Soft skills sometimes mean hardening your shell
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
When I was at the dog's home choosing a dog I fell in love with a border collie. I previously had a collie, and this one had presented himself at his cage, he brought out his ball and he knew how to sit and lie down on command. We had a fun 20 minutes playing and I put him on his lead to go back - and he bit me. It wasn't a hard bite, but neither was it an accident. I'd loved spending time with him - but I couldn't take him.
In the end I picked a scraggy little dog who had suffered abuse for 5 years. She didn't even know "sit", she didn't know how to play let alone walk nicely on a lead, she would steal food. But despite this, she was sweet. She rolled over as soon as she saw me and just wanted a cuddle.
Five years on, I couldn't have asked for a better friend. (She also sits, plays, walks, and -usually- leaves food that isn't hers alone...and she has never bitten me).
With a background in analysis - whether it is psychology (I'm also a trainer), theatre (I direct), or lecturing (speaks for itself) I have a tendency to "try and understand". More often than not this has been a very positive approach. As an example, my parents are getting older, and with it - more stubborn. They want to retain their independence, but for an only child trying to keep an eye on what's going on I was getting more frustrated. Through thinking about Erikson's "lifespan" approach to psychology and appreciating that they are working through their own loss of independence I began to develop healthier strategies of collaborating with them - and last week, after a 10 year struggle, they moved into a warden assisted independent living retirement flat.
Things like letting them tell their long stories (at a time when I knew I was available to listen); writing post-it notes/notice board notes as reminders rather getting exasperated or needing to stand over them to remember chores or appointments; or when I bought them a gift - getting them something that was just a nicer version of the things they liked rather than expecting them to want to learn to use something new; all this contributed to a more relaxed atmosphere.
Professionally, it is also easy for me to manage challenging behaviour in the classroom. It is natural for me to offer support and techniques for empowerment in a coaching setting - even to the most reluctant clients. As a director I know how to break through barriers to performance and stretch my actors emotionally.
But personally is where I struggle.
I am lucky to have a lot of good people around me. They are kind, supportive, helpful - there when I need them, and in return (or - hopefully - sometimes before they ask) I will do the same. While it sounds like a practical reciprocity, for those who I have remained close to, there is an emotional one as well.
However, I have a couple of other people in my life with whom - perhaps due to proximity, or - like the border collie - knowing the elements of friendship - I have been drawn to, who have let me down. They have gone behind my back, they have been snarky to - actually, that's nice, they've actually tried to humiliate - me in public. In short they have been more than a bit mean!
They also have (both diagnosed and undiagnosed) mental health issues. They present as confident - and this is part of their attractiveness. They are funny and intelligent to boot. They know how friendship works on the surface. However, when their 'darker side' shows (through flakiness, 'ghosting', tantrums) they often express "This is me - take it or leave it" or, more enticingly to my ego "Only some people ever really know me" (and I know that deep down they probably are hurting, which explains some of their behaviour). NLP techniques suggest that sometimes taking people literally can help understand their perceptions; and "I'm a horrible friend" has been said many times - often in jest, but with examples that I would agree - are horrible (particularly where personal support (rather than distant or practical) was important.
To that end I have been understanding. I have been kind. But, now I no longer wish to be. With the effort I am happy to put into relationships, I want an holistic friendship that is fulfilling on all levels not one where some of the superficial can be great - but the lack of emotional appreciation just hurts - a bit like that bite.
Of all the wonderful people in my life, many also have mental health issues. Many have had to overcome adversity, or are still struggling. Many go through good times and bad. But fundamentally, they are compassionate, supportive and generous. There is a warmth about them that is ever present - even if they are having "one of those days". We enjoy reciprocity of practicality, and support.
Sometimes, while all the superficial behaviours can be well practised, the fundamentals of a good relationship are missing. Sometimes emotionally bad behaviour is justemotionally bad behaviour. Sometimes, even when one has a handle on all the other issues one can just be, beneath it all, unpleasant. Whenever I discuss problems related to mental health such as bullying, one of my first rules is to be aware that sometimes a bully just wants to be nasty.
Maybe it is due to too-hardened shell (and non flexible) caused 30 years ago by upbringing. Maybe with enough support and affection, unconditional love will make a difference. Maybe by making excuses or explaining it away to my other friends I've given those others a bit more understanding of emotional blocks. But in truth, my "healthy" heart and mind are just not strong enough for these "friends" and actually - they don't have to be.
Sometimes, you just have to walk away.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt