Perspective-taking in relationships

How to Manage Feelings With Perspective-Taking

The way you look at things — your perspective — has a lot to do with your mental health and happiness. Abraham Lincoln said, “Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” That says something about the power of perspective-taking.

But do we really have control over our emotions through point of view? You could argue that we can’t help feeling what we feel.

Emotions Are Both Automatic and Manageable

It’s true that emotions can just happen. That’s a good thing. When a baby is hungry or scared or hurt, it becomes upset. The baby’s cries help ensure needed care arrives.

In adult life, when your partner doesn’t come home as expected, you worry. Voicing your concern would (ideally) help you both adjust to improve your trust and safety. If someone you care about smiles and says, “I’m so glad you’re in my life,” you would probably feel good. You might share the feeling of happiness back in some way. These emotions arise naturally.

Yet we also need to function through all life’s highs and lows. To get along, we must channel feelings into behavior that serves us well. Managing emotions well requires skills we can learn.

How Perspective Builds Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence — learning to manage our feelings — is learnable. Learning is easier if we can take a step back to look at how our emotions work.  It’s possible for us to “step back to observe” our feelings thanks to perspective. 

Emotions emerge because of two things, says author Sean Webb. Emotions happen because 1) we come to value certain things; and 2) we perceive changes to the status of those things day by day. Webb calls the things we value our Preferences/Expectations. Our brain constantly checks for gains, losses, or stability in our valued Preferences/Expectations. That’s our Perception.

When you perceive that important things stay good, or get better, you feel happy. All seems well and safe in the world.

When your mind notices a loss in the state of things that matter, you experience negative emotions, says Webb.

It’s natural to get emotional about changes in the state of your relationships, your favorite team’s win record, and your access to food, for example. That’s one way the nervous system functions to ensure your survival. You may choose to act when a threat to something important upsets you enough. If you are unsuccessful in resolving the source of the bad feelings, you may go from pain to suffering.

Painful emotions prompt us to make changes so we feel better. Two options include working our Preferences/Expectations or Perceptions (to use Webb’s terms). 

Or more simply, to know what to change, we may want to look at the situation from a different perspective.

How Perspective Helps in Problem-Solving

Perspective helps us step back and look at what’s causing negative emotions to happen, and what we can do.

Perspective usually means zooming out.

Sometimes, suffering is like feeling lost in the trees. We’re not seeing the forest.

When we zoom out and look at the forest, we’re taking our focus off a detail and whatever is making us feel stuck. We’re gaining a new perspective. This enables us to look at what is happening in new ways. Then we may make new decisions that have us feeling better in the long term.

You’re upset that your spouse or partner does not understand you or value something that matters a great deal to you. For example, you’re upset that a pile of dirty dishes has sat in the sink all week.  Your spouse doesn’t seem bothered.

As you argue, you discover your partner isn’t a source of relief right then. Now, what do you think?

The thought might cross your mind:

My partner is stubborn and doesn’t care about me.

How well would that idea help you heal your relationship? Stepping back, you might notice that “stubborn” is a criticism of your partner’s character. Criticism is one of the four horsemen that injure relationships if unchecked (as Gottman’s research found). If you want to avoid relationship damage, a different perspective can give you more constructive options.  For example: 

My partner is good for me in so many ways and just because the dishes don’t matter doesn’t mean my partner is a bad person or uncaring.

It takes work. But your effort to look at things in new ways can help you find a healthier way to effectively process the upset.

How to Calmly Explore Different Perspectives

Taking different perspective means asking questions to explore other points of view. The goal is to uncover ideas, not attack them. Perspective-gathering questions may include:

  • What could make otherwise nice people so angry?
  • Would your spouse intentionally hurt your feelings?
  • If he or she wouldn’t intentionally hurt your feelings, what were the possible reasons for the behavior?
  • How might you take the offense less personally?
  • What might you find if you disconnected from the emotions involved?
  • From your partner’s point of view, what happened?
  • Was something else overwhelming, so that doing dishes was one thing too many?
  • Is there an issue that seemed even more important?
  • Where’s the hurt, from each person’s point of view?
  • Are you both doing everything you can and still don’t understand why you’re feeling criticized?
  • Is it essential that you both agree on this?
  • Does there have to be a “winner” and a “loser” on this?
  • If the answer is yes, where is the need to win coming from?

Pitfalls to Avoid

Sometimes one partner is afraid to go to their spouse with a problem. There’s great fear of speaking up and getting a bad result. Often, that may not be based on the present life with a loved one.

That fear may come from past experiences that we assume will be recreated in the present. We may not know anything about impact of past events on our partner’s point of view unless we explore. Find ways to put words on each other’s values and perceptions.

Perspective-taking gives you another option besides attacking or withdrawing and keeping problems from your spouse.  Given the chance, a loved one may indeed respond to something we want in a way that may help everyone involved feel better.

It gives you a chance to solve the solvable problems.

Conclusion

Perspective is a powerful relationship skill. But many people don’t recognize it or understand how it could help.

Trying a different perspective can be a huge help when:

  • You feel entrenched on opposite sides of a problem
  • You want to feel engaged on the same side against a problem
  • There’s miscommunication, hard feelings, and no one is talking them
  • There’s fear about confrontation because you anticipate a bad result
  • Growing up, you remember arguments turning painful very quickly and you’re anxious about that
  • You don’t want a bad outcome so you continue to withdraw

Stepping back gives you a chance to explore this impasse and manage your fear. Related skills — staying grounded in present awareness, compassion, and acceptance — can be of great help to move forward calmly. As you see all the aspects of the situation you can understand each other better.

Try to collect the perspectives as calmly as possible.

Working to understand each other’s point of view is very calming and validating. It places you on the same side against the problem. It can help you avoid the pitfall of attacking another’s value system.

Trying another perspective can be a tremendous way to strengthen and heal your relationship.

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