Do People’s Reactions Control You?

by | Jan 28, 2020 | Personal Growth

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Have you ever found yourself thinking something like this:

  • “I want to open up the conversation gently so that they don’t feel defensive.”

  • “How can I word this request in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad?”

  • “What’s the best way to approach my mother, so that she doesn’t start judging me again?”

  • “I just want to bring this up in a way that doesn’t upset them?”

  • “How can I say this so that they don’t get angry with me?”

I hear these things all the time.

So, let’s first take a moment to celebrate what’s good. Like, our deep desires to:

  • Open conversations gently, thoughtfully and skillfully.

  • Be thoughtful about how we approach touchy subjects with others.

  • Calibrate our style and tone to fit the context and temperament of the others.

  • Lead with full ownership of what we bring to our conversations and relationships.

🎊Confetti and Fireworks for all that! ✨

However, we venture into murky waters whenever we start using other people’s reactions as a report card about ourselves – our goodness, worthiness or as the deciding factor about whether something is worth doing or not.

Being overly focused on managing other people’s feelings can be a covert way of controlling others – and being controlled. It’s one of the most (unconsciously) controlling things that well-intentioned people do, and they (ok let’s be honest, we) often don’t even realize it.

As we try to break free from old codependent, overly accommodating habits, while being wary of becoming too self-centered ourselves, it can help to have a concrete, clear vision to reach for.

I would recommend making This One Change:

Stop paying so much attention to how someone might react (it’s beyond your control, by the way).
Instead, focus your energy and attention on who you want to be BE.
To what degree are you showing up as kind, direct, honest and skillful as you are able?
Aim for that, and let the rest go.

The sweet spot lies in being your full, kind, clear, authentic self, and then staying grounded and connected – regardless of how someone else reacts to it or “takes it.”

A few (very normal) things make this challenging:

1. Our Fear of Loneliness:
If we learned that we were supposed to anticipate what others were needing at all times, we may worry that if we stop doing this we will end up alone and miserable.

We may also assume that others will never be motivated to actually give us want we want, unless they are getting something from us first.

We may habitually disconnect from ourselves in order to get connection and safety with others. It doesn’t have to be an either/or – In fact, we need to be fully ourselves in order to have authentic, meaningful connections with others.

2. Our Unresolved Shame and Guilt:
If we learned that we were to blame for others’ feelings (for example, if mother was upset, it was usually our fault or because of something we did) then we tend to become hypervigilant of everyone else’s feelings and reactions because they’ve become our personal “report card” about how worthy we are of love and connection.

While we always want to consider the impact we are having on others, avoiding emotional reactions in others simply keeps us all smaller and more constricted, instead of growing, learning, and being whole together.

3. Our Self-Doubt:
If we buy into the idea that someone else being upset automatically means we’ve done something wrong, we will feel like puppets on other people’s strings.

To free ourselves from those strings, we often swing to the opposite extreme of making them wrong, instead of ourselves. And then we judge ourselves, feel guilty and resolve to make ourselves even smaller and less offensive the next time. It just doesn’t work. We end up confused, self-silencing and resentful and then blowing up at others. A vicious cycle.

Other people’s feelings and reactions – while important data – cannot be your ultimate guide. It’s much more about who you want to be, than what others may or may not do.

Instead of focusing on others’ reactions as your north star, ground yourself in the deeper and higher values that you hold sacred and then live from and into those values.

Here’s How:

  • Open a conversation gently, because you want to be a gentle person. Simply get present to and curious about whatever reaction they may have.

  • Word your requests as thoughtfully and skillfully as you can – when the other person reacts in unpleasant ways, you can care about their reaction without taking responsibility for their reaction.

  • Listen for the feelings and needs underlying their reactions, and stay grounded and present to what is important to them without taking it personally. (Need practice with this? Come and learn from me.)

  • Approach your mother (for arguments sake) in the best way you can – keeping in mind that her judgments are simply her habitual (unhelpful, unconscious) way of trying to contribute to your (or her own) well-being in the best way she knows how. And her way is limited. That’s ok. We all get to be limited.

  • Despite all this, accepting that others might still have strong feelings and reactions, and trust yourself to stay in relationship with those, fielding them with grace.

  • People get upset. Speak your truth with kindness and clarity anyway. You can speak up; they can be upset. You can survive, and even thrive in those conditions.

Instead of fearfully molding yourself to avoid strong reactions, expand your capacity to live with integrity, courage and wholeness. After all, its deeply empowered love and freedom when we can just let ourselves and others simply be the glorious, reactive, controlling, limited and imperfectly lovable beings that we all are at our core.

What helps you stay grounded and present when people have strong reactions?

I’d love to know – leave a comment below …

(PS: Have you signed up for my February 15th online Polarity Training on Integrating Opposites yet? Read more here.)


  1. suzanne long

    I lived most of my life trying to please and fix others. NVC has allowed me to learn how I might please my self and further to recognize without judgment when I am doing this pleasing/controling behavior and change it with the intention to be kind, honest, and guilt-free. suzanne long

  2. Kirin Loomis

    I say to myself, "He cares enough about me to tell me how he really feels." Or, "I wonder what he had for breakfast." (=This is not about me.)

  3. Annabel

    Having just emerged from group therapy for a CPTSD, I see that the above is very helpful now that I am more grounded and know how to handle dissociation. The time taken to recover from being ‘pulled under’ by others is shortening. Thank you for this excellent post. I especially like the observation and invitation to be honest with oneself ie your reaction may be as covertly controlling as the other person’s reaction is overtly controlling! I’m more of the mind to give space to those who initiate power games. Sometimes being non reactive might be the best course, they’ll soon learn to leave you alone.

  4. Janet Merrill

    This posting was just what I needed to hear! This year I wanted to give my 13 year old grandson a meaningful Christmas present. I had been told by his parents that all he wanted was money. I really don’t like giving money as a present. After talking to some friends about how they helped their children learn the value of money, I decided to give him money divided into 3 envelopes, one to spend on himself, one to put into savings, and one with money to give to someone, or donate to a cause, and I would like to hear how he chose to use it. It was not well received! His mother glared at me. His father later said I was being preachy, and I never heard from the grandson at all. I really felt that I had made a big mistake, that something I had intended to be a fun project was taken as criticism of his parents. (I guess I think that is what they thought. I am not sure.)
    After reading your posting, I realize that I had good intentions. I wanted to satisfy my own need of not having Christmas just a giving of money, and I wanted to connect with my grandson in a meaningful way. I did not meet their needs, which doesn’t make them bad, (something I had to work on!), nor did I do anything wrong. I didn’t meet my need for connecting with my grandson, but I will have other opportunities.
    Thank you for your wisdom. Janet

  5. Jason Lee

    Thanks! I am looking for the words to open a discussion with my roommate who I’ve noticed tends to have unpredictable responses to my initiation to connect, which tends to trigger this type of behavior as you described above, with a healthy dose of emotional management, and self-silencing "until I can get the words right" – lol….
    Ultimately, I think we just need to have a collaborative discussion around what is working, and what could work even better as we cohabitate.


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