I feel like I have to walk around on eggshells with my husband and his family: If I’m not VERY careful, they get upset and either blame themselves or me or both. But the result is I have all this stuff bottled up inside.
There are natural concerns about really saying what’s on your mind, what’s in your heart. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to be careful, like with someone who’s vulnerable, or to stay out of a rage, or if there is any whiff of possible partner abuse. But more often than not, the reasons are not so enlightened. We’re holding back simply because we’re scared, or uncomfortable with feelings in general, or acting out gender training (boys don’t cry, girls shouldn’t be pushy), or transferring patterns from childhood (e.g., fear of a stern father).
So how can you help yourself communicate authentically and skillfully—so that the outside you show the world more closely matches your insides? Think of the questions below as a kind of checklist; you may have most of them covered already, but there could also be some helpful suggestions. (We’ve starred a few that are especially important.)
Are your intentions good? Fundamentally, is your purpose benign—or punishing, vengeful, argumentative, or mean-spirited?
Are you committed to discovering and saying what is true? Rather than just arguing your case, or keeping things veiled and foggy?
** Can you take responsibility for your own experience? This means knowing that different people experience the same situation in different ways, that your reactions to the world are filtered and shaped by your own psychology. It means saying hard things, but not accusing or blaming others.
Do you know in your bones that the other person is separate from you, differentiated, over there while you’re over here? That just because they’re upset doesn’t necessarily mean you’re implicated? That their feelings do not have to become your own?
Do you know that the other person may not understand you? That your nature might be quite different from his temperament or personality, so that he needs your help in understanding you?
Can you stand not being agreed with, understood, or joined with? Can you risk that?
When You Speak
Can you restrain yourself? Can you listen without interrupting, modulate anger, keep a civil tongue, hold back the impulse to hit or break things or otherwise lash out?
Can you stay centered in a self-respecting, self-sufficient dignity?
Can you talk about talking—about what might need to happen for it to be safe to communicate? Can you talk about how you and the other person interact? Being able to comment on your “process” is a great way to set a foundation that is comfortable, and ease into difficult topics.
** Can you communicate for yourself, to speak your truth for its own sake, not to affect the other person or get a result from them? When you do this, you may have a little attention on trying to be skillful and civil, but mainly your awareness is within yourself and your sense of the other person recedes to the background.
** Can you share your experience, both the surface and the depths? Of course, doing this requires being aware of the deeper layers, including the younger material that’s often stirred up when there’s anything important. But remember that your experience is a kind of refuge: you’re the expert on it and it has its own validity. No one can argue with you about it!
** Can you be in touch with your experience while you speak it, so it’s in your eyes and throat and chest, rather than reporting on it like a journalist sending dispatches from a distant country?
Can you say the positive as well as the negative? It’s often not anger or reproach that’s hardest to express, but cherishing, needing, and love.
Can you stay on topic, keeping your eye on the prize, on whatever it is you want to communicate, rather than getting sucked into side issues?
Can you appreciate the other person for listening?
When the Other Person Responds
Can you let it in when he agrees with you, is empathic or supportive? If she gives you what you want, can you move on?
Can you admit it when you’re not clear, or if some emotional mud got mixed up with the clear water of your truth?
Can you re-group and clarify things if the other person misunderstands you? Can you come back to your experience, your truth, if the other person denies or attacks your experience—or you?
Can you give the other person the kind of listening that you’d like to receive?
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If you can answer yes to most of these questions most of the time, you’ve got the best possible odds of having a great relationship. And no matter what the other person does—which is, ultimately, outside your control—communicating your truth, from your heart, for yourself, feels good in itself, makes you feel strong and dignified, increases your self-knowledge, and lets you know that they know exactly how you really feel.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson, M.S., L.Ac., is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 15 and 18. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the first and second authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother’s Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org; unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be possible.