If you are the least bit empathetic and prone to want to help others, it is very easy to be pulled into another person’s dysfunction. It can be especially detrimental if they are stuck in a Groundhog Day universe of their own making, where they refuse to see that the problem keeps recurring because they refuse to make the required internal changes. In those cases, sometimes it’s better to walk away. But sometimes you can’t; sometimes the other person is a family member or someone you work with, and walking away is out of the question. So what do you do? How do you stay sane and happy when those around you are not?
You don’t internalize their dysfunction.
You stay calm as they rant and rave. You empathize, but you don’t internalize. You understand, but you don’t internalize. You want to help, and you do what you can, but you don’t internalize.
What is internalizing, exactly?
It is letting them in, so their problem becomes your problem. I heard this phrase in South Africa, where my husband and I were living on a catamaran we had built there and were getting it ready to sail it home to New England. We were docked in a rather public set of docks, near a popular tourist area. There were groups of thieves who stalked the area every day, then gathering in somewhat hidden places each afternoon to check out what they had stolen and trade with each other.
One night, as I was working late and my husband was sleeping, I heard some strange noises on the dock next to our starboard hull. I glanced out the galley port and saw a man leaning into the large deck hatch near the bow, trying to see if anyone was inside and if he could crawl into the boat.
I quietly woke my husband and he was up in a flash, in full “ex”-Marine mode, outside, shouting in the guy’s face until the guy ran off. A few hours later, the guy returned to the area and was arrested. The policeman found that the guy had come from Zimbabwe, a neighboring country that was in serious financial trouble. “Don’t make your problem our problem,” the policeman kept saying, as if it was something that the entire police force had been trained to say.
The truth is, you do have to protect your own sanity and safety. You can’t be useful or helpful to anyone you care about if you are freaking out. If their problem or “the” problem becomes your problem, you lose your ability to make your way through it intact and undamaged.
How do you know you’re internalizing?
First, you will lose your sense of calm and peace. You will start to get irritated or unsettled, as you converse. Second, you will start to argue with the person. Third, after the conversation, you will start to rewind that conversation in your head, over and over. It will not be a satisfactory feeling. It will feel very unresolved. It will be difficult to get any clarity on the subject.
You will find yourself wanting to talk it out to others, in an attempt to get clarity. But clarity will not come, because that other person’s problem has now become your problem, and it will be difficult to be objective. There is always a bit of resentment, too. You were trying to help and you got infected.
How do you stop internalizing, so you can stay sane?
One of the most powerful skills we can learn in life is to stand tall in all situations, secure in our own skin, and to be comfortable with ourselves. The heroes in movies are always the ones doing that, because that is what heroes do. The frantic, hysterical types are not the heroes, and the audience knows it.
When you are your own best friend, you learn to trust yourself. You listen to that quiet, wise internal voice and are not overtaken by frantic people or blown about by events. You stay sane and see clearly. You decide what is the next best thing to do, and then you do it.
Realize that they are “them” and you are “you” and maintain a healthy separatism. When they are sobbing or shouting, you can still understand and want to to help, but you don’t have to take it in. If you do, you change from being the helper to the participant, and then you both have a problem.
This works for people you love and those you wish you didn’t have to interact with. If you keep your own wits about you, you can do the next right thing, which is something I learned from my husband and have since always tried to do. As I mentioned in this article, I skip right past the stress stage and move immediately into the “OK, what’s the best way to work this out?” stage.
This also works well when you are interacting with a manipulator. They want to find your weakness, so they can exploit it. They want to get under your skin; it will throw you off guard and make it easier for them to get what they want.
But if you remain solid, impermeable, and true to yourself, they won’t have a chance. They will try, they will fail, and they will start to get frustrated and angry. You will watch that happen from your own safe place, and you will see them for who they are. Manipulators are charming until their charm stops working.
Does “healthy separatism” mean you are an uncaring person? No. Quite the contrary. You will become a more capable person on whom others want to depend. You will be able to help many more people and set a good example, just because you didn’t internalize their dysfunction, which would only weaken you. By maintaining that safe space, you will definitely stay sane, and you will be stronger than ever.