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How to Stop Reacting to Other People’s Emotions

Once we started to react to other people’s emotions, we become emotional ourselves and won’t be able to process things rationally. 

Family Reunion

In July, my sister and her boyfriend came to visit us on the west coast from Singapore. I was extremely excited to see her and also meet her boyfriend for the first time. I requested 2 weeks off to actually be there with them for the entire trip and to make sure they have a good time. My brother and her fiancée also drove up from LA and the 5 of us drove back to Portland together. 

This is the first time in a very long time that all my family gathered, and I couldn’t be happier. This is particularly true for my mom, as she has always hoped the family would be close together. We spent several days in Portland, visiting Hood River, Multnomah Falls, and downtown Portland. I took them to the Cape Lookout State Park for their first-ever camping trip. It turned out to be a success and everyone had a great time at the beach, grilling food and chit-chatting. 

The Drive to Seattle

Then, we also spent a couple of days up in Seattle as they’d never been before. As I was driving us to Seattle, my mom suddenly lashed out at me. 

She said annoyingly: “Slow down.” 

I said, ”Why? I’m not driving that fast and am driving like usual.” 

She responded more impatiently, “Just slow down, or pull over and let me drive.” 

At this point, I wasn’t happy about it either, but I slowed down any way.

I knew the reason for her annoyance was because of her work. 

I was thinking, “Why are you even still working when we’re on a family trip? Is work (for other people’s company really THAT important? They don’t even pay you enough for you to be working this hard given the kinds of responsibilities you’re taking on in the company.” I was feeling unfair for her.

Later she then said, “Don’t ask me to tag along next time.” 

My blood started to boil when I heard that. 

I put a lot of effort into planning this trip for the family. I didn’t expect her to say “thank you”, but for her to say something like this, really hurt and upset me. It’s rare and challenging enough for everyone to gather in one place, especially for my sister who lives in Singapore.  

Why does she have to use this attitude towards me? What have I done wrong to deserve such treatment? I was feeling wronged.  

As all of these thoughts rushed to my mind, my tears couldn’t help but fall off my face. She noticed I was crying. And yet she didn’t say anything and was unapologetic nor showed any empathy. She continued picking on my driving. 

I was so annoyed and upset to the point where I couldn’t say a word for the rest of the 2-hour drive. 

The Pain and Disappointment 

After we arrived at the restaurant, I wanted to stop crying, but I was feeling extremely emotional. I still couldn’t bear to hold in my tears even after washing up in the bathroom multiple times. I ate silently in my tears. Everyone in my family noticed it but no one mentioned anything. 

This is how we were raised in the family. We don’t talk about the touchy-feely stuff. We don’t go deep and talk about how we feel. 

Later in private, my brother asked what happened and I remember I could barely spit anything out. I asked him to take mom in his car because I couldn’t drive with her sitting beside me while I was feeling so emotional.  

As the day went on, mom and I didn’t talk directly until she asked me to take a photo of her. It’s like she pretended nothing had happened.  

We slowly interacted normally as the trip concluded in 2 days. And still, she never mentioned anything about this incident after.

“Being upset is like punishing yourself for someone else’s fault.”

Chinese Proverbs

What Actually Happened?

Later on, I reflected on this. 

I questioned myself, why was I so upset? 

“Because I put a lot of effort into planning the trip; buying the museum tickets, finding restaurants and attractions, etc., and yet she was being very unappreciative to being on the trip with the family and said hurtful things to her own daughter.” 

Why did I take it so personally? 

“Because family is very important to me.” 

That, was a new realization. Family is THAT important to me and I never realized that until now. And this is why it was extra hurtful when someone who is important to you hurts you, whether or not it’s intentional.

I learned this Chinese proverb when I was in elementary and I still remember it today: “Being upset is like punishing yourself for someone else’s fault.” In Mandarin: “生氣是拿別人的過錯來懲罰自己.” 

And yes it is damn right. I asked for it. I should have known how she typically behaves when something frustrates or annoys her by now. However, I took every nasty thing she said deep to heart. And I ended up hurting myself. No one is to be blamed but myself. I had the choice to decide what to do with other people’s emotions and actions. But I was clouded by my own emotions.

How to STOP reacting to other people’s emotions

1. Access the situation and find the source

What was mom going through as she was lashing out at me? What might be causing her to be annoyed and frustrated? I knew she was working in the car and frowning at her phone. So her work would definitely be the source of her starting to act so impatiently.  

2. Understand and acknowledge both parties’ emotions

Soon after that, she lashed out at me for the things that I have been doing for years (driving). I didn’t think I was driving any differently, but any small little things would annoy her because she was feeling frustrated with her work. I should be understanding the emotions that she was going through, and know that I wasn’t the cause of that emotion, even if I was taking the hit because of her own emotions. 

Aside from understanding her emotion, I should also have dug into mine. I started to feel annoyed as well when she asked me to slow down for no reason. I should have acknowledged how I was feeling and not let my emotion spiral down the negative path.

3. Be empathetic and compassionate

Knowing how my mom is when she is upset, I should have been empathetic and felt sorry for her about her work, instead of taking what she said personally and focusing on how she was nitpicking the way I was driving. I should have told myself, “She is not angry at you, it was her work. You just happen to be doing the right thing at the wrong time.” 

4. Forgive and let go

The negative emotions that the counterpart was feeling is a result of them not able to properly control their emotions. If you’re analyzing the situation and thinking about these things, you’re in a better mental state and should have been the bigger person and let it go. 


Conclusion

We often times reflect on the things that have happened and later on think to ourselves, “I should have done this.” or “I shouldn’t have done it.”. It can be challenging to control our emotions in the heat of unpleasant situations. However, remember to remain calm because once we started to react to other people’s emotions, we become emotional ourselves and won’t be able to process things rationally. 

Did you know meditation is found to help improve the regulation of our emotions? Check out the benefits of meditation and how to get started as a beginner!

Is there a similar experience that you can relate to? How did you handle it and what did you learn? 

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