martha beck advice
Illustration: Dan Page
Everyone knows Mary as a sunny optimist—until she starts talking about herself. Then she turns so bleak she makes Debbie Downer look like a motivational speaker. Angie routinely receives leadership awards at the office, but at home she's a shouting dictator whose husband and kids feel perpetually steamrolled. Shauna is the kind of dependable friend you'd want by your side during a medical procedure or your ex's wedding. But when it comes to everyday conversation with people she doesn't know so well, she either clams up, overshares, or blurts irrelevant trivia until even passing strangers feel embarrassed.

Many of us know what it's like to be extremely emotionally intelligent in some areas and to display the social skills of a wounded badger in others. We go along seeming functional and well-adjusted, then suddenly find ourselves causing mayhem in social minefields. The good news is that these minefields can be cleared. Yes, it's a slow, painstaking process, but if you're tired of the badger life, it's worth the effort.

The Making of a Minefield

Healthy relationships are created through a combination of observation, communication, and testing. As we get to know a new person or group, we watch their behavior, express our own perspectives, and notice the reactions that ensue. If we do this while maintaining a confident, secure, yet humble sense of self, bada bing, bada boom: functional relationships.

The problem is that no one feels confident and secure all the time; we all have fears, sometimes hidden even from ourselves. Social minefields are created whenever we ground our actions in some form of fear. Emotional "triggers" are set when we suffer trauma-dramas—experiences that wound us, and the stories we attach to those experiences.

It works like this: Our feelings can be hurt by almost anything—from horrific abuse to a comment we misunderstand as criticism. And once we feel wounded, we tend to reactivate the pain in any situation that resembles the original scenario. The resulting anxiety causes us to tense up in such situations, leading to odd or exaggerated responses. Soon we're walking through a minefield.

For example, Mary's mother narcissistically insisted on outshining everyone, even her own children. Whenever Mary attempted to succeed at anything, her mother killed her hopes with icy criticism. To avoid the painful attacks, Mary became almost aggressively pessimistic about herself.

Angie's trauma came from a military father who raised children the same way he trained recruits. His shouted orders and emotional inaccessibility made Angie desperate to escape to school, where her teachers were kind and encouraging. Now she unconsciously models her professional behavior on that of her teachers and her parenting behavior after that of dear old Dad—hence her leadership awards and her frightened family.

Shauna was a bookish kid with a precocious vocabulary. Adults loved this, but her peers often mocked her as an egghead. She's still afraid that if she talks in the way that comes naturally to her, she'll be disliked. Any attempt at friendly conversation leaves her either tongue-tied or blurting.

All these minefields were once invisible to the women who dwelled in and around them. Mary didn't know why hoping made her nervous. Angie was horrified when her dad's harsh words blasted out of her own mouth, at her own kids. Shauna didn't know why conversation freaked her out. Most of us don't really see the specific dynamics of our emotional triggers. But we do know the general areas of our emotional lives where we tend to blow up or implode.

Try this: Briefly imagine the social situations you expect to encounter for the rest of this week. When you get to a minefield, just picturing it will cause physical tension in your body. It might be your jaw, your shoulders, your throat, whatever, but something will tighten. If nothing you imagine creates this reaction, congratulations: You have no land mines to contend with this week. But if you're now fixating on an upcoming event like a soldier being sent into enemy territory, this may be a good time to take action.

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