If you look through your baby book, you might see that "milk," "ball," or "gimme" are listed under Baby's First Words. Around age 1, we learn to communicate our wishes to those around us. If we're lucky, our parents use sign language to communicate with us before we’ve mastered our verbal skills. No matter what our native language is, verbal or otherwise, communication becomes the cornerstone of our relationships.
Why is it, then, that we adults have such difficulty communicating our needs, feelings, or vulnerabilities to our loved ones?
I need us to have more sex.
I feel hurt when you spend more time on the internet than you do with me.
I stopped talking to you because I really felt embarrassed that I forgot your birthday.
Doesn’t seem so hard, right? Wrong. What gets in the way of expressing our feelings? Pride, fear, and shame for starters.
Our pride often leads us to believing our partners are mind-readers. He should know that I want to spend time with him when he gets home from work. I shouldn’t have to say it. Or, she should know that I had a long day and just want to go on facebook to unwind. Should is a bad word; pride an even worse word. None of us are psychics, and we’d fare better in our relationships if we take the guesswork out for our partner and communicate our wants and needs.
In the Venn diagram of fear and shame, distress can be found in the overlapping area. We avoid distress like it’s the plague, because sometimes it feels that way. Has your stomach ever been in knots over expressing your feelings to someone? Have you ever had chest pain in the midst of an emotional discussion with your partner? It’s not the plague; our emotions can cause us physical distress. And when I talk about distress in terms of fear and shame, I’m referring to fear of rejection, humiliation, and embarrassment. Oddly, we tolerate one kind of distress (feeling rejected when we feel uncared for or feeling embarrassed when we make others feel uncared for) to avoid tolerating the distress of expressing our true feelings. See? It’s that difficult.
How can we swallow our pride, face our fears, and express our feelings to our loved ones? Practice, practice, practice. Start with something small, like, It would mean a lot to me if you kiss me goodbye when you leave for work. Or, It makes me really happy when you do the dishes after dinner. Try it. It can be truly liberating to let your partner, your kid, your friend know how they can improve their relationship with you. Later, on to the bigger topics like chronic dissatisfaction in your relationship (before it’s too late) or grudge-holding in your friendships. If you have trouble finding the right opportunity (i.e., your resistance is palpable), make an appointment to have the conversation. Something like Can we go for breakfast on Saturday morning? should do the job. Write a letter or an email. Get.Your.Feelings.Out.
The longer you bottle up your feelings, the longer it takes for your relationships to improve. Remember, no one is a mind reader (including the ones who put out a shingle and charge for it); it’s up to you to let those around you know how you feel. Use your words. Articulate your feelings. Communicate. If babies can do it, so can you.*
*Please note: This may sound easier than it is. Especially when you’re in a relationship with someone who might say, “No, I cannot go out for breakfast Saturday morning… if you are just going to bother me about (fill in the blank).” More on how to handle this in my next blog post...