“I spent so many years walking on eggshells … never doing or saying the right thing. One day I decided I’d had enough and stomped all over them. Those broken eggshells cut me deeply as I walked away … but this … was the most beautiful pain I had ever felt.” —S. L. Heaton
In my marriage counseling practice, I find that many people in intimate relationships walk on eggshells. Extremely cautious about their words and actions, they may be fearful of being “wrong” or upsetting their partners. Often, they are concerned they will be seen as incompetent, inadequate, unattractive, or as having another negative trait that could cause them to feel unwanted of be rejected.
When you receive the judgment, criticism, or anger of another, the impact may be felt in two ways. The initial assault takes the form of words or actions; the second impact has a cumulative effect. It occurs when a memory of anger or disapproval is stored, emotionally and physically, in your mind. This second impact can cause far more damage in the long run, leading to a loss self-confidence and identity. It’s similar to secondhand smoke—you may not be aware of its effects until it reaches a certain level of accumulation.
If you frequently find yourself the recipient of someone else’s anger or feel you are walking on eggshells, the long-term effects can be just as detrimental. It’s wise to limit such exposure and protect yourself from this residual anger as best you can.
The Effects of Secondhand Anger
Unchecked anger can lead to resentment and dramatically impact your well-being and self-worth. Resentment exceeds momentary episodes of anger that come and go and extends into the past. In advanced stages, it even bleeds into the future and keeps you stuck in a devalued state. You may constantly feel you’re being unappreciated, disrespected, and treated unfairly.
When living with an angry or abusive partner, it is not only the nervous reactions to shouting, name-calling, criticism, or other demeaning behavior that can cause emotional damage. Attempts to prevent and de-escalate those often painful episodes can also harm one’s emotional well-being. By constantly trying to keep the peace or maintain the impression of a pleasant connection, people often become tethered to a person who controls them through emotions and impulsive needs.
Signs You Are Walking on Eggshells
The daily lives of many are defined by their partner’s moods. This can be an exhausting and draining existence, but it is possible to change. The first step in this change is to identify whether you are in this situation.
Here are few signs you are walking on eggshells. You might:
- Be afraid of upsetting your partner
- Feel ignored, criticized, confused, invalidated, or “stuck”
- Second-guess yourself
- Feel your partner does not trust you
- Correct your thoughts before you speak
- Be unsure about what might set your partner off
- See your relationship as a roller coaster of unpredictable emotions
- Feel tense when with your partner
- Feel that nothing you do is good enough
- Fear a punishing response from your partner
- Resent your partner
- Feel as if you have lost your core identity
- Have less self-esteem and confidence
Walking on eggshells over an extended period of time can cause you to lose your authenticity and sense of self. You may internalize your partner’s blame, criticism, anger, and even abusive behaviors, or you may absorb them and become resentful and aggressive yourself. Neither of these cases are conducive to a healthy state of mind.
When you give others the ability to make you feel bad about yourself, you are more likely to react negatively to them and try to lessen their power over you.
When you give others the ability to make you feel bad about yourself, you are more likely to react negatively to them and try to lessen their power over you. If you realize you are responsible for how you feel, you may be able to respond calmly and confidently when someone attempts to put you down. No matter how strong the trigger or challenge might be, you can become less receptive to someone else’s insensitivity or unkindness.
Developing the resilience to stand up to someone who is provoking or ridiculing you can lessen their impact and power over you. You may no longer need to depend upon them for validation and feel fewer urges to lash out angrily. Instead, you will be able to keep your cool and maintain your power. Your new sense of self may become virtually indestructible.
If you feel you are walking on eggshells in your relationships with others, contact a compassionate therapist or counselor who can help.
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