The Practice of Expressing Yourself to Others
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
“Have you said these things to her?” my friend asked me with some leading. I had just finished enthusiastically praising my wife to this friend, telling him how incredible she had been during the week, how much I appreciated her hard work and the ways she still managed to love me in spite of it being a difficult few days. But my friend very lovingly recognized a pattern in me that had begun to develop - I had no problems identifying the emotions prompted by my wife’s love - I very seldom actually am expressing these emotions to her.
It would be easy to chalk this up to being a man and not ‘being in touch with my emotions.’ But for obvious reasons, I don’t buy this. I am in touch with them. Sure, I don’t always know what I feel, but if I take a second and slow down, I can pretty quickly identify what I am feeling toward someone, positive or negative. I would say even people who have problems identifying emotions can still, with some processing, speak to at least one predominant feeling they have toward someone. So why don’t we?
I always struggle with the sentiment to ‘...tell the ones you love’ that comes after a death. Why does it take total loss for us to grasp that we should be sharing how we truly and authentically feel about each other? I don’t want to sound dismissive; I think it is entirely natural to feel that there were things not said that we wished we had said before the person left us. But I don’t think it changes us for the long term because it induces some shame and guilt. I really have to say these things, so I don’t regret it after they are gone.
I think we need a better encouragement, a better foundational philosophy for why we should be expressive toward one another.
One that doesn’t keep us worrying about losing someone, but one that keeps us in the present moment, thankful for what is happening right now.
In counseling couples, there are lots of techniques that can encourage better communication. Typically, when a couple comes in, it’s easiest to set them up facing me - have them tell me what’s bothering them, allowing me to be able to speak to both of them without focusing on either one more than the other. In discussing this with a colleague recently, he challenged me to set up chairs facing one another for the couple and then put myself to the side. This presents the couple with a different purpose - speak to each other more than to the therapist.
When was the last time you sat across from someone you appreciate/love/care for and told them what you felt about them as you looked directly at one another? It’s not a natural occurrence for most of us. Having the chairs face each other in the room is not some hokey counseling technique that suddenly solves a couple’s problems...but it is a reminder of just how basic it is to begin a practice.
I believe we need little lampposts along the way that help us practice. We cannot settle for the loud explosions in our lives of someone dying to realize we need to speak more intentionally to one another.
We need to actually practice expressing by changing how we interact. And we need to face that this will be uncomfortable a lot of the time.
We have allowed our expressive muscles to atrophy. And when someone dies or moves away we suddenly realize we’re out of shape - we could have been working out the whole time! Make small steps this week. When you hear someone praise another individual, get in the habit of asking “Have you told them that yet?” When you appreciate something, even small in someone else, tell them in your own way - send a text or an email.
We have to prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed with feeling like there is too much to say to too many people.
Practice the small ways first. Develop the habit of regularly and intentionally telling people how you appreciate them and care about them. What holds you back from expressing how you feel toward your community?