There are numerous forms of communication: aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, assertive. Then there is the simple “no communication”. So many interpersonal issues stem from communication styles being maladaptive. How do they become maladaptive? Well… one of the first directions I go is, “How did you see those you were raised around deal with problems?” Looking back at our upbringing can help us see if we carry any of those patterns forward. Maybe it took someone yelling at you for you to realize they were being serious. Maybe you saw your parents screaming at each other. Maybe feelings were never talked about and avoided. Maybe you were taught your opinion didn’t matter. The cool thing about growing up is that you get the chance to look back and decide what you want to carry forward with you as an individual and into your own relationships. It takes insight to do this process, effort to shift your patterns of communication, and discomfort in the unfamiliar. In other words: growing can be a painful process, just like growing pains during those tough years of puberty!
An important part of this process is also recognizing the type of communication style the other person uses as well and how willing they are to explore that part of themselves. This is where things get tricky because you also have to recognize what is within your control. You cannot change someone else’s patterns, but you CAN learn how to voice your emotions in a healthy, assertive manner that is more likely to get positive responses. You have to shift your perspective from speaking to expect change to speaking to help yourself feel lighter. Let’s do some examples. If you are in a habit of screaming your feelings, you will likely be met with defensiveness from the other person. If you are in a habit of bottling your emotions and avoiding talking about them, you will begin to resent others for their actions even though it’s your personal choice to hold it in assuming they know exactly what’s bothering you when they might not. Totally within your control: how you approach something that upsets you.
Helpful Emotion Recognition Methods: before you learn how to communicate/control your emotions, you have to know what you’re feeling. This is why you may see therapists working with kids on identifying their emotions. As an adult, you have to find a method that works for you. Some examples include journaling about the situation, pretending the person is in front of you and talking out the issue, talking to a trusted someone to bounce ideas with, connecting with your physical body & paying attention to/naming feelings that come up as you think of the situation, etc.
Once you’ve sorted out how you feel, it’s time to learn a new method of communication. I used to write long letters and give them to the person I was upset with (aka passive-aggressive). How is someone supposed to respond to that? Rarely did it work out well. Maybe you’re used to totally avoiding the issues? You can build up to verbalizing those feelings by writing out an assertive statement & reading it to the person, but first, what is an assertive statement?
Practicing Assertiveness: Being assertive means you are communicating your emotions in a calm manner that is much more likely to get a positive response than aggressive or passive methods. I like to use this method to creating an assertive statement: “I feel _______________ (insert emotions) because ______________ (state situation without sounding blaming). I need or want ______________ (state what you are hoping to get from the other person). I will _______________ (how you will personally work to improve the situation).”
Aggressive statement example: You NEVER take out the trash! What is your issue? Do you just love the smell of rotting food in our house?!?
Assertive statement example: I feel unloved when you don’t take out the trash because helping me with tasks shows me that you care. I want to feel loved and would appreciate it if you would be more agreeable to helping out without needing me to prompt you to do so. I will work on containing my frustration and approaching you more calmly in the future. I am also open to a discussion on how we should divide chores and work together to reach goals.
This creates a discussion and would be much better received by the other person than the aggressive option! There are numerous issues that arise! Think of something that comes up for you & comment your assertive statement if you’re comfortable doing so! What happens once you’ve communicated assertively? It is then in the other person’s hands, completely out of your control. Something to be proud of is that you calmly and respectfully communicated how you felt about something. It’s a big deal to be able to do this! Kudos!!! Once it is said, there is a realm of possibilities that could occur! This may be something totally different for your relationship- maybe they’ll be stunned? Maybe they’ll continue to respond how they always have? Sometimes people are hypersensitive to criticism (even when constructive), so be aware that that may happen. Regardless, if you actively work toward shifting your response, but the other party does not shift theirs over a long period of time, it is then your choice as to whether you want to continue that relationship or not. Is that issue big enough to end the relationship? The point is- control what you can (your actions, your responses). Learn that it is okay to set boundaries, to speak how you feel respectfully, and that ultimately, you are not responsible for other people’s emotions. You CAN however, choose your words wisely to prompt healthier conversations.
As always, I hope this has been helpful. Please reach out to us as we can provide counseling across the state of Virginia via telehealth. Please reach out to a mental health provider in your area should you need assistance. We wish you the best!