Do you ever feel like you are doing all the work?
Having the SAME discussion all the time and there are no changes?
What if I told you that there is a finite amount of emotional space?
When you are all over the emotional space of an issue, you might be crowding it. This means it might be tough for a real solution to present itself.
Most of the time, the resolution of an issue showing up in a relationship (whether it is a couple, parent/child, co-workers, friends, roommates) requires participation and investment from both people.
So, why does crowding the emotional space cause gridlock on an issue?
- Because one person is so worried about the issue, the other person is alleviated of the need to pay attention to it.
- The concern filling the space gets in the way of the other person having exposure to the issue.
- The worry in the space is a repellant, making the other person resistant to deal with the issue.
- Usually the person who is concerned is trying to convince the other person to be concerned as well. This is more of a forceful type of convincing and most people do not like to be forced.
Let’s talk about an example with parents and teenagers that comes up all the time.
Parents get concerned about their teenagers’ academic performance. Especially when parents highly value academic achievement. Because well meaning parents are worried about their teenager procrastinating or being responsible for their work, they might be asking these questions a lot:
Did you do your homework yet?
Have you studied for that test?
What grade did you get on that paper?
Did you know that you have a big assignment due tomorrow?
And so on…
If this is an issue, parents will tell me that they are concerned about what will happen if they don’t stay vigilant about their kids’ grades and assignments. Absolutely, I totally understand.
However, if you look at the above reasons why crowding the emotional space creates gridlock, you can see why it is important to try and take a step back.
Parents are right behind their teenager to catch important dates and assignments, so the teenager is relieved of the worry.
The teenager isn’t necessarily experiencing poor academic performance (or what they consider to be poor) because parents are always making sure things get done, so they are not concerned.
Parents are all over the issue, so the teenager is repelled from thinking about it.
There is no space for that teenager to own his or her performance.
Here’s another example that comes up with couples:
A wife is concerned about her husband’s eating habits. So, she talks to him about it all the time. She points out choices he makes, sends him articles and videos about the issue, asks him about what he ate.
You can imagine that he might be concerned about it himself, but is not going to let on that he is because he is so annoyed.
Plus, depending on the relationship dynamics, he may feel like she is trying to be his mother or trying to control him.
The last thing the wife wants to do is “give up” on the issue. But, in truth, taking a step back will help him land on the issue himself. That is going to be more powerful anyway because she can’t be with him every second of the day to make choices for him about what he eats. He needs to care about the choices he makes.
What am I supposed to do?
Consider that the reason this issue might not be getting resolved is not because of “them”, it could be because of you. In other words, you may have MORE POWER than you think.
Understand that intrinsic motivation (motivation coming from within) is more powerful than extrinsic motivation (motivation coming from outside forces).
Own up to the fact that you crowded the space and let the other person know you are going to take a step back and that, if your loved one wants your help, you are there to help. There’s a difference between saying that in a loving way and saying it in a way that communicates “I’m SO DONE!” You are not abandoning your loved one, you are creating space for them to handle it.
A couple of tips:
Pick the right time to step back.
Don’t pick a super crucial moment or event to take a step back. Start at a time when the natural consequences will show up, but will not result in irreparable damage for you or your loved one.
If it is about finances, don’t start with not paying the mortgage and see if your partner notices. Have a conversation, let them know you are going to start handing over the bills. Make sure to tell them the due dates and maybe share the systems you use to keep track of things. Then start putting them in charge the bills that have the lowest fee for late payments.
Expect that natural consequences are going to occur.
That’s the plan. The natural consequences (i.e. what you were trying to prevent from happening) are what create the intrinsic motivation for your loved one to participate in a solution.
Know that your fear is going to make an appearance.
Most likely, that is why you were crowding the space to begin with– because you were afraid that your loved one wasn’t going to do enough to take care of the issue. Allowing space means doing less. So if you need something to do, get busy soothing your fears. Reassure yourself that this is a process, that this is for the highest good. Get busy talking with someone else who has been through this. They can relate and help you keep the faith. Journal about it. Go to therapy to find out where the fear about someone else not showing up started.
Get comfortable with the fact that this might take some time.
Depending on the gridlocked issue, it could be days/weeks/months. Which seems torturous. But how long have you been trying to solve it? How long did it take you to get into gridlock? Probably longer!