16. Communication & Behavior - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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16. Communication & Behavior

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Mirror Mirror- Self-Esteem Relationships

Mirror Mirror… Reflections of Self-Esteem in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

When the verbal and non-verbal parts of communication do not match, it is the verbal part that is normally dismissed as the lie, and the non-verbal communication experienced as the truth.  "I love you always (although the voice is shrill, eyes are squinting, the jaws are clinched, and the body is full of tension)," is experienced as a deception although the words themselves seem positive.  "Non-verbal cues are the most powerful forms of communication.  However, these cues are also the part of the communication chain that most often are misinterpreted or used to form responses to the other with unspoken metacommunication (Watzlawick et al. 1974).  Couples often develop patterns of speaking to each other that disregard content or the actual message, and are interpreted more for the non-verbal cues that the individuals are sending to each " (Parr et al., 2008, page 168).

The therapist can try to "break this communication pattern down into discrete components and build clarity and accuracy in the delivery of both nonverbal and verbal communication."  Therapy can focus the individual, couple, or family at the very basic level of what one says, and what does one hear.  Practice in this manner will gradually increase the emotional intensity of the communication.  With more practice, individuals will hopefully internalize communication skills over time to become proficient in expressing clearly and succinctly.  This means sending and receiving both overt message and metamessages correctly.  Unfortunately, despite accurately reading non-verbal communication, many individuals as children were misled by parents' denials.  "Oh, I'm ok. I was just curious," may come from a very not okay parent.  "I'm not mad at you.  I just want you to do it correctly," may be the pronouncement of a very angry parent.  When the child is told or intimidated by a parent to deny his or her experience as well ("You were trying to sneak.  Don't tell me you weren't trying to sneak!"), he or she begins to distrust his or her own perceptions.  Denying reality always costs.  Subsequently as an adult, the individual may continue to doubt his or her experiences when challenged by a dominating person, especially someone important such as the partner or a superior at work.  In addition to voice tone, body language, and facial expressions, non-verbal communication includes behavior or the lack of action.  In particular with couples, one partner often complains about the other partner's lack of action or follow through despite verbal promises.  Or, parents may profess caring and promise behavior, but do not act consistently as promised.  The therapist should check what behavioral expressions are expected from verbal commitments.  "You say you care about how Terry feels.  What do you do that shows that?"  "What did Bert do that reassures you that he appreciates you?"  The therapist will find that individuals in relationships may readily verbalize high values and principles, but have difficulty actualizing tangible behavior confirming them to each other.

Many times an individual will come to something and it becomes clear that this is precisely what needs to be done.  Desirable behavior that makes a difference in the quality of the relationship is often easily identified.  However, the action or behavior may not be what the individual is comfortable with.  Sometimes in the relationship, a major situation or problem creates irreconcilable differences.  One person's request for action or behavior change may be backed by the therapist, and even acknowledged by the other individual.  This may occur to the client with someone in a relationship outside of therapy. Somehow unable to follow through, the individual looks for another answer or another way to handle the problem.  As a result, he or she avoids following through, forgets, or does it once or twice, but does not incorporate the behavior into his or her normal routine.  It does not work for him or her and it does not work for the other person.  Eventually, however the individual on his or her own or prompted by another person or the therapist comes back to the same solution.  Repeatedly coming or directed back to the same answer, he or she still does not want to do it.  Too uncomfortable or even scary, the search continues elsewhere... again.  This avoidance harms the individual, couple, or family.

"An individual who believes his or her partner is courageous feels confident, hopeful, and able to take risks with his or her partner.  He or she has a sense of humor and a sense of perspective.  He or she can see the humor in his or her own faulty goals, fictions, and catastrophizing (Dinkmeyer & Carlson, 1985; Lew & Bettner, 1996).  Attaining courage is different from the preceding Cs because it is predicated upon how partners find positive ways to connect, feel capable, and count in the relationship.  A partner who does not feel confident and hopeful in the relationship may avoid or give up relating to his or her partner and may find unhealthy ways to attain the first three Cs in the relationship (Conway, 2000).  The relationship becomes one of inferiority and hopelessness.  An individual who does not feel his or her partner is courageous may find himself or herself seeking to meet a mistaken goal of...When a partner can be more self-disciplined, he or she is more self-aware of strengths, limitations, feelings, emotions, goals, and attitudes.  Furthermore, he or she can accept responsibility for his or her actions better within the relationship, resulting in a greater sensitivity to imperfections within himself or herself and others.  The outcome will be partners who have a greater sense of resiliency and a deeper feeling of love for one another in the relationship" (McCurdy, 2007, page 286-88).

A fearful or anxious individual lacking confidence will have difficulty stepping up and taking responsibility.  This behavior or lack of behavior makes the other person become anxious and lose confidence in both the first individual and the viability of the relationship.  The other person if involved in couple or family therapy often brings the problem back to be reintroduced and rehashed in session.  Or may get sympathy, advice, