be_ixf;ym_202404 d_24; ct_100

Express Yourself Through the Transformative Power of Vulnerability, by Dr. Sherry Sami

(As originally featured in the Spring / Summer 2023 Issue of Tracy Anderson Magazine)

There is no communication without vulnerability, the risk of being seen, as well as the openness to be completely changed, moved, and inspired forever.

 

Communication Challenges Start in Childhood

The more I work with couples, the more I realize their communication skills (and the challenges they face) stem from the drama or trauma they experienced as children, and what they learned from their parents about communication and expectations. Whether they grow up in a household where they tried to express their opinions and they were shut down and told to be quiet, or they learned the louder they scream, the more they would be heard and acknowledged, they bring all that to their adult expressions–especially in intimate relationships. Some learned that expressing thoughts to adults was seen as questioning their authority and was considered disrespectful. Some learned that their opinions can create conflicts, and thus they took great efforts as to what to say and how to say things that keep the trauma-addicted parent(s) away and keep them safe. Others were taught that if they say things calmly, no one will listen, but throwing tantrums, screaming, and using profanity is going to get you heard and acknowledged. It’s not surprising that the childhood lessons of how to communicate will stay with us for the rest of our lives, unless we actually pause, notice, heal, and use these communication opportunities as a way of healing the past. Our relationships all give us an opportunity to grow and expand as an individual in our consciousness, because they serve as a mirror for us to see where there is a need for more healing. If we hold our relationships and each communication as a way to see deeper in our own, as well as each other’s souls, we leave our egos at the door and come in vulnerable and with much space to learn, heal, and connect.

 

Past Informs the Present

When we enter an adult relationship, it’s important to understand that the dynamics within it aren’t limited to ourselves and our partner, but include all the energies, judgments, assumptions, and injuries from our previous relationships that we take into it. In this regard, no past relationship has a greater impact on our present one than the relationship we had with our parents. In fact, I believe one of the purposes of an adult relationship is to heal the wounds and misunderstandings about ourselves that we acquired while growing up, even in spite of them doing their best to raise us. All parents make mistakes, even with the best of our intentions. Even so, that’s why we’re subconsciously drawn to partners that are similar to our parents in their thoughts and behaviors in some ways, so our internal issues get triggered, and we can heal them. 

Once in a relationship, we have two choices. We can either re-establish the same dysfunctional communication dynamic we had with our parents, or recognize the relationship as an opportunity to heal and improve the communication between ourselves and our partner. Taking personal responsibility for our own healing in this way is an essential first step toward better communication, but we also have to remember that our partner is bringing his or her own challenges with self-expression into the situation. Getting through difficult conversations can be easier sometimes if each partner realizes that much of the conversation is not being done as an adult, but the wounded child asking to be seen and heard in the only way they know how at the moment. This change in perspective can provide the necessary patience and empathy to keep arguments from escalating and the dialogue flowing. 

In a conversation, one partner may resort to shouting. While that’s not recommended for healthy communication, if his partner knows the shouting is being triggered from an overwhelming sense of suppression in childhood, she can hold that space without taking it personally until the emotion passes and clearer communication can be accessed. With understanding and empathy, she can listen without interrupting, escalating the situation, or futilely trying to calm her partner’s emotional expression with a left-brained logical response. When both partners can do this for each other on the path to healing, a deeper vulnerability and connection can be accessed not only within two people, but even individually for themselves.

As they do this kind of work for themselves and especially together, both partners learn to ask questions that help get underneath the anger, which is always love. Because the opposite of love is not anger and resentment–it’s indifference. Questions that I ask myself after I pause, when my partner’s behavior or dialogue creates hurt feelings inside of me: Why am I reacting this way? Why did my feelings get hurt? What is this really about for me beyond the story that I am telling myself? Is there a deeper need for me that wants to be expressed? Does this remind me of a time as a girl that I felt the same way and is this creating an opportunity for me to heal? 

Many times our arguments aren’t about what we think they are. Was that big blow up over which restaurant to go to really because you like Italian more than Chinese food or because you always feel your opinion is disregarded? Or perhaps you didn’t express yourself about something that was really important to you, but you are actually mad at yourself for suppressing your own truth? How much of this conversation rides on the expectations that society placed on you and you are angry about that, not actually what you are fighting about? There are so many ways that women and men are expected to show up at work, at home, as moms and dads, and perhaps our own internal conversation has deeper judgments that reflect those expectations that can bring up resentments. Questions like these will help clarify the needs we should be expressing and how to communicate them to our partners. When we can do this, we learn to communicate as adults instead of children.

 

Plans & Expectations

Another obstacle to effective communication for couples is planning for attack before the talking even begins. Almost everyone goes into a tough conversation with a plan in their mind that includes how they expect the other person to react to what they have to say, and their pre-planned response to that reaction. During the other person’s responses, we’re only thinking about what we’re going to say next or internally defending ourselves from what was said last. This kind of pre-talk strategizing leaves no room for real communication or actual listening. 

We show up in these moments, not with an empty page for words to be chosen freely and from the heart, or as I like to tell my clients, “an empty canvas that you can co-create beautiful paintings”, but with an entirely pre-written script from which we create the negative outcome we expected instead of the outcome we wanted. We armor up and approach difficult conversations in this formulaic way and yet wonder why he always responds that way or she always complains. We are already creating a negative future with our listening because our listening is not full of new possibilities, but filled with old judgements. If we could show up to these conversations prioritizing love and affinity instead of strategy, the outcomes might surprise us entirely. We could leave our preconceived stories out of the conversation, be totally present to receive what’s being shared, and respond in a heart-centered way.  We don’t need to fix someone else, we don’t have to always solve their problems, we don’t even have to make them feel loved. We just need to be willing to listen with our hearts and perhaps get a glimpse of what it feels like to be them. It’s so fascinating to see when people feel heard, understood, and acknowledged, they also feel loved.

