Couples often enter my office complaining about a communication problem. Oftentimes, this is true. But there are two more fundamental issues that are often hidden. When uncovered, it can help move relationships from an impasse to deeper intimacy.
The Mindfulness Factor
We can communicate only to the extent to which we’re aware of what we’re experiencing inside. It takes a hefty dose of mindfulness to notice what we’re actually experiencing.
Turning attention inside, we might recognize that we’re feeling sad, afraid, or lonely. Or, we might notice that a painful shame got triggered when someone seemed to be critical or annoyed with us. We might feel anger or outrage in response to injustice or when spoken to harshly.
The difficult thing about communication is that it requires that we attend to our inner world of feelings and desires. Our default mode may be to protect ourselves by going into our head to find clever ways to attack and judge a person rather than recognize how we’re affected by the other — and then communicate that.
We have little control over external events. We have no control over fixing or changing another person. But we have some control over how we relate to our own experience and respond to events. We can uncover our genuine feelings and wants and communicate in a self-revealing way, such as my using Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication approach.
Oftentimes we respond to unpleasant interactions by attacking a person—whether out loud or silently in our minds. We may communicate our judgments and blame and have the self-view that we’re a genuine communicator: “I think you’re selfish and clueless!”
Spouting our judgments and evaluations of others is one way to communicate. It is something we all do sometimes, but it’s sloppy and reckless communication. It takes mindfulness to pause and go inside rather than impulsively act-out or vent. It takes expanding our tolerance for discomfort to notice what we’re really feeling.
Our deeper, authentic experience is often infused with a vulnerable quality. When we’re confronted with a real or imagined insult or attack, it may sneak through our usual defenses. It may unnerve us — rattling a tender place inside.
Allowing ourselves to notice our more tender feelings requires a quality of being that we also need to cultivate if we want to be an effective communicator. It takes a hefty dose of courage to open to the more tender feelings coursing through us.
We may have an intention to meet whatever we’re experiencing inside with gentleness and grace. We may recognize the value of cultivating mindfulness and being present for our authentic experience. But without courage, we’re likely to revert to our usual defenses, which protect us from shame, discomfort, and pain.
Courage means facing the world as it is. It means being present to our experience just as it is rather than how we’d like it to be. Courage comes from the word “heart.” The French word for heart is “Coeur.” The psychiatrist Carl Jung commented that:
“Your vision will become clear when you look into your own heart. Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside awakens.”
We live courageously as we live with more heart and less fear.
Peering into our heart—being mindful of what we’re actually experiencing—takes courage, especially when what we notice isn’t pretty. Perhaps something in us is afraid or hurting. Being strong often means allowing ourselves to be weak. Courageous mindfulness means allowing ourselves to experience whatever we happen to be experiencing in the moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
No longer resisting our experience — not being ashamed or afraid of it — we can live more mindfully and boldly. Rather than live reactively, we can pause, take some breaths, and notice what we’re feeling right now. We can honor ourselves for having the courage to meet our experience as it is, without avoiding it or sugarcoating it.
Finding the courage to reveal our experience to others, we invite them toward us. Intimacy means seeing into each other’s inner world. We create a climate for connection, which delivers us from isolation, as we let people into our inner life. As we honor our experience just as it is and reveal what’s alive inside us to people with whom we have some trust, we come out of hiding and move toward greater happiness.
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