What Do I Do When Someone Acts Uncomfortable Around Me and I Know Nothing is Really Wrong?

Question: I recently moved in with a long time friend and while we got along great before I moved in, I can tell he is really uncomfortable about some things that I do differently than him- it’s nothing big at all, just the kinds of food I buy, that I don’t watch the news, how I handle my finances. I understand that everyone does things differently and if it works for them- great! But he seems to feel threatened and not know how to even talk about anything that we don’t agree 100% on.

I’m used to being fairly open with my life (well, little things such as what TV programs I watch or what food I eat!), should I be a little more private to protect his feelings? How can I help him understand that I don’t judge him just because we do things differently?

Answer: This needs further investigation.  When you say threatened, what are you describing?  People can react to threat with defensive or aggressive postures and language. The basic three responses to scary events; flight, fight, and freeze.  You’ll need to handle the situation differently depending on how this person is reacting.

If your room mate is in flight they will first try and curl into themselves before they attempt to physically get out of dodge.  Flight body language curves the back and uses the arms and legs to protect the stomach.  A person in this posture will put their chin down, curve their shoulders forward, cross their arms over their chest and cross their legs.  Their facial expressions will get stiff and not change as rapidly as normal.  Think of a painted on smile with slightly narrowed eyes. People who are in flight are worried about being trapped.  They will think about the wrong thing they could say that will end your friendship or the bad thing you will say to them.  They may feel that any differences they have from you will make you disgusted, disappointed and judgemental. These folks run before you can prove them right.

Give them the message that you like and want their differences.  You won’t like all their differences and you don’t have to.  Just grab on to the differences you do like and talk those up!  Do not try and cut off escape routes for these folks or chase them when they run off.  In fact, move away from doors and let them feel they always have room to move.  This can actually help them feel calmer and lessen their need to run away.  Physically give them space and verbally give them reassurance.  And please don’t take any of their actions personally.  Runners do not realize that their behavior makes other people nervous.  Runners think they are responding to the negative reactions people MUST be having.  They do not see that their own nervousness makes other people have some of those negative reactions they are so worried about.

Freeze can have some of the same protective posture as flight, but there will be very little motion.  People will literally freeze in place, stop what they’ve been doing, and become incredibly tense.  There may be no major differences between the relaxed pose they had and the freeze they are in now, but you will be able to see the effort they are using to be totally still.  Their face will be tense, they may extend through the back of their neck, putting their chin down slightly into their chest.  People in freeze are trying to be invisible.  They feel that attention will bring attack.  They are thinking about how you have noticed they are different and no longer want to be their friend.  Even though they are physically still, their brains are going at warp speed figuring out all the ways they are bad and what they did wrong.

Distract them first and then give them the acceptance they crave.  The distraction can be some goofy thing you do, a change of subject, questions on an area of that person’s expertise work really well.  Once their brain is off the rat wheel of how bad they are, make a sincere compliment and then move on again before the other person can freeze themselves again.  Do not walk on eggshells or attempt to stay away from topics that expose your differences.  It won’t work and your increasing level of frustration will make this friendship way more fragile.  Be yourself and let the other person know you accept them, when you can.

Fight body language is the easiest to see.  It’s far more difficult to realize it is just as fear based as flight and freeze.  It’s not about fists being up so much as chest, chin and color being up.  This person will puff out their chest, shoulders will move back so shoulder blades nearly touch, and their feet may move further apart.  The chin will move up, away from the chest and they may flush as their small blood vessels dilate.  If they’ve got a smile, it’s the upper lip pulled tight, show your teeth version and it’s not happy.   The fighter isn’t tense like the freeze.  It’s more like a rubber band pulled taut and ready to fly.  This is the group that will probably use humor or just flat out make fun of you and then say “I was joking, what’s your problem?”  People in fight are afraid of being controlled.  They will assume that the differences you notice are being saved up as negatives against them.  They worry about being shamed into actions or humiliated out of what they want.  They are very threat sensitive and will assume that you mean to control and harm them.

You have no responsibility to put up with other people’s anger whether they are scared or not.   You can walk away, refuse to engage, or tell them calmly that there is no reason to treat you with disrespect.  If the behavior is minor and usually followed by pouting, do not attempt to reason with them.  Smile and ask about their physical health.  Purposefully misinterpret their anger signs as potential symptoms of illness and intestinal discomfort.  They will either appreciate your concern or get frustrated enough to admit to the source of their anger.  This technique is actually effective for most of the minor fight behaviors.  If you’re dealing with major intimidation and threats, you need a new room mate.  In the meantime, leave exit paths open, keep your hands out in plain view, and have friends help you move.

Move in with someone and the space you might have used in the past to comfortably hide in is gone.  Some people are ok with that, and others get worried that you will finally find out enough about them to leave.  Neither reaction is your fault.

-Continue with your normal behaviors.

-Assess their discomfort and what they are afraid of.

-Decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth the effort to deal with that fear.

-Don’t take the fear personally.  That was developed long before you came on the scene and it will still be there after you are gone.


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