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  • Writer's pictureErin

The art of revealing

A few weeks ago, I joined in on a community call of women all across the world who were interested in learning how to cultivate their emotional expression. It was hosted by Madelyn Moon, an intimacy and relational coach who focuses on practices for women to deepen their relationships through embodiment, expression, and theater. In this call, she taught a skill that, on one hand, seems like a no-brainer. Especially as adults, we are expected to be able to clearly demonstrate our intentions and reactions in most situations. Past a certain age, we should be over the games of deception, or silent treatment, or saying one thing when we really mean another. This call and its theme really intrigued me, because I find it odd how we learn to twist our communication skills into some sort of puzzle somewhere on the journey from childhood to adulthood, and I've never quite understood why. What purpose does it serve? And what kind of world could we be living in if we dropped this behavior?

Imagine this scenario: Your partner, or a friend, has been doing something in social settings that upsets you. Perhaps they say something mean-spirited about you, or highlight an insecurity of yours in conversation with your other friends. Whether they do it consciously or not, whether they notice your reaction at all, whether you play it cool in the moment, it fucking hurts. So when you're out of that situation and you get a moment alone with them, you ask, "Could I show you what it feels like when you say things like that in front of our friends?" They say yes. You sit them down on the couch, go over to the speaker and put on a grungy sad-girl song (I'm thinking the likes of Annie Dirusso, Soccer Mommy, or Big Thief?) that perfectly encapsulates the dark, steaming betrayal that rises from your chest when someone you want to trust says something hurtful. For however many minutes this song lasts, you pretend to pull daggers out of your heart, try to stop the bleeding, fall on the floor, maybe even sob.

Does this sound way overly dramatic? It does to me, too. Where I am in my ability to authentically communicate with others, I'm not ready for this kind of expression. But it's exactly what this community call prescribed in order to balance the nervous system. I think there's a lot of truth to it, in theory: we all know how much that moment of betrayal hurts. We are all aware on some level of how often our loved ones do or say something that triggers pain, and yet we do nothing about it. That panic, that icky feeling doesn't just go away - it often builds into resentment. There has to be a way to purge it, or eventually, all of our relationships risk rupture.

Of course, if you were to practice this level of intimate expression, you would need to ensure that your partner or friend is able to hold such a space for you. To the vast majority of people and their capacity for empathy and understanding, this situation would be way too much to participate in, even as someone who just has to sit and watch. As a collective, we are simply not there yet. We have so many steps to climb first.

But think about how liberating it would feel if you could feel safe to reveal your heart. Are we really so far away from that possibility?

Let's go back to the bottom of the staircase. This is where we begin the journey of learning to communicate and advocate for our needs - this is where most people are. David Deida, a well-respected relationship and intimacy teacher and author, coined "The Three Stages of Communication" as his work developed through the 80's and 90's. Madelyn has added this into her teachings as well. His first stage, or the bottom of the staircase, is one of misguided tension and eventual resentment. It's where your partner notices something is off with you - let's say, after they outed your insecurity at a party - and they ask what's wrong. You say "nothing," without so much as looking up at them. Then conversation is awkward and cold for the rest of the evening, if it happens at all. Maybe they bring it up again and you quickly dismiss it by saying "I'm fine! I told you I'm fine!" (We all know you're not fine.)

The first stage of communication is littered with a lot of phrases we've probably all heard before: You always do this! You never listen to me! I don't know why I even try anymore! It diminishes trust and completely cuts off any hope for reconnection anytime soon. Unfortunately, this is the kind of communication most of us are used to. It's not our fault - it's been the default for as long as anyone can recall, so no wonder it's engrained in us. We see it in the way our parents communicated with us, in media, in the way we invent social codes to follow to avoid getting hurt by others. We build up our walls and defend them with everything we've got. No wonder most of the population is stuck in this stage of communication. We are not used to voicing our feelings. It's often hard enough to even identify what the feelings are in the first place.

