best support you by listening to you and empathizing with your experience. If it is an interactional conflict, then it would be helpful to find a solution that would serve everyone’s needs and desires.

Here are a few examples of asserting needs and finding solutions:

  • “Next time, I won’t text you about important issues since tone and context can be lost. I will call you or we will talk in person. In return, you will make sure to schedule time after work so that we can talk about these important issues in person.”
  • “I would like to find a way to decline going to your parent’s house this weekend that doesn’t identify me as the ‘bad person’ and presents a united front. In the future, I would like to be included in these types of decisions.”

Responding Versus Reacting: Step 7 – Repair and Grow the Relationship

The final step in the responding versus reacting process is to repair and grow the relationship. When we view our loved ones through a positive perspective, we are more willing to forgive, understand, and accept them. Unfortunately, when our relationships are in a state of distress, we may have less patience and forgiveness. Even a neutral statement can be viewed antagonistically when we are disconnected from them. Making time and putting the effort into emotionally connecting and building up the other person (and vice versa) can help mitigate some of the impact from our daily conflicts.

Ways to repair and grow the relationship:

  • Own up to your missteps. By acknowledging our role in the conflict, it can help join the other person to us. “I’m sorry. You are right. I completely overreacted when you said you forgot to mail the gift to my mom.”
  • Accept influence. Our willingness to be influenced by our loved ones communicates that they are important, valued, and play an important role in our loves. “Let me ask Claire what she thinks and we will get back to you on whether we can get involved in this project or not.”
  • Increase your intimacy. There are various ways we can connect with other people and increase our attachment and intimacy with them. The more we are reminded why we like or love the person, the better equipped we may be to resolve the conflict and reconnect. “[internal thoughts] She may be a little challenging, not the neatest person, and is constantly dreaming about the next big adventure at the expense of completing daily tasks; but, she makes me laugh, grounds me, and has the most compassionate heart I’ve ever met.”

Although this approach for responding versus reacting can be very effective, some couples struggle with implementing it. Part of the issue is that it may feel very formulaic or clunky in the beginning. However, it could be compared to learning a new dance. At first, it may feel unnatural and stiff, but over time with more practice, it can become effortless and natural. Second, some couples may notice that this style of interaction may encourage more, elongated discussion initially. If a couple hasn’t had a lot of success of really hearing and understanding one another, then in the early stages of implementation, there may be more “clearing out the cobwebs” of past arguments or disagreements. Over time, couples can get very efficient at these types of conversations because they have addressed many of the significant issues in their relationships and are able to affirm, assert and problem solve concisely. As a result, the conversations can be more productive and less time-consuming.

Learning to respond versus react is a skill that can be applied in multiple relationship contexts. By creating some emotional distance between ourselves and the other person, we are better equipped to understand their world, their needs/desires, and our roles in the creation of conflict. Additionally, emotional independence can help protect our sense of self and our relationship by focusing on behaviors instead of personality traits. The more we practice responding versus reacting, the higher chances we have resolving the conflict efficiently and reconnecting with our loved ones. If you are struggling with trying to figure out how to respond instead of react or if you feel like you need more hands-on guidance, then schedule an appointment with one of our therapists who can help you through this process.

*This article uses traditionally plural pronouns (e.g., “they, them, their, theirs”) as singular pronouns for purposes of gender inclusion and neutrality.

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