A lot of people enter therapy with the goal of learning skills. Coping skills. Communication skills. That’s great, and it’s important to have goals and to feel that you are learning something tangible in your therapy sessions. I will often work with individuals, couples and families on what I call “top-down” therapy. And, trying to do something different, to experiment with your typical behavior patterns or family “homeostasis” almost always helps. Thanks to researchers like the Gottmans, we know the characteristics of successful couples and can try to emulate them. However, as with almost anything we do as human beings, skills work can be employed as a “defense” against some deeper anxiety or discomfort, either on the part of the client or (hopefully not) the therapist. Maybe you know someone who went through 12-step but didn’t really “work the program”. Or someone who has learned all about “nonviolent communication” but their “I statements” still seem to be rather passive-aggressive. Or someone who can share their feelings all day, but their hurt becomes a justification for gossip, personal attacks, or control. Through no fault of their own, these people have learned to manage their feelings in ways that undermine their relationship with self and other.
Because so much of human communication is non-verbal, we are incredibly sensitive to incongruence:when what is said doesn’t match up with what is felt, our gut knows it's not the whole truth. Done from the heart, simple skills such as affirmations, “I statements” and reflective listening can be game-changers. But aligning heart and mind is easier said than done. How do you match up your internal state and the words you speak for maximum effect? You have to use the number one most excellent communication skill of all: vulnerability. There are whole books written on vulnerability, but I like to define it as the capacity to actually experienceyour feelings while in contactwith another human being. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where bonds get restored. That’s where trauma gets worked through. That’s where the new, healthier behavior gets started. That’s how you learn to get your needs met in relationship. A caveat: vulnerability is not always wise or appropriate, and while it is the best way to increase the level of safety in relationship, it requires a wise assessment of pre-existing trust and security. I’ll write more about vulnerability sometime, but in the meantime if you want to get started on this difficult but rewarding work, give me a call.