This is the only way real communication can heal. Both partners need to be invested in the process, although taking personal responsibility for how we show up in a communication, regardless of our partner’s ways is the first step. By learning to heal individually and holding compassion and patience for our partner in the same process, we can not only heal the past but grow our relationship in intimacy.

 

Communication Breakdown

When it comes to recognizing if communication is breaking down in your relationship, consider these signs in either yourself or your partner.

  • Deferring to others: A habit of deferring decisions to others and never voicing your opinion can signal hidden feelings that you either feel your thoughts don’t matter, or you feel you are not going to be heard or respected for them so you just give up. Responding with “whatever” or “I don’t care” (when you really do) in order to appear accommodating and flexible only builds resentment and feelings of neglect, and abandonment.
  • Not sharing the little things: “How was your day?” “Fine.” No impulse to share can signal a loss of feeling important in the relationship. If someone won’t share the small things, they might have a harder time sharing the big things. Communication is very different in most men versus women. Women often like to talk about details before they get to the main point, while men like to go straight to the point, but they need a little bit of silence and space to be able to talk. This of course has to do with our upbringing as well. For example, I grew up with 25 male cousins and two brothers, and I am the only girl in my dad’s family. In addition, being in a profession that was mostly male dominated, I learned how to get right to the point. I actually had to learn from my amazing soul sisters and best friends (which I started having more of after reaching 30), how to listen while they navigate through the details before they get to their point. Understanding people’s ways of communicating allows them to express themselves more openly.
  • Keeping secrets: Even small secrets can mean a lack of respect and trust in the relationship. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I’ll buy this cash so he doesn’t find out because he gets upset if I spend money. She can’t handle the truth. She’s too fragile.
  • Selective memory: Only remembering part of what your partner previously shared. This signals less investment in what matters to the other person. If you’re not fully invested in what matters to your partner, how can you be fully invested in them?  
  • Confiding in others: Sharing things with friends, co-workers, and social media pals instead of your partner. What are you getting from them that you can’t get from your relationship?

 

Communication Interventions

As partners work on individual healing, adopting certain interventions can help them both feel more seen and heard along the way.

  • Be specific: Don’t expect your partner to read your mind or wait to be asked what’s wrong before expressing your needs. Although your feelings might be intense, it doesn’t mean others can tell that just by looking at you. 
  • Share in real time: Share what you’re feeling in the moment or as close to it as possible. There are times when that might not be doable, but waiting too long allows the pressure to build and end up fighting over something completely meaningless because you are still mad at them for something that happened last week. 
  • We/Me: Understand that expressing your needs is serving the relationship because you have to be happy in it in order for it to work. Sharing your needs and desires is something you do for your partner because it strengthens the bond between you.  At the same time, there is a higher good that is at play where it’s not just about “me” anymore since now there is a consideration for “we” that is at play.
  • Argue with etiquette: Commit to remembering that you love the person on the other side of the argument, and they’re more important than what you’re arguing about. This will prevent saying things you’ll regret. Stay on topic, and don’t drudge up the past. My beloved and I have each other’s pictures as children. One look at his baby picture, I completely melt into that loving again, and feel open to listen with my entire heart. 
  • Check-in time: It doesn’t have to happen around the dinner table if dinner together isn’t possible, but set a daily time to check in with your partner to discuss how their day went. These daily updates keep you connected and up to date on each other’s lives, but more importantly how you process life and challenges that are brought forward.
  • Self-referral: When expressing your needs, avoid saying you in favor of I. Instead of, “You never notice anything I do and always take me for granted,” you could say, “I wish I could get some appreciation for how hard I work around here.” You statements come off as accusatory and judgmental. Own your feelings and say what you need with an I statement. You’ll avoid upsetting the other person and putting them in defense mode. In addition, avoid always and never statements.
  • Perception check and heart-centered listening: In an argument, listen completely to the other person, and don’t interrupt. When they’ve stopped speaking, start your response with a statement such as, “Just so I understand, you said…” or “So, what I’m hearing is that you’re concerned about…” and then repeat back to them what they shared with you before your thoughts. Letting them know they’ve been heard and fully understood is affirming and helps de-escalate the situation. Keep in mind, mimicking every word without listening to emotions, intentions, and unspoken words is not really listening. With heart-centered listening, we strive to understand more than being understood.
  • No secrets: Agree to never hold secrets and that each partner can always come to the other to discuss anything without fear or judgment, even when the other person doesn’t agree or it would create conflict. Resolving conflicts in a healthy manner is often the most growing part of a relationship.
  • Acknowledgment and prizing: Sharing more positive expressions and appreciation like, “Thanks for picking that up”, “I am so grateful that you took the time to check on me today”, “I love how supportive you are toward everyone around you”, and “Thank you for taking care of the dishes tonight. It gave me some spaciousness to take a quiet bath”, “I am grateful that you were honest with me about your feelings, even though it was challenging for me to hear.” They all go a long way toward affirming your partner’s importance in your life and strengthening the bond between you.

 

In summary, to me relationships are our portals and bridges to self-discovery, healing our past, and opportunities to learn to communicate with vulnerability, which allows us to be seen as well as to be a witness to one another’s souls. This allows love to blossom in ways that touch many beings around us, and have us be closer to our beloved. It’s not easy, but it’s so worth the challenge. It takes every day to re-commit to yourself and to your partner. Are you willing to face the challenges and evolve in this way?

To read more, head to our webshop to purchase the Spring/Summer 2023 Issue of Tracy Anderson Magazine.