Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA
Individual and Group Psychotherapy
As a child, I knew in my gut that there had to be more to relationship than the superficial. I was born with an ache for the authentic. Enough of the pretend pretty, the looking-good-on-the-outside stuff. Can someone please talk about what is really going on under the surface? I was dying a slow emotional death and finding more sustenance became mandatory. So, I started to search for depth and honesty, a journey of knowing and being known. To the heart, I descended.
I owe the beginning stages of this journey to my good friend from graduate school. The roommate lottery stuck me with Helen – the disciplined woman that went to bed at 9 p.m. and got up at 5 a.m. I went to bed at midnight and got up at 8 a.m. That left me three hours of homelessness. The ugly green couch in the student lounge became my nightly place to plop. The concerned RA took note and small talk ensued. It began with – why you are always sitting there every night at 9 p.m.? Initially, it was gossip about poor Helen. Then it became about my new friend’s dilemma – should she date the nice, boring guy or the fun, crazy one? And then it became about the recent death of my father and why I had moved back to Chicago. And so on. Our talk deepened. During the wee hours, we began to share organically. She revealed her story and I disclosed mine. Fast forward ten months and not only did we become close friends, but she had patiently taught me a thing or two about loosening my grip, melting my walls and learning through experience how to become emotionally intimate with another human being through the back and forth trading of words laced with feeling.
In this article, I offer a description of the layers of verbal and emotional communication.
Like the peeling of an onion, we go from the superficial to the profound, from outer to inner.
Let’s begin the plunge:
Layer 1: Cocktail Party Conversation
“Hi! How are you?” “Good. And you?” “Good.” “Great. Good to see you.” “You too. Have a great day!” And on we travel through our day. No personal information is revealed. No impact has been made on either party. We have only engaged in a civil, social discourse. But, before we poo-poo its importance, it is the start to human contact. We have put words in the empty space which before divided us. We have acknowledged the other and initiated verbal engagement. After all, relationships must begin with “hello.” Furthermore, we may even feel some vibe which makes us curious and hungry for more. The fun has begun.
Layer 2: The Outside World
Once we move past the initial hello, we have begun some kind of relationship. Our big toe goes into the water as a potential bond begins to form. Conversation at this level entails subjects outside of us, such as the weather, gossip, sports, politics or current events. Like the first layer, we are still existing primarily in our comfort zone; however, there is a little more personal information revealed. The other party gets some sense of what interests us and what our passions are. We find things we have in common, and if we are paying attention, we might pick up on an energy that is connective. One that evokes our desire to get to know someone at an even deeper level.
Layer 3: Thoughts, Values and Opinions
At this level of contact, we are sharing with more ownership. We are letting someone in on the foundational principles that define our life’s frame whether they be political, religious or cultural. Such openness means that we have moved into potentially more treacherous waters in that judgment and rejection are now possibilities. Someone might not tolerate our opinions or the values that feel essential to who we are. Someone might discount us or shame us or even, ridicule us. In other words, hurt is now a real prospect. As I get closer to the prize of intimacy, the risk goes up exponentially. Both in terms of the pain I might experience but also the reality that the relationship we are starting to invest in might not survive the additional heat. We go deeper …
Layer 4: Facts About Me
At this level of relating, we begin to tell our story. We share the significant narratives that have come to identify who we are. Often the telling and re-telling is done from a cognitive, head-space. It is as if I am reporting a series of events outside of me. Yes, you are getting to know the facts about my life which are revealing and relating but not as connective as …
Layer 5: Feelings About Me
Now ask me how I feel about all those central stories of my life and we got a game-changer. The emotional temperature in the person talking and in the dialogue between the party’s plummets to an emotional and relational intensity. We now have a real possibility for presence, engagement and connection. We have crossed the grand chasm from head to the sacred space of the heart. It is in this place that relationships take root and bloom. That people go from strangers to intimate friends. But sadly, we often avoid this opportunity for such a gift because we fear the risk – the risk of showing you all my best wares – the insides of who I am – and your rejecting or discarding them. Thus, in such resistance, we often miss out on entering the candy shop of life. And just as the image portrays, this is where all the good stuff is. The magical content of poets and musicians, philosophers and artists.