Luckily, the second stage is a practice ground - something we can all do with a little training. It's promising to see how many people are practicing this kind of communication just in the past few years, with the help of open discourse about the benefits of talk therapy, inner-child work, equality, expectations and boundaries. The second stage is distinctive in its "therapy speak" method. I know this has gotten a bit of bad press lately with the likes of Jonah Hill's misuse of the term "boundaries," but when done correctly, it can be a game-changer for stage one relationships. The first step may be the hardest, and that's getting in touch with the emotion that arises during conflict, understanding what it means or brings up for you. Then, when you get a moment, you can say "Hey, when ___ happened, I felt ___." You can invite your partner into the conversation with a question, like "Did you notice that ___ caused me to act differently? Were you aware of my reaction?" Without a tone of judgment or the urge to win an argument or "put them in their place," this can become a simple, yet extremely effective practice to implement in relationships of any kind. We can all do it with a little bravery and awareness.

I believe this is the most difficult obstacle in the process of revealing, at least in my lived experience. Even when we are aware of the feeling that comes (shame, betrayal, abandonment, fear, you name it), the feeling of confronting the person who caused it is often bigger and scarier. Maybe we don't want them to feel bad. We know they do the best they can. We know they didn't mean what they said, or they've been under a lot of stress, or maybe we interpreted the situation wrong altogether. We gaslight ourselves. We talk ourselves out of needing to have a conversation. We decide it's not worth it.

But here's the thing I'm trying to teach myself: You are allowed to experience your emotion without the context of the person who hurt you. You are ALLOWED to say "I was hurt" regardless of if they were doing their best, regardless of the fact that they didn't mean it, regardless of if they've been stressed. None of that matters in the moment. You were hurt. You are entitled to feel the feeling that comes.

And, if you value the relationship, you are responsible for being honest about that feeling.

When we practice stage two communication, and we practice it frequently and openly in most or all of our relationships to the best of our ability, we can then move on to stage three. This is where we enter the realm of sacred expression - time we set aside to literally offer our emotions as a gift to our partner. We show them what the hurt looks like. We dance it out, we cry in their arms, we make a production of it. We allow them to witness us at our most vulnerable, as if we have pulled our heart out of our chest and painted a picture with the blood. It's the deepest we could possibly go, the most dramatic, and yet most real we could ever become.

And again, even as I write about it, it sounds crazy. I know it's an outlandish ask, even for myself and my relationships. But I have to be honest and say that this kind of depth is what I envision for my partner and closest friends. I want to go there, and I want the world to go there with me. But in order to do so, we have to start somewhere more realistic. That comes from moving ourselves out of stage one and into stage two, which is, as I've stated, the hardest part. Before we can fall apart at the feet of our lover and expect them to hold us in that pain, we have to get comfortable with identifying how we feel and being honest about it. We have to stop withholding that precious information from our loved ones. How could they possibly know we're falling apart if we don't voice it? Why would they stop a behavior if they've never been told it's upsetting?

All of this works for positive emotional expression too, by the way. Though this is easier to do because it's much less intimidating to praise our loved ones than to confront them, I think it's important to remember that the act of praise is equally as powerful. When they do something you appreciate, voice it, always. This builds a trusting bond for the moments when things do get sticky.

Though this community call presented an overwhelming feeling of excitement and hope - the image of an entire collective learning to express themselves without fear, and how joyful and beautiful it would be to live in such a way - I had to take a step back and remember that most of our neighbors and friends and family are way behind in this work. Most are still stuck in resentment, at best beginning to recognize healthier ways to communicate, and at worst, not even being able to touch or relate to their emotional reactions at all. Some of us are practicing the therapy speak, the formulaic expression of a cause-and-effect scenario. Maybe we slip from time to time, but we are getting across to our partners and having more open dialogue about what causes our reactions and how to improve in the future. This is where I believe we should all strive to be. If we can get here as a collective, we will be in a much, much better place.

But only after we are seasoned professionals there can we really begin to do the floor-writhing, dagger-pulling, heart-right-on-the-sleeve sacred revealing. We're not there yet, and that's okay. With careful intention and awareness, we can get there eventually. We can beautifully offer all of ourselves (or as much as is necessary) to the ones we love. One step at a time.

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