How can we improve our communication with others?

When I witness my clients’ issues with their loved ones, I am always baffled as to why so many people experience problems in their relationships. Whether it’s with family, spouse or co-workers, how come we struggle so much to live in peace and harmony with each other?

I believe one of the answers to that dilemma is how we project onto each other. A lot of the time when arguments or disagreements arise between people, it’s due to our unconscious projections.

Pema Chodron describes it beautifully in her teachings ; She explains that when we get triggered by someone else, we need to differentiate the actual trigger – what someone said or did – and our propensity to respond this way. That means that what (or who) triggers us is actually not necessarily responsible for our bad feelings. Let me explain.

Our past, and especially our childhood, is filled with unresolved issues, unfinished business or unprocessed emotions. All those events leave scars and fragilities in us, that we learn to deal with by developing a variety of coping mechanisms. Among them you would recognise being defensive, blaming someone else, questioning and doubting yourself, withdrawing, feeling disempowered and victimised to name a few. The point of those is to not feel the underlying pain and avoid facing what’s unresolved. And most of the time we manage to plod along through those triggers and get on with our lives.

However when we get triggered we also often take it out – one way or another – on the other person. And we get into an argument or we end up hurting each other and ourselves.

But what if we could change this pattern?

Pema Chodron reminds us that in those conflicts there are two aspects to consider:

  • What triggered us in the moment: what someone said or did
  • Our propensity, and the button from the past that has been pushed.

What she actually suggests is that most often, what we are actually reacting to is not the current trigger but the unresolved wound from our past.

For example, if your partner isn’t very interested in the new project you’re working on and listens to you distractedly and without much interest, you might suddenly feel very dismissed and upset. Even though you are convinced that the reason for your being upset is your partner’s lack of interest in your work, you could be harbouring some old unconscious pain from a past event that you haven’t fully dealt with. It could be reactivating without your conscious knowledge those old feelings of not being important  or good enough for your parents, or some other deep wounds of abandonment in childhood.

Another example could be one where your partner criticises something minor in you, such as the way you’re dressed today or your hairstyle. If you experience being deeply hurt by those comments, it may mean that it has awaken an old issue from your childhood that you are not necessarily aware of. Such as having had a perfectionist or critical parent who was never praising you for your achievements but always pointed out what wasn’t good enough.

Those are just common examples to illustrate the difference between the trigger (your partner in those instances) and the root of your pain.

It is not to say that our pain never comes from current triggers ; sometimes we are indeed hurt by the present actions or words of someone in our lives. But most of the time it actually activates an old button. And this is what I believe Pema Chodron describes by “propensity”.

So how do we differentiate between current pain and pain from the past? How do we know where the root of our pain is?

I would say that there is a certain quality to that hurt we feel when one of our button has been pushed. It cuts deeper, it’s more painful, more difficult to shake ; even when we think rationally about it, it seems our emotional self takes over and we can’t easily let go of the upset.

Ultimately the best way to know is self-enquiry. It’s digging deep into ourselves, learning to know who we are and what we feel at a very deep level until we are able to spot those wounds and start to heal them.

Once you’ve started to do that, there are a few tips I can recommend that could help you identify those buttons and improve your relationships:

  • When you get triggered by someone else, pause and take a few deep breaths before responding or reacting
  • Ask yourself “What is the hurt?” in other words, how do you currently feel? is it abandoned? judged and criticised? unloved? find the deep painful emotion that you are experiencing
  • Then explore by asking: “Have I felt this way before? When did I first experience those feelings, especially as a child? Or What does it remind me of from my childhood?” that might help you find the root of the pain and discover how you developped this specific propensity.
  • Practise separating the current trigger (what the other person did or say) from your past wound and stay with what belongs to you rather than reacting to the other person. Explore and sit with your pain with gentleness and compassion to yourself, until you feel it’s soothed and you are less reactive.
  • Then if appropriate, communicate rationally to the other person how you feel, owning your emotions and pain instead of blaming them. It is important to have healthy boundaries even when we take responsibility for our pain: if something needs to be said about their actions, it is indeed necessary and appropriate to do so in a mature and rational way.

For example, if your partner has criticised you on your outfit and it triggered the deep feeling of rejection you experienced from a parental figure as a child, take a moment first to recognise and acknowledge that old wound. Sit with it and be kind and compassionate towards that old pain. However, once you are soothed, you may want to communicate to your partner that those comments felt hurtful and you’d prefer if they didn’t criticise you in this way.

It may take a while to train ourselves in this new practice, so be patient and stay calm. However the benefits are significant, as it will help you not only healing your past but improve your communication and general relationships with others.

I hope this helps and feel free to drop me a line if you want to explore all this more in depth!

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