(continued from On the Habit of Finding Better Words Part 1)
How many times have I spent literally hours, days, months, years of my life trying to find a way to express myself clearly to someone I loved in the hopes of “being understood” so something could change? How often did I – as I had been trained to do by schooling, family experience, cultural expectation – internalize their inability to understand me as my fault? Or, take it on as some sort of challenge? Like I was striving for a better grade on an essay?
Why on earth did it take me until the fourth decade of my life to fully realize that “expression” and “understanding” are two, entirely different acts? That they exist independently?
One answer might be Ego.
Buddhist Ego, not Freudian: attachment, specifically to outcomes.
As I referred to in Part I, there are moments (slippery and sometimes unseen) when communication becomes an attempt to control understanding rather than expression in the hopes of being understood. By saying this I do not mean to vilify Ego, just to own that it has limitations and does not always work in our broader interests despite its extraordinary ability to draw and hold our attention to the places where lessons most need to be learned.
For people fascinated by “expression” and/or direct human-to-human “service” in all its forms, there is an undeniably powerful rush when we can see and feel that someone finally “gets it” and that it was our approach, our choice of words, our presentation, our thoughtful timing or colours or manner or style that lit the proverbial lightbulb.
I know the pleasures of this rush. I won’t pretend otherwise.
I don’t get off on it the way I’ve known some people do or even the way I used to, but I absolutely know the sweet tastes of this communications high. Typically, those of my acquaintance who truly crave it, though, are those with a more power-oriented and publicly political bent. These are humans who will use the word “framing” and talk about “managing expectations” even more than I do but – again – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get off on finding a way to share something that LANDS.
Finding the right words, words that might invite someone to see something in an entirely new way, a way that might even allow them to feel better about something in their life? Are you kidding?
Those moments are catnip to me.
When they might also mean that I am suddenly on entirely new ground with someone I care about, ground from which we can travel in new ways together, the effect is immersive and intoxicating. So, I think it is safe to say that occasionally the endless energy and time I’ve given to finding the right way to say something has been born of a desire to prove I can and so that I can reap the rewards whenever I’m successful.
What had never occurred to me until recently, though, was that I also hide behind that rush and those desired/desirable outcomes. I cling to the familiar rhythms and shapes of the desire to “find better words” instead of breathing into the truth that otherwise capable and interesting people who said they cared about me were absolutely *not* meeting me part way.
Maybe they just couldn’t because I was asking for things that were simply beyond their skill sets at the time.
Maybe they could and just didn’t want to.
The important part here is that I kept trying and trying and trying to “find better words” (actions, patterns, positions, frames etc.)… I thought that if I could just say it right and “get through to them” then things could be better. I made it all about my ability to express myself, not their willingness, ability, or desire to understand.
I look back on key relationships and friendships – particularly the ones that fell spectacularly apart – and I can now see that it wouldn’t have mattered what I’d said, or when or how I’d said it. I also can see that it was sometimes me who didn’t show up, who didn’t listen, didn’t hear. I was the one who didn’t (or didn’t want to) understand.
They were where they were.
I was where I was.
There were no better words that could have made any real difference.
There is freedom and power in acceptance of, and surrender to, this realization.
I can hear a potential chorus of, “What the hell are you selling Sulya?!? You think the answer is to give up? Let marriages and friendships just die without a fight? Accept massive gaps in communication and understanding – such as those which underscore bigotry, homophobia, prejudice in all its forms? Just stop trying?”
And, absolutely f—king not.
First and foremost, there are salient differences between the one-on-one communication of our interpersonal connections and the larger scale of public discourse and resistance.
I know far less about this latter and more grand arena. For now, and in what has become this three-part piece, I aim to speak mainly to our day-to-day connections. I am thinking about the people we want to be able to call when we are sad. The people who will stand at the top of the rabbit hole with a ladder and rope, or who will jump right in with us so we don’t have to be down there alone. I’ve always been more of a “if more of us can learn it in the micro, it will get better in the macro” kind of a person despite the worthy and articulate protestations of many intelligent people over the years.
Bottom line: I would never say “don’t stand up for things you believe” or “don’t express your feelings as clearly as you are able.” What I might say, from this new rabbit hole of interesting potions with new tunnels to explore, is “set a limit of time and effort on what you offer into this particular exchange with this particular human.”
I might say: “if you are in the third category of hyper-communicators I outlined in Part 1, and there has ever been anyone you like who understands you when you share your thoughts and stories, then maybe begin each dialogue with these other humans with the complete and utter conviction that you are articulate, that you are self-knowing, that you are showing up to play.”
I might say, “watch closely not for how well your words sound in this space, but for whether or not the other person is truly, actively, openly listening to you with a genuine desire to hear.”
(continued in On the Habits of Finding Better Words Part 3)