|Communicating with Ourselves and Others
© 1999 Michele Toomey, PhD
The communication network within our inner world is very complex. Messages get transmitted in physical sensations, visual images, and thoughtful reflections. They all get sent to various parts of our brain where they are received, and if our system is in good working order, this part of the communication process is done automatically. So far so good. However, in addition to this automatic system we are able to participate in the communication process and now comes the real complexity ... our involvement. We can interpret, react, reflect, process, evaluate, judge, translate, make associations on everything and anything that enters our system.
A big alert should now be beeping on our screen, because if we don't learn how to participate in the integrity of this system without breaking the rules, we will not be able to communicate the truth of who we are, what we are experiencing, or what we need. This processing of psychological information that contains feelings as well as thoughts can be violated very easily, so it is of utmost importance that we learn the rules of the system and how it functions.
Our communication network functions in the following way:
- A message is received, either from ourselves or from another.
- It triggers a spontaneous reaction that has emotional feelings in it that have been shaped by our past and by our degree of investment in the information.
- That reaction, along with the message that triggered it, now goes through our system with a "charge" attached to it:
- negative: fear, anger, frustration, disappointment, etc.
- positive: excitement, desire, attachment, pleasure, etc.
- indifferent: disinterest, lack of involvement
If it is strongly negative or positive, it is "highly charged". The more highly charged message travels through our network with greater intensity. The greater the intensity the more "heat" it generates, causing the system to speed up and search to understand what's happening as it experiences strong emotional response.
- Once a reaction is registered and its intensity is felt, the message and our reaction to it must be processed. Processed is not judged, not just reacted to again and again, and not just analyzed or solved. Processing information means making connections and associations that give us insight into our reaction and response to a message, when we proceed to reflect on what we discover and then formulate a position and a response. Processing information is more complicated when the message is "hot" or highly charged. The intensity brings an urgency and a speed with it that triggers associations, ideas and reflections that are also hot. It also takes greater discipline to process "hot" messages, because the urgency and intensity may excite us to only react to our reaction, setting up a chain reaction. If we get caught in a chain reaction we need to be able to recognize the chain reaction, gather insight from it and then relate it back to the initial message, and then process them all.
- Processing information allows us to use our imagination to travel through our three time zones of the past, present, and anticipated future to look for associations and memories that add clarity and complexity to our reactions to the message. This clarity and complexity give us depth and greater intimacy with ourselves.
- As we process, we are to reflect on what we have discovered from the search. Then as we better understand how we are relating to this information, we are ready to formulate our relationship to the message and the position we are taking relative to it. Our relationship to a message is the most intimate dimension of our communication system. The more clarity and complexity we've gained in the process the more insight and intimacy we have with ourselves.
- We then articulate either to ourselves or to another the complexity of how we are relating to the message, and that is self-expression with accountability. It is an honest expression of what we think and feel and understand about our relationship to the message and it allows others to now be connected and intimate with us.
- This process of sending and receiving, reacting to and processing information without hostility, judgment or deception is the way our communication system works if it is not violated. Its goal is intimacy and integrity, not judgment and control.
We can violate our system by deceiving ourselves about how we are relating to the data or by judging either the message, or our reaction to it, or by reacting to our reaction. Deception violates the system because now we can't discover the truth about our relationship to the message, so there are lies and therefore error in the system. Judging violates the system because the purpose of the communication network is to connect us to the information and to ourselves. If we judge we add a layer of good or bad, right or wrong to what we're thinking or feeling and that skews our search to either justify how we feel or make a case against it instead of an honest search for understanding. Both deceiving and judging our reactions interfere with our ability to be true to ourselves and be ourselves.. They prevent intimacy and understanding. Reacting to our reactions never gives us a chance to process and reflect on our reactions, so it violates our system because we cannot connect with it with any choice. We have lost choice and are out of control.
Think of situations where you felt affronted, embarrassed, awkward, disappointed, angry or afraid and didn't let yourself feel these feelings, or pretended you didn't feel them or judged them and tried to change what you felt, or reacted to with another reaction and didn't let yourself process what you felt. It left you unable to connect with yourself and certainly unable to express yourself with any integrity or intimacy.
Are you beginning to understand why communication is such a complex process? It is a sophisticated network within us, and there are innumerable ways to get off track, to get lost, to misinterpret, to distort and misuse the information. Just learning to talk and to think is not enough. We must learn to process the messages we receive and then express them. If it's that complex to communicate with ourselves it is, of course, even more complex to communicate with others. Now we have the added layer of not wanting to hurt anothers feelings, wanting approval, or not feeling sure how to say what we're feeling and thinking. Or the layer of wanting to counterattack, wanting to hurt or ridicule, wanting to crush or diminish the other and not having the discipline or desire to contain ourselves or the courage to confront rather than attack. We need to hear and then respond or speak and then be heard with integrity(honesty), fairness and respect. When our messages are received or sent defensively or hurled back at us distorted and as a weapon, we need the skill and the courage to confront and to ask for accountability, either of ourselves or of another. This is another complex process that we need to learn and there is a paper on that listed as: The Courage of Confrontation and Accountability Contrasted with the Hostility of Accusation and Blame.
Confrontation and accountability are the vehicles that preserve the integrity of the communication network and allow us to have fair and respectful conversations with ourselves and with each other. As a result, clarity, understanding and the intimacy that comes from the exchange yields true communication. However, as I have tried to say in this brief essay, communication is very complex and if we want intimacy and liberation (the freedom to choose intimacy) we must learn how to participate in our very complex system without violating it or ourselves.