One of the great disappointments of my life is that I can only control what I say; I cannot control what other people hear. Each of us has a filter through which we hear, see, and make sense of what we perceive. These filters are built and modified beginning in childhood and continuing throughout our lives. They are comprised of our beliefs and values, our sense of self, others, and the world we live in, our biases and truth, our experiences and the assumptions we make.
Most of us never stop to consider what may be interfering with the ways in which we perceive (shame, fear, pain, insecurities and false beliefs are the usual suspects). Those of us who grew up in unhealthy ways and/or developed addictions learned to not trust our perceptions. We tend to wrestle with self doubt and we either ask a lot of “advice” or we bluff our way through social exchanges and decision making. Just as I need a plumber to unclog my pipes at times; I also need people close to me to let me know when my filter is getting clogged.
Those who know me well can tell when I seem to be taking things the wrong way. In order for folks to point this out to me they need to be somewhat secure in who they are (fear of conflict/being attacked). They must also have a willingness to afford me the benefit of a doubt. The best people I know work hard to not be reactive. Rather than simply taking everything at face value, they consider not only what is being communicated but also who they know the person they’re communicating with to be. When the words don’t seem to match up to the person they know, they check in and provide further opportunities to understand and to be understood. To do these things is to prevent misunderstandings. To listen this way is to have in large part achieved emotional maturity and to have excellent communication skills.
Many of us believe that we do not have good communication skills. This is often not the case – it’s not that we lack skills, it’s that we’re uncomfortable using them. We fear conflict with others. We get tongue tied in the moment and do not expect people to be patient with us. We are stressed out people and we forget how stress limits us. Instead of seeking release we accumulate stress as if it has no effect on our patience at all…
Our skills appear to be lacking when we have great emotional investment in what is being experienced and/or discussed. Those of us who suffer even small amounts of anxiety seek to be one to three steps ahead of the speaker. We anticipate where they’re going and what their objections will be. This is script writing on the fly. When we are anxious we seem to filter out the majority of what is being said. At these times we have developed a fear of a shoe being dropped and all we’re doing is looking for evidence that it is in fact falling. Example: (in our heads we think) “I know you’re going to break up with me and so when you start talking about our relationship, all I’m doing is waiting for you to tell me it’s over. I’m getting frustrated because you’re just saying some dumb shit about how we communicate. Please just get to the part where you say you’re leaving…”
Anger clogs our filters in a hurry. When we fight we seem to believe that all listening requires is that we wait impatiently while considering what we’re going to say next. Fighting is almost always predictable in that it escalates, climaxes, and recedes. We don’t just sweep things under the rug; we also add them to our filters. Holding these resentments will limit how we take things not just with the person we resent but potentially with all people. Example: “Oh, sure I know you say you’re nothing like every one of my exes but they said that too.” Nobody gets to be different because our filter tells us all of them are the same. Each negative experience that we stuff becomes one more clog in the filter.
When we become severely clogged we put people into a very limited number of categories. Rather than getting to know them as individuals we seem folks as one of those people. We are most likely to do this in relating to anyone in authority (perceived or actual), romantic relationships, coworkers, and in relating to people who share similar challenges to ours. Jon is a great example of this. While Jon has established long term sobriety and has been successful in many parts of his life; he continues to struggle in relating to women in most any personal manner. He’s very good at the superficial and fearful of the intimate. He is a kind and charming man who is very talented but absolutely convinced that all women who get close to him will hurt him.
As I came to understand Jon it was easy to see how his filter was clogged. Jon’s mother was a very sick woman who shamed her children every day of their lives for their inability to make her happy. Like so many of us, Jon went on to have a series of romantic relationships with people who were very much like his childhood abuser. This never works out well and over the years he divorced women just like his mother. Having achieved long term sobriety, Jon did something very unusual. He fell in love with a very emotionally healthy woman. What started out as a honeymoon soon became a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows.
So much of what Jon’s wife does is designed to promote, encourage, and support his success. When he is in a good space Jon will tell you that he is the luckiest man in the world for having her in his life. He truly cannot begin to understand why she loves “a guy like me.” This has everything to do with her perception of Jon, which happens to be vastly more accurate than his. To this day, Jon sees himself largely as his mother taught him to. Conversely, when Jon is in bad space he sees all women as being like his mother. I have chided Jon endlessly that he is married to Sybil because when we talk she is either some variation of wonderful or some degree of evil depending on the day and Jon’s mood.
Jon’s filter is filled with fear and shame. He truly does not understand that it is she who has the right to decide that he deserves her love and not him. Furthermore, the fact that she does not know how to be ashamed of him has everything to do with why she is free to love him exactly as he is – warts and all. She knows his past and understands that he is a new man since he entered recovery. On some level Jon understands this quite well – he just doesn’t feel it.
Jon’s shame interferes with his hearing and understanding the motives and intentions of all of the important women in his life. He has learned to not trust and he has learned that letting people relate to him intimately will earn him betrayal. He is always waiting for the other shoe to drop even when he’s holding the shoes. Until Jon lets go of the pain caused by his mother he will continue to at least occasionally distrust no matter how much evidence is given to him that the women who are in his life today are completely unlike his mother.
Jon and I are discussing the difference between “nagging” and “encouraging” because to Jon they sound a lot alike. We are discussing how being asked for support is not the same thing as being told what to do. Jon is coming to see that his wife is consistently kind to him and he is frequently childish in how he relates to her (the wounded child drives the bus). We are working on being less passive because active approaches involve seeking to understand people as they are and not as we script them to be. Maintaining who they truly are in our perspective guards against transference (seeing them as though they are those who have hurt us and/or taking out our resentments on them).
Active listening skills involve being in the moment and seeking to understand as well as to be understood.
I have always found that people are more receptive to receiving my truth after I have shown them that I get theirs. We tend to be so invested in expressing our point of view that we do not consider what others are trying to share with us to nearly as important. Part of this is explained by our resistance to change and part is our expectation that others would see things our way and do things our way if they would just listen to us! This is our battle cry even as we fail to understand ourselves. I always suggest that each of us get on the same page with ourselves before we seek to be understood by others. Talking to yourself is a good start – just watch your tone and use the golden rule in reverse: If you wouldn’t talk to/treat someone else that way – don’t talk to you/treat you that way. As we better come to understand ourselves we make it easier to share who we truly are with others.