A visitor to this website—I’ll call him Jim—wrote to me and asked, “What would you recommend for someone who is often sucked into negativity and drama due to the careless mistakes of others? I get triggered to feel angry and frustrated with their foolishness, and I can’t seem to shake the persistent negative feelings. Is it healthy to stay in relationships with people who do this?”
Jim is more likely to make wise choices concerning his involvement with these individuals once he examines his own possible contribution to the dysfunctional relationships. He likely plays a role in this dysfunction. If he looks deeply enough, he’ll be able to see how his unresolved issues are contributing to the problem. (Part I is here.)
He needs to understand exactly how he gets triggered by allegedly foolish people. Are they really so foolish, or is he exaggerating their missteps in order to blame them for his own issues and reactions? If they are so troublesome, why is he even involved with them in the first place?
Jim is not my client, so I haven’t spoken to him to uncover what’s going on in his psyche. Still, I can present five unconscious dynamics that could apply to a predicament such as this. Of these five, one or more likely pertains specifically to him.
If he connects the dots back to his childhood, he can determine which of the following negative emotions were prevalent in his family of origin, as experienced by parents, siblings, and himself. If these emotions were present to a troublesome degree in his childhood, they would very likely be clouding his perceptions and judgment in the present:
1 – Disappointment: Did Jim feel himself to be a disappointment to his mother or father (or both)? Did one or both parents feel disappointed in themselves or regretful about life? Was his mother a disappointment to his father, or vice-versa? If so, Jim is now, as an adult, primed or conditioned to relive and recycle this painful emotion in himself and with others.
It is others, he writes above, who commit the “careless mistakes.” They become a disappointment to him. Yet it may be that he’s the one who’s determined to experience disappointment. His psychological defense contends, “I’m not looking for the feeling of disappointment. Look at how angry and frustrated I get when others disappoint me.” Yet he could be involved with mediocre people for the unconscious purpose of recycling unresolved emotions involving disappointment.
In other words, if he is ready to interpret the quirks or flaws of others through the feeling of being let down by them, he would seek out friends and associates with whom he can continue to replay and recycle his emotional resonance with disappointment. According to depth psychology, this self-defeating pattern is a basic operating mode in such situations.
2 – Criticism: Did one (or both) of Jim’s parents have a critical personality? Even if his parents had been mostly reasonable and fair, did he feel criticized by them, as children often do in their subjective sensitivity? If so, Jim is likely to have a critical personality himself. That means he’s tempted, if not compelled, to be critical of others in a way that’s often harsh and unfair to them.
Jim wrote of being angry and frustrated with “their foolishness.” Friends and associates have their quirks, flaws, and imperfections. Some of them may be prone at times to doing foolish things. If we have a critical personality, we’ll be inclined to judge them harshly. We’ll see them as the problem, but the real problem goes deeper.
Everyone who has a critical personality is challenged on an inner level with a harsh inner critic. Jim would be absorbing negative aggression from his inner critic, and then passing this same energy along to others. Much self-criticism, as well as criticism of others, is unfair and unjust. The criticism arises simply as a driving force of negative energy that’s looking for an outlet—and any port in this stormy chaos will do.
Jim relates to others in the same way his inner critic relates to him. He could be quite negative toward others, even for their innocent and harmless idiosyncrasies. He would then magnify their “misdeeds” out of proportion, as his inner critic does with him, because his entanglement in inner conflict compels him to be critical of others.
3 – Inner passivity: In this scenario, Jim is reacting to his own inner passivity. He might be feeling quite helpless and ineffective in having a positive influence on his friends or associates or in handling the reverberations of their antics. Again, if this is the case, Jim would be able to connect the dots back to his family of origin. One or both parents would have been passive in some manner, particularly as related to difficulties with emotional or behavioral self-regulation.
Jim’s inner passivity would get triggered by the “foolishness”—the lapses in emotional and behavioral self-regulation—that he sees in others. As a defense, he would refuse to recognize his own unconscious willingness to resonate, through them, with inner passivity. The defense might read, “I’m not wanting to feel helpless and ineffective in getting others to behave more appropriately. Nor am I identifying with their inner passivity as I see them conducting themselves foolishly and being out-of-control. Look, I get angry at them. I hate what they’re doing. I want no part of it.”
The more insistently he covers up his own passivity, the angrier he gets at others. At some point, the defense can proclaim, “I don’t want anything to do with their out-of-control behaviors. I’m not identifying with their inability to manage their lives. I’ve had enough! I’m seriously considering ending my relationships with these people.”
4 – Missing out: Jim could be feeling quite sorry for himself, convinced that he’s missing out on having good friends and relationships. Perhaps one or both of his parents experienced much of life through the feeling of missing out. They might have felt deprived or refused in assorted ways, perhaps through impressions being short-changed by others.
He’s now inclined to experience life in the same limited, negative manner. He can do this by convincing himself that his associates are somehow failing to deliver some expected satisfaction or performance. As he sees it, they keep letting him down. If only he had less foolish colleagues, he muses as part of his defense, he would be a lot happier.
Under this pretext, he feels that life as well as other people fail to deliver the goods. If he remains unaware of his attachment to the feeling of missing out on some imagined ideal situation, he’s likely to go on living through the feeling that life has broken its promise to take care of him. This can leave him disillusioned, angry, and bitter.
5 – Codependency: Codependents get involved in unhealthy, frustrating relationships because they’re compelled to act out the above four (and other) unresolved issues. A book that goes deeply into this problem—The Emotional Catering Service: The Quest for Emotional Independence—is available at this website.
Jim asked the question, “Is it healthy to stay in relationships with people who do this?” Obviously, he ought not to stay around people who, to a pronounced degree, are foolish or self-defeating. But that is exactly what codependents do. Their self-defeating behavior is driven by their unconscious compulsion to continue to act out whatever hurt and negative emotions are unresolved in their psyche.
As mentioned above, Jim would be willing to sacrifice his relationships as part of his defense: “I don’t want to act out my old unresolved issues through these people. I’m thinking of dumping them.” Our psychological defenses, when completely unconscious, prompt many such foolish behaviors.
His best option is to explore his own psyche in order to understand what he brings to the table. If his associates are people with everyday human flaws and limitations, he would be foolish to part company with them. In any case, once he sees himself more objectively he’ll know with confidence whether or not to maintain these relationships.