In much of our work with people, we coach and encourage them to communicate difficult feelings and thoughts to others. What I mean by difficult are a range of verbal expressions of feelings or thoughts that expose vulnerability, disappointment, and anger. Why is it so hard to communicate to others that we are hurt, scared, disappointed, angry, or upset?
People are willing to spend countless sessions discussing, venting, and complaining about how others make them feel, yet as soon as we suggest they express these feelings to the person they’re directed to, they shy away. This inability to communicate in more honest, authentic ways creates a gap in every area of life; it underlies loneliness, family, and marital problems, causes friendships to drift, creates stress in the workplace, and causes feelings of inadequacy, creating self-esteem issues.
Our aim as therapists is to convince people that these difficulties in communication are damaging and that this can be changed. It is crucial to let people in therapy know and understand that communication patterns and styles are learned and can therefore be unlearned.
The key to understanding these issues lies in a thorough assessment of relationship history: discussing, examining, and processing communication interactions with key figures in one’s past and present. Most of us have learned communication skills and lessons from our parents, siblings, teachers, and other role models. Probably parents are our most powerful communication coaches. Early on, through verbal and nonverbal means, they made clear to us what is and what is not acceptable to say—or at least what they don’t want to hear and talk about it.
Robert Bolton, PhD, in his book People Skills, says, “We first experience the training process at an early age. Parents or parent substitutes rewarded some kinds of nonverbal behavior, like smiling, and they communicated displeasure over other kinds of nonverbal behavior, such as “temper tantrums.” When we were young, they helped us frame our first words. Then they trained us to speak in certain ways. No matter how badly you hated the annual Thanksgiving visit to your aunt’s house, you have been told, “Thank your Aunt Edith for the lovely time you had.” He goes on to say that you were taught to not interrupt adults’ talking, not to whine, not to speak a certain way to certain people, not to use certain words. Parent substitutes—relatives, teachers, babysitters—also became part of the training process. Numerous dysfunctional ways of relating include learning to be superficial, ways to manipulate others, how to hurt and bully, how to build walls, and how to talk without saying anything.
Our main jobs as therapists are to help people identify their patterns of communicating, how to relate to others, and help and guide them to make necessary changes. The main direction of the change is that it is okay and actually conducive to creating deeper, more satisfying relationships if communication is more honest and authentic. More often than not it is okay to say what one thinks. There has to be a choice—you don’t have to feel stuck.
Most people in therapy, even if intellectually on board with this proposition, are inherently resistant to changing this. It is important to understand and help explore this resistance. The main reason for the resistance is that people think they are protecting themselves by communicating and relating the way they do. It is crucial to acknowledge this, then explain and teach people that their particular way of protecting themselves is not necessarily doing the trick and in fact creates other dangers—disconnection, isolation, hurt, and anger. It is crucial to help them understand that there is a way to take care of themselves, even protect themselves without exposure to risk and harm.
Most people are reluctant to express their feelings and thoughts because they are concerned about rejection, anger, or alienating others. They are afraid to expose their vulnerability, and face harm. As their therapists we must find a way to show them how they are harmed by creating walls, by not letting others know them as they truly are. This prevents them from truly being known as well as truly knowing anyone else, creating an unreal, lonely existence, often based on false assumptions.
It is also important for people to understand how these patterns of communication create distance and rupture intimacy. More often than not, unexpressed resentments, disappointments, and unfulfilled needs result in self-esteem problems. At other times people erupt with uncontrolled anger or harmful behaviors over seemingly minor infractions. Both of these situations push others away and disrupt closeness, which dysfunctional communication attempts to solve or prevent.
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