Abby: I’m in a relationship and I spend a lot of time sulking. I find it really hard to not sulk, or stop sulking once I’ve started. How do I stop sulking?
Great question Abby - lots of people sulk and find it hard not to. However, it's really destructive to relationships so let's put an end to sulking.
WHAT SULKING ISN'T
Let's start by clarifying that sulking is NOT taking time-out to think about a conflict and how you want to handle it. Some people need time away from a confrontation to calm down, understand what went wrong and what they want to do next. This is healthy. Anyone accusing you of sulking when you're doing this is just wrong. If you're not feeling resentful and you're not trying to force someone to do something then, you're not sulking.
SULKING IS A TACTIC
We're all trying to get what we want out of life and we all have a set of tactics to get it. Sulking is one of those tactics, especially for getting what you want from other people. There are many ways to get what you want from others and sulking is just one of them. People often learn to sulk from their parents. Sometimes we've seen it work for someone on TV, so we copy that. Sometimes we just stumble across it when we're genuinely hurt by something and another person tries to console us - it felt nice to get attention that way so, we repeat it.
STEPS TO SULKING
THE TRIGGER: Unmet expectations
If you're a sulker, notice that you sulk when someone doesn't meet your expectations.
THE FEELING: Sad or mad
When someone doesn't meet our expectations we feel disappointed, sad and/or angry about it.
THE THOUGHT: They should
You probably haven't even noticed this but, you're sulking based on the assumption that the person should or must meet your expectations. This may be correct to the extent that someone expressly committed to doing something you were relying on. However, sometimes people don't realise you have a certain expectation. And sometimes, your expectations are just plain unreasonable.
THE REACTION: Force them
Let's be honest, even though you're feeling very disappointed and very righteous about that, the sulk is not so much about having a feeling, it's about forcing the other person to feel and act the way you want them to.
THE SULK BEGINS: Manipulate a response with silence
Sulking is not talking, or only talking in a clipped, annoyed way.
Sulking is avoiding eye contact and withdrawing your presence.
Sulking is a game of attrition - who will fold first?
Sulking is insisting that the other person articulate the problem.
Sulking is refusing to be happy until the other person suffers or submits.
THE GOAL: Submission
On the surface, a specific incidence of sulking may be about someone arriving late, or forgetting the milk, or not noticing your new dress. However, the purpose of sulking is to make another person suffer and submit to our expectations.
MOTIVATION 1: You're a pain in the arse when you sulk
Some people will submit to your sulking in the short term however, it's important to realise that people don't like you when you sulk - you're passively bullying them and people don't like being bullied. Eventually, people will start to avoid you and some of them will find a way of getting you out of their life permanently.
Put yourself in the other person's shoes. How does it feel to know that someone you care about has a problem that they won't talk about, and that they're using their resentment to try and force you to submit to their expectations? It feels horrible. Don't be a controlling pain in the arse.
MOTIVATION 2: It's backfiring
When you're a pain in the arse people don't want to please you, people don't want to meet your expectations. Sulking is going to get your short-term wins but you'll pay the price of long-term unhappiness and loneliness.
MOTIVATION 2: You're wasting time when you sulk
Let's assume your ultimate goal is to be happy with a certain person, as happy as possible for as long as possible. Sulking is the exact opposite of this goal - you're digging-in to your unhappiness and wasting minutes, hours, even days on being unhappy. Stop wasting time - you're getting older and uglier minute by minute.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Grow-Up
When someone disappoints you your sulking reaction is so fast, it feels so right, that an alternative doesn't even seem possible. But, you know what? There are people, just like you, experiencing the exact same disappointment (and worse) who are not sulking about it. You can be one of them. Time to stop sulking and be a better version of yourself.
STEPS TO STOP SULKING
1. Really think about how unpleasant you are when you sulk. Cringe. You look like a silly child.
2. Clarify your expectations. Some people don't have a clear idea of their own expectations and they only become clear when someone else doesn't meet them. Get clear on what you expect. Sometimes you discover that your expectations aren't fair - this means you can drop them and avoid the whole mess. Sometimes your expectations are fair - I'm not suggesting you don't have expectations, only that you have fair ones and that you find better tactics for getting them met.
3. Communicate your expectations. Some people have poor communication skills. Start getting better at saying what you mean. Some people don't like communicating their expectations because they feel vulnerable - you might want to see a therapist about that. Sometimes we don't communicate our expectations because we don't want to negotiate. Start getting better at negotiating - no one likes a tyrant.
4. Learn to handle disappointment. Sometimes you communicate your expectations and someone agrees to meet them...and they still may not do what you expect. Learn how to put things in perspective, how to see things from another person's point of view, accept imperfection, appreciate their good side. If you do all that and it's still not good enough, you get to leave the relationship rather than wasting time and effort trying to change another human being.
5. Meet your own expectations. Now you're a grown-up, it's mostly your job to meet your own needs and make yourself happy. Learn how to do that and rely less on other people. Other people should be the icing...you need to bring the cake.
Now you have an alternative to sulking, Abby. Take steps to look after your own needs and happiness - life will get a lot better - I promise. And you'll enjoy the added bonus that other people will naturally want to make you happy. People prefer the company of those who mostly take care of their own needs, people who mostly make themselves happy, and people who mostly communicate properly. Once people can see that you're that kind of person they will be drawn to you. Once they see it's possible to make you happy, they'll also be drawn to pleasing you.
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