Dear 100 Hour Board,
In my marriage, I tend to be the one with stronger manifestations of emotions overall, including fairly high levels of stress, whereas my husband tends to be more level and calm. That works great and all, until he's feeling stressed or other negative emotions himself, at which point I don't handle them very well. I know it's irrational and unhealthy to think that I can have bad days and he can't, but for some reason it's hard for me. I grew up with a mom with depression and lots of feelings, and I always let her bad days affect me, and I haven't quite learned how to not let the bad days of those close to me affect me too (make me feel anxious, wanting to "fix" everything, etc.). I'm especially stressed because my husband is about to start a very difficult, emotionally and intellectually stressful program. How do I learn to be more emotionally independent and less dependent on his (or others') moods?
-emotional roller coaster
Dear Roller Coaster,
I'm similar! While it may not be to the extent or for the same reasons, I am often very affected by the moods of the people I care about. When my friends and family are upset, it stresses me the heck out. A significant number of my anxiety attacks have been triggered that way.
I've found a lot of comfort by leaning in and supporting the person who is upset. It seems exhausting and counterintuitive to put extra emotional effort into someone that's already draining you, but it works wonders for me.
The most common way that I support my friends is just by being thoughtful in my conversation. I ask them how they feel about things. I try and listen to them, anticipate their needs if I can, and offer validation. Unless they ask for advice, I'm pretty wary of giving it. That can be hard if your tendency is to try and offer solutions or fix things, but I've found that being supportive in conversation is like 95% validation, 5% advice. This mix gets easier with practice, but if you're struggling or don't know what to say, you can start with this: "I'm really sorry, that sounds hard." It'll get you further than you think. You can also ask how you can help them. Or, if you have some ideas already, offer to do what you can. It is sometimes harder for people to ask for a favor than to accept one that's already been offered.
I have two disclaimers here:
1) This is easier said than done, and that goes double if you're fighting a mental illness. I'm healthier now, but I have faced pretty severe anxiety and depression in the past. I don't know if I could have pulled this off as easily (or at all) when I was sick. I still think it's worth trying, though.
2) Even when you provide support this way, it's pretty unlikely that you will completely fix their mood or problem. You have to accept that, which can be tricky. If you're having a hard time with that, and their mood is still affecting you too much, I recommend going somewhere private and finding a pen and paper. Write out all the reasons that you can think of that you don't feel good. Then, go through each item on the list and deal with it. When I do that, I'm often surprised. Sometimes, I realize I'm stressed about something completely different than the person I thought was affecting me. One time, I did it and found out that I had some unfair expectations for the people around me, so I had to figure out why I had those expectations and how I could fulfill those needs for myself. I just think that the act of writing things out can provide a lot of clarity. Whatever you find when you write the list, deal with those things on a case-by-case basis.
One last thing:
If you can, get a therapist. Therapy is not just for people in crisis; it's a really useful tool for working through things like this. Therapy is for everyone, and that is a hill I will die on.