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Responding to "Big Personalities"

If you get overwhelmed in the presence of someone whose energy, body, and voice is coming your direction in a way that doesn't work for you, you might hear yourself describe that person as someone with a "big personality".  Whether the world agrees with your description or not, the fact of your reactivity around this person remains.  You find yourself withdrawing, getting smaller, and looking for a way to get away so you can relax and be yourself again.

The person who seems to be coming toward you in a big, forceful, or loud way is likely looking for you to meet them.  As you withdraw, s/he comes forward and you withdraw more and s/he comes forward more, and so the cycle goes.

If this person is your partner or a family member, withdrawing and avoiding is costing lots needs for you and others.  Here are three things to consider that can help you change this cycle.

1.  Take up space.  One way to stay connected to yourself in the face of big energy coming toward you is to get big yourself.  This doesn't mean yelling or stomping about.  It could be as simple as keeping yourself talking.  Tell a silly story or joke, share the mundane details your dental care, anything that equalizes the expression between the two of you.  You may have to stretch yourself by giving up your usual subtle and quiet way of sharing.

2.  Set Boundaries Moment by Moment.  As your partner is talking and you go fuzzy, lean forward and touch her on the arm and say something like, "I want to be connected and I am losing you.  Can I tell you what I heard so far?" 

Or perhaps your aunt is visiting and comes in the bedroom and starts talking to you as you are dressing the kids.  You might say, "Aunt Vivian, I would like to talk with you after I get the kids ready.  Can you give us a few minutes?"

3.  See Needs rather than a threat.  If you find yourself overwhelmed and withdrawing, then some part of you is perceiving a threat.  In actuality this person is likely just trying to meet a need for acceptance, love, belonging, connection, etc.  When you can remind yourself of this, you are less likely to become reactive.  Of course guessing someone's needs doesn't mean you are the one that is supposed to meet them.  From a centered place you can decide if you have the energy to contribute or if you need to take care of yourself and set a boundary.

Take a moment now to reflect on any relationships in your life in which you find yourself, overwhelmed, backing down, or shutting down.  Make a plan about what you would like to do to shift this dynamic the next time you are with this person.

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5 Responses

  1. Sep 15, 2011
    Julie Lawrence

    Thanks so much for this article. I found it really helpful. I was experiencing this just recently, and it didn't occur to me to do anything but withdraw - thanks for expanding my options!

  2. Sep 15, 2011

    Your comments are always so right on and helpful. I, too, immediately withdraw in such situations and it helps to think that "this person" is in need of something and not just trying to overwhelm me.

  3. Sep 15, 2011
    Christopher McHenry

    I appreciated this piece on big personalities. I liked the second two suggestions. Although I understand the first suggestion about taking up space, when I imagined myself doing it, it felt very inauthentic and disconnecting (talking about the mundane, a silly story, talking just to talk, etc.). It seems that another more connecting alternative might be to try to express to the person that I'm really wanting connection, but in that moment, I am having trouble because ... I'm needing more space, more calmness in the interaction, I'm in a different space energetically and not able to meet them, etc.? Hmm, as I say this, I realize I might be challenged to express in a way that is owning my reaction, not blaming them for the way they're approaching me. So I don't know what I'd say, but my wish for my own development in my NVC practice would be to simply be as authentic and transparent about what is going on, to communicate this to the person in an NVC way. Thank you for listening.

  4. Sep 16, 2011

    Thanks all for your responses.

    Yea, Christopher, I see what you say about the first suggestion. I guess what I am after there is something do-able. Transparency can be hard to access when overwhelm is already starting.

  5. Sep 20, 2011
    Ted Zuschlag

    Reading these 5 voices, how touched I feel -- feeling attentive, understood, humbled, bittersweet-happpy.

    This year I've named my politeness-jackals. They murmur, "Don't take up space!", "Stay quietly elegant!" Challenging them, sometimes I can frame Big Voices as Gifts.

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