If we are willing to open ourselves up and share what is most raw and real, we likely draw compassion, understanding, care and warmth. We humanize ourselves which attracts other people to us – for what is most personal is also most universal. Our fears, pains, longings and aches are alike. You just couldn’t realize this when I was hiding so well.
Layer 6: Feelings About You
At the core of human contact, the most intimate I can be with another person, is to tell him/her how I feel about them. The focus shifts from being about me, towards me and in me, to being about how I feel toward you. We stand naked, full-frontal, gazing at the eyes, heart and soul of the person across from us. Talk about risk at its height! Not only might the other not share the same feelings but he/she might not receive the feelings I have to offer. The cards are stacked to either stand tall or fall flat – something I won’t know or experience until I open my mouth and express my feelings toward the other person with my words.
So, how can this new knowledge of progressive communication assist us in our day-to-day lives?
1. Respect yourself
You are precious. Gold. A trophy. A diva. A dame. A star.
If you really believed that, then you would learn not to reveal your inner life to just anyone. Why? Because they don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve you. You gotta make them earn it. In other words, don’t go diving into the deep end of any available swimming pool. Pace yourself. Because if you jump in and you get hurt from the undetected concrete bottom or the chilly waters or the man-eating shark that is lurking in wait, then you are the fool. You gotta test the water first. So, just put in one toe. How does that feel? Does the person seem interested, available, engaged, willing to share back? If so, stick in an ankle. See how that feels. At any point and time, if you sense danger or limitation, back it on out and take a sunbath until you muster the courage to try again – maybe with someone entirely new. In other words, respect yourself enough to reveal yourself slowly over time … not too quickly and not too slowly … and at each point, assess the other person’s capacity to receive you and reciprocate. Sometimes, you hold hands and walk together into deep waters. And sometimes, one person coaxes the other to come on in, the water is fine. And sometimes, you hit his/her cap and there is no going any further. You must stop there. Johnny might be a great bowling partner or business associate, but that is as much as there is ever going to be.
2. Respect others
No judgment, just disappointment. People bring to the table what they got for now. Accept it.
And, if you are in the mood to be generous and you sense an opening for more, be patient. Revealing one’s inner self is like a stack of cafeteria trays. You can’t get to tray #12 until you have gone through one to eleven. Sometimes, if a safe space is provided over time, people can tolerate swimming in more daring waters. That is what my graduate school friend gave to me and I am ever grateful to her for that. But she didn’t have to. She could have given up at my one-word answers and walled-off heart. And, don’t forget point #1 above – respect yourself. If you find yourself working harder on someone else’s life than they are on their own, it is time to back out. Knocking your head against a wall to try and get water from an empty well – not something I suggest. There are those that can join you in the less superficial waters. You must find them.
3. Tolerate the range
There is nothing wrong with any of the above-mentioned layers of emotional communication.
There is a time and a place for all the layers, no matter how shallow.
We need to learn how to both work a crowd at a party and how to let someone into our innermost world. Having the flexibility to stomach the range is a sign of emotional maturity. So, lighten up. Appreciate the fact that you can go as deep as there is and then back out with a good belly laugh at the silliest of things. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones who can enjoy it all.
4. Shoot for five
Heartfelt intimacy requires much time, effort and conscious intentionality. Therefore, reality precludes you from having more than a few at any given time.
The number of your Facebook friends withstanding, if you have five close, intimate relationships, you are the exception.
If you have less than five, make it a priority. Pinpoint a relationship that has potential and begin to take more risks. Stretch yourself past your comfort zone and go deeper.
So, there you have it, my friends. I’m ready for a swim. You coming in?
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