People who withdraw may do so because they do not know how to respond or they get flooded with emotion. People who feel overwhelmed when they seem to be attacked are unable to think rationally and to express themselves in an articulate way. Often withdrawing is a response to the feeling of helplessness and fear – it is a defense mechanism developed to protect a person.
However, withdrawal often triggers feelings of abandonment and hostility in the other person. The more outspoken or argumentative person may view the withdrawal as a passive-aggressive punishment directed at him or her.
Explain your behavior
If someone is raging, repetitive, mean, or unreasonable, it may be best to withdraw. If you need to withdraw from conflict simply because you feel overwhelmed, it is best to say something to the other person before walking away. For example,
“I can’t discuss this clearly right now. I need to take a break.”
“Please let’s stop for a while.”
“Give me a moment. I’ll be back.”
“I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
At a moment when there is no conflict, it’s very helpful to explain to the other person how you are feeling when you withdraw. Let him or her know that you are not trying to be hurtful by walking away. Rather, you feel overwhelmed and unable to think or discuss anything rationally and clearly. “I need a moment to clear my head.”
Some people choose to step away from discussions to avoid a difficult issue. Sometimes it’s best to buy yourself time to think about an issue. Yet when you consistently avoid difficult discussions, the issues will often become more problematic, and people with whom you’re in relationship will become increasingly frustrated with you.
When you become aware of your anxiety-management systems, you have the opportunity to gradually become stronger and more capable of handling difficult situations. If someone is angry, but not out of control, practice remaining calm without leaving immediately. See if you can withstand a little more discomfort without becoming overwhelmed. Have some responses readily available to state in a calm manner, such as,
“I’d like to hear what you’re saying. Can you explain that again in a more positive way.”
“I feel criticized. Could you rephrase that?”
“I feel defensive. Let’s start over again and remember I’m on your side.”
“I need a moment. Please be quiet for a moment and listen to me.”
“I think we could have a more productive conversation if we kept our voices down.”
With an awareness of what triggers you, you can gradually control the withdrawal process. Instead, you can thoughtfully choose whether to comply, withdraw, or assert yourself, among other possible responses. Sometimes it is best to withdraw, but it’s nice to feel as though you have a choice and can control your behavior in any situation. You will feel more powerful and others will sense it as well.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD