Last week in my conscious communication and connection group, a participant expressed care and curiosity about another participant. In response to this expression of care and curiosity, the participant receiving the comment responded with, “I don’t believe him.” After a moment passed, she said, “And now I’m afraid I hurt his feelings.” Upon further reflection, she said, “Now I think that my not believing him was actually my own deflection and not about him at all.”
Although this interaction was brief, it illustrates how the words we choose and the place within us from which we speak matters greatly in either rupturing connection or nurturing it. When we speak from our initial impulse and share the first thing on our mind, we are likely ignoring what is actually happening within us. It’s common to have more attention on how another person seems to us rather than what is happening deep within us. It’s easier to focus on another person’s words, actions, and potential blind spots than on our own because it’s challenging to see the water that we’re swimming in. But when we focus more on what’s happening for others, we lean heavily on them for our sense of safety, avoiding vulnerability, and becoming entangled in unhealthy patterns.
When the participant said “I don’t believe him,” she was more focused on the content of the other person’s words and potential motives rather than her own inner world. If she was looking within and revealing her world, her words would be about herself. How did she know she didn’t trust him? What did that feel like in her body? When she assigns her feelings of distrust to him, she is initiating a relationship entanglement. This is the most common response I see in clients when they blame their “negative” feelings on someone else–they talk about the other person and not about themselves.
Even if the man in this example didn’t actually care, I would still want to know what was guiding the participant’s disbelief in his care. Did this feel like intuition? A wall? Something else? Is it familiar for her that when a person expresses care she doesn’t trust them? What could be underneath that distrust? Who broke her trust in the past and how might she be projecting that onto the current situation?
If the interaction was conversational (and not part of a conscious communication group), the man might have defended his care, shamed her for not trusting him, or displayed any number of reactions that could have contributed to entanglement. I see this dynamic with many couples when they first come in to work with me. It’s a downward spiral that is really hard to stop once started. If we don’t look within, we are reacting to our environment rather than responding with self-responsibility. Sharing about our own inner world is the key to communicating for connection, even if what we’re revealing is our boundary (as you’ll see if you keep reading).
After the initial impulse of distrust, the participant had time to consider the impact she had on the man and shared a personal reveal, “And now I’m afraid I hurt his feelings.” Even though she was still keeping her attention on him, this awareness was a moment in the relationship where the participant realized that her impulse could rupture connection. She cared about the other participant and wanted to speak her authenticity without pushing him out.
With a little coaching and an invitation for self-curiosity, she shared, “Now I think that my not believing him was actually my own deflection and not about him at all.” When she said this, her wall seemed to come down a bit and her whole body appeared softer. She was sharing the deeper aspect of her inner experience, and the entire group seemed to feel more connected to her and inspired by her vulnerability.
When our words are about our own inner experience, we share our truth vulnerably without trying to control or change the people in our lives. We naturally “stay in ourselves” when we reveal our deeper truth because we need to keep some attention within to see the full range of how we are affected. This gives us a sense of agency, which is the capacity to act from autonomy. From here, we inherently respect other people’s agency, as well.
Instead of saying “I don’t believe him,” we might say “I notice a wall up in me.” Even sharing a wall becomes a vulnerable reveal when we share it without assigning responsibility for it to the other person. “It seems like I don’t want to let your words in….maybe I’m scared….it’s like I want to protect myself…”
It’s common to see our relationships through the lens of unconscious memories of people from our past (projections), through barriers or walls to intimacy (deflections), through old ideas from the past about who we are (introjections), through shame and guilt (retroflections), or through the opinions of others (confluence). In Gestalt psychotherapy, we call these Contact Boundary Disturbances. All of these disturbances are patterned ways of being in relationships that we developed early in life in an attempt to find safety and keep connection. These were adaptable strategies that helped us when we didn’t yet know how to stand in our dignity and our truth.
When we follow these outdated strategies around as if they are the only options on the menu, we can easily become entangled in messy dynamics or inhibit connection with others. Learning a new way is risky and vulnerable–like learning to walk for the first time, unsure if there will be ground beneath our feet. When we give this vulnerable experience a voice without being in the impulse of the pattern, we honor our inner young one that didn’t get to move through the experience in a way that felt empowering and resolved.
After this exchange at my group, there was some conversation among the participants about “not having a filter,” “fear of hurting other people by speaking one’s truth,” and “expressing care and admiration for someone without coming across as too needy or too much.” The common thread in all three of these concepts, as well as in the initial exchange, is fear of disrupting contact or connection in order to circumvent vulnerability.
Even when we reveal “positive” expressions of our experience, it’s important to look within to see where the impulse is coming from. When we don’t show our vulnerability, we are likely identified with our projections, unconsciously trying to get the person to like us, or leaning heavily on the other. Sharing the core of our experience (or at least trying to find the core of our experience before we share) will make connection and contact more possible in any interaction.
A personal example of my own conditioned way of “positively” disrupting contact is my unconscious attempt to seduce people into liking me. If I were to share the first thought from my conditioned self, it would typically be something complimentary about you. This is a manipulative tactic of my inner young one that “seemed” to work really well in relationships and deemed me “the favorite” in my family of origin. However, when I only share positive reflections about you, I am not present in the relationship and this is a barrier to intimacy. If I were to share a deeper cut below below my impulse to compliment, I would instead say “I notice an impulse to tell you how wonderful you are…and I think that’s because I want you to like me.” An even deeper cut than this would be to vulnerably share, “A part of me is scared that I’m not enough…I keep my attention on you to try to earn my enoughness…I think this part is scared you’ll leave or lose interest if I don’t focus on how wonderful you are.”
When we avoid vulnerably revealing the deeper aspects of our inner world, relationships are more challenging. I’ve worked with couples who have been together for 30+ years, each one telling the other how their behavior is the source of their unrest. Because they habitually assign their feelings to the other person they never make progress on disentangling and eventually stop communicating altogether. They resign themselves and grow accustomed to living in entanglement until it becomes so painful they finally seek help or end the relationship.
Assigning our feelings to other people is the path of least resistance–it’s really easy to assess and blame another person through the lens of our projections and wounds. Even though this way of being in relationships is to the detriment of intimacy and connection, people still do it because talking about someone else is not vulnerable–and humans are skilled at avoiding vulnerability.
Looking within takes conscious effort. Accessing the deeper cut of our inner world requires tremendous self-curiosity and self-awareness. Discovering the constructs that are guiding us and owning them as ours takes a lot of awareness. To do this in the midst of an interaction with another person is an ongoing practice of slowing down, looking within, and discovering the place within us that is activated or guiding us in the moment. It’s extremely humbling to share what we discover and we can often be messy and clumsy as we learn. But when we do the work to learn to speak from our essential self (rather than being in the impulse of our conditioned self) we bring clarity and sovereignty to our relationships.
Our truth is always about us; it’s always a deeper part of our inner world; and it always gets to the core of what’s happening within us.
When we remember that relationship only happens in the present moment, we recognize that how we meet each moment of our relationships is a sacred act of intimacy. Tending to our relationships means tending to ourselves in the connection–otherwise we are not present for that connection.
I’ve developed “The 4 R’s of Conscious Relating” as a template to help you navigate relationships. When we come into relationships having contact with ourselves, we can stay curious about others and tend to the space between us with care. This ultimately helps us to keep our relationships clean and cultivate deep emotional intimacy.
1) Reflect: Before you respond, reflect what you hear the other person saying. This slows the interaction down and allows you to make sure you’re hearing the other person accurately. It’s important that you don’t keep all of your attention on the other person because this is often where we drop ourselves. Reflection is just a summary of what you’re hearing to make sure you and the other person have shared reality.
2) Receive: Welcome everything within you. Notice the layers and texture of your experience, and allow all of them to be present without identifying with them as “truth.” Be curious about how you are receiving the words of the other person until you get to what you think might be the core of your inner experience rather than the first impulse. Look within and notice what you’re feeling. What’s the feeling under the feeling? What’s the birthplace of that experience?
3) Reveal: Share what you notice within yourself using ownership language. “I notice that I am…” “I feel…” “I seem….” or “I’m starting to develop a story that…” Remember that everything that arises in you belongs to you. When you own your experience, your words are inarguable. No one can tell you that you don’t feel sad, that you don’t have a story, and so on.
4) Relate: Check out how that is for the other person to hear. This keeps the interaction relational and clean, honoring both people who are in the connection. Pay attention to the quality of your connection with the other person. Notice the alchemy of your interaction and how “we seem” together. Remembering that on the level of Spirit, we’re all on the same team and we all want the same thing.