Last week we spent some time talking about what misophonia was and some ways for managing it. Unfortunately we’re still low on research, so it was a lot of preliminary and experimental ideas.
But misophonia is not something that happens in isolation. More often than not, misophonia triggers are sounds that other people make: breathing, sneezing, eating, drinking. What’s a person to do when they have to manage social rules in addition to the intense emotions and anxiety of misophonia? Today’s post will focus on how to talk to other people, ask for help, and let others know that they might be triggering your misophonia.
I am a shameless thief. If there are a bunch of techniques for coping that fall under the header of a diagnosis I don’t have, I give 0 fucks and steal the hell out of them. In this case, because misophonia is such a new term and diagnosis, I’m going to be borrowing a lot from advice about anxiety and managing anxiety triggers with other people.
Note: If you are concerned that someone in your life might respond poorly to a disclosure, use your own judgment. Some people are truly assholes, and if they learn that something upsets you they will intentionally do it. Protect yourself! But if you trust someone, honestly and openness are typically my favorite ways forward.
So how the &@#$@#$& do I tell my friends/spouse/coworkers that they set off my misophonia?
One of the particular difficulties of misophonia is that it’s often anxiety centered on other people, which means that you have to manage social rules while in a heightened state. Ew. It also means navigating the challenging place of having to tell someone, likely someone close to you, that something they do not only irritates you, but makes you so angry you want to die.
No matter what, it’s possible that talking about your misophonia with someone will end poorly. They may think you’re overreacting, they may feel offended that they’re a trigger, or they simply might forget to stop doing the trigger. But there are some things you can do to make the conversation more likely to end well.
First, if you are in the midst of an episode, it’s not the best time to have an extended conversation about misophonia and coping skills. Try to remove yourself from the situation, or ask for a quick accommodation (hey could you turn on some music/stop rubbing your socks together/etc) so that you can calm down before you get into the weeds about what you really need, what triggers you, and what misophonia is.
Second, when you do want to talk to someone about a behavior they do that triggers your misophonia, prepare ahead of time. Start by knowing the background of misophonia and the science that shows it’s real. If you come to someone from the perspective that you have a problem and you’re asking them for help, they’re far more likely to make adjustments. Having a “diagnosis” can make it more legitimate and easier for people to understand. It’s nice to start by laying out the situation, for example:
1. I have misophonia. Misophonia is ___
2. Behavior x sets off my misophonia, and when I hear that noise I feel ___
That way you can lead into how they can help by asking them to adjust the behavior.
3. Could you not do behavior x, or only do behavior x in a different room, or have other noise on when you do behavior x?
You may even want to practice this ahead of time depending upon the person and the situation. It’s best if you can come in with a particular accommodation that you would like them to do, but sometimes you don’t have an idea and that’s ok. You may also have to spend some time explaining misophonia, have some links on hand with research, or give a person time to get used to the idea. I try to focus less on what they’re doing, and more on the fact that my brain processes something differently and I need help to manage it. People love to help. People hate to change.
What Are Some Examples of Accommodations?
I know a number of people who have talked to a partner or family member, and everyone is in to the idea of accommodating the misophonia, but that’s where they get stuck.
Many people will be willing to stop a behavior once they realize it’s frustrating or upsetting to you, but in some cases they may forget, or it may be a behavior they simply can’t stop (like eating) or something they do mindlessly (picking at fingernails). Those might require some work together to figure out the best way to move forward. I have found that the best way to make this effective is to approach it as “we are problem solving together” rather than “you need to fix something that annoys me about you.”
Some examples of accommodations include:
-having a “safe word” so they know if they’re triggering you
-can you start habitually having extra noise during meal times, e.g. TV or music?
-If they forget often, can you add a visual somewhere in their space like a post it note that will remind them?
-is there a specific place that they can eat/clip their nails/etc. to give you some space?
-is it easier for you if there is advance warning? Can your partner/friend alert you in advance when they’re about to do one of your triggers?
It’s important to remember that you’re likely working to change someone’s habits, and that’s challenging. It can easily devolve into nagging. It’s probably a good idea to discuss how the other person prefers you to bring it up if they forget or make a mistake. Maybe you institute check ins so that you can let them know if there have been problems or if there’s anything new you want to discuss. It might seem difficult, touchy, or potentially fight-inducing, but COMMUNICATION is so important.
“Anxious thoughts are supremely personal, but let your partner in on them. It’s an important part of intimacy. You will often be thinking about what you need to do to feel safe, what feels bad for you and what could go wrong. You will also have an enormous capacity to think of other people – anxious people do – but make sure that you let you partner in on the thoughts that arrest you. Keeping things too much to yourself has a way of widening the distance between two people.” From Hey Sigmund.
I think the same thing goes for misophonia. Letting them know “hey, I”m getting anxious and upset” can be enough to start a conversation that heads off a nasty interaction or building resentment.
Speaking of which, the WORST way forward is to do nothing, to communicate once and then hope for the best, or to otherwise foster resentment. It’s SO easy to feel resentful when someone unknowingly and blithely goes about their life making you miserable, but we have to remember that they simply don’t know and don’t experience it the way we do. We have to train our friends/partners/families to understand what our experience is like and to be empathetic to that response. How do we do that? Boundaries!
How Do You Set and Reinforce Boundaries?
First and foremost, the thing that I want to reiterate about boundaries (and this is advice for myself as well as others) is that setting a boundary is not a one time experience. You don’t tell someone your boundary and then it’s done and everything is good. It’s a process over time.
I like to state boundaries in terms of my needs rather than someone else’s behaviors. “I feel shitty when I hear this noise.” That’s a fact and no one can debate that fact. It also doesn’t put the other person on the defensive immediately. You can follow the script I laid out above. But there’s one final step to setting a boundary, and that’s introducing a consequence. It might mean that you will leave the room whenever they do the behavior, you may stop talking to them, or you may leave the house. It depends on what makes the most sense.
Over time, if the other person continues to do the behavior that you asked them not to do, you may have to remind them. “Hey, I asked you not to chew with your mouth open. Could you stop please? If you don’t, I’m going to go upstairs.” If they continue to ignore the boundary, enact the consequence. Captain Awkward has some great resources about setting boundaries, although they are not misophonia specific. BUT they can be applied, because in many ways navigating misophonia together is like navigating any other anxiety inducing trigger.
So What Are The Steps Again?
Ok, I talked a lot so here’s a tl;dr.
- If you feel comfortable disclosing, the first step is to tell the person who triggers you what misophonia is and what they’re doing that sets you off.
- The second step is to work together to create a plan of accommodations. This might be the other person ceasing the behavior, or adding in other noises to offset.
- Reinforce the boundary! The other person may forget, decide it’s not worth it, or just get careless. If that happens, it’s useful to remind them, and regularly revisit the plan to see if it’s working for everyone.
There you go, solved all your misophonia problems. JK, we have more to talk about. My next post will cover competing access needs, which is a much larger topic than misophonia, but we’re going to dive in through the lens of misophonia. Woohoo!