One of the most common issues that arises for many people is difficulty navigating their interpersonal relationships. People get “stuck” trying to figure out whether or not to say something or do something in a specific situation (examples to follow). We can find ourselves in a sort of “analysis paralysis” because we cannot figure out what to do unless we know the outcome. So, we try to generate as many possible outcomes using our knowledge of the other person, our shared history, their track record for previous behaviors, and a bit of clairvoyance. We find ourselves feeling even more befuddled than when we started now having entered into our imaginary formula all of these hypothetical variables. We toss and turn for nights trying to figure out whether or not to text, call, or email, whether or not to say something about what’s bothering us, whether or not to break the bad news. We get so lost in all the “noise” that we lose sight of some very fundamental ideas.
This dilemma is very relevant in trauma work, when patients are taught healthy and unhealthy ways of taking and giving power. Often when people have experienced traumatic life events, they lose self-esteem and confidence in their ability to communicate assertively. Hence, begin the strategies. The driving factor is typically FEAR. This particular emotion (yes, hard-wired) is a major driving force in much of our decision-making. But it’s not healthy to let fear run the show. Healthy relationships rely on a balance between giving and taking power. Healthy ways of taking power include being assertive and setting firm boundaries. These approaches are preferable to less positive, even unhealthy ways of taking power or control, such as pushing peoples’ buttons, using aggression, or giving ultimatums. There are also healthy ways of giving power, such as being open and honest with oneself and others. This is a much healthier option that what people often do, which is to base their actions on how they believe the other person will respond (i.e., essentially mind-reading and fortune-telling).
One of the main problems with this strategy (i.e., basing our decisions on what we believe will be the response/reaction of other people) is that we lose touch with our own needs. By focusing on the outcome, we fail to address perhaps the very point that sparked us to confront the other person in the first place. Whether or not what we have to share is happy or sad news, we must keep the focus on the news and the importance of sharing it, rather than the outcome. The point of using our voice is never about the outcome, but rather it is about the benefit that comes from advocating for ourselves. Essentially, it is about value of self. And in order for us to expect anyone else to value us, we must be willing to set the precedent by valuing ourselves. By learning how to communicate effectively and honestly, and by learning how to value ourselves, we become authentic.
“The point of using our voice is never about the outcome, but rather it is about the benefit that comes from advocating for ourselves.”
A recurring theme is related to expressing honest feelings towards another person. As an example, let’s say that Person A (Adam) and Person B (Eve) are dating (for a few months). Adam would like to tell Eve that he loves her. However, Eve has been emotionally distant and mood labile in recent weeks. They have communicated their fondness for each other in the past, but he is confused currently because Eve has been hot and cold for a few weeks. Eve is stressed out. Adam wants to show support, but whenever he reaches out, she communicates in less than welcoming ways (e.g., short text, no emotion on the phone, inconsistent responses to texts). He now wonders what he should do, i.e., reach out again or give her space.
When you try to apply “strategy” to this scenario, you realize that poor Adam simply does not have enough information to even begin fortune-telling about possible outcomes. But he is stuck because he thinks, “Well, if I tell her I love her, then maybe she will feel supported by me, realize I’m invested, and she will come back to me (i.e., reengage in communication).” But then his other thought is, “But if I tell her I love her, maybe she will get scared, feel pressured, and run away and it really will be over.” What Adam has completely lost sight of here is that he loves Eve and he wants her to know. If this is truly how he feels, then the outcome is irrelevant. Eve is not likely to come back only if he tells her he loves her, because she already knows their connection and attraction is mutual. There is clearly something else going on with Eve, and Adam does not have enough information. Eve is also not letting Adam in. But does it really matter? The point is, he really does not lose anything by being true to himself and honest with her. It’s really how he feels, and by stepping up and taking responsibility for his feelings, and not apologizing for them, and not living in fear about being honest, she may actually be forced into a position of having to take responsibility for her feelings and recent behaviors.
When we lead with honesty, and open communication, we honor both ourselves and the other people around us. It allows us to be the most authentic version of ourself. Ultimately, we want to be in healthy, honest relationships in which we do not have to strategize. If you begin a relationship strategizing, keep in mind that you may be strategizing for the course of that relationship. That is a shaky ground to build a life on, and it does not serve us well. We have to believe that if we allow the people around us to know us, and we allow emotional vulnerability, the great benefit is not in how others respond, but rather in our own self-love and self-esteem. Becoming a healthier person means you will also be able to attract and surround yourself with healthier people.
Here’s to being the most authentic version of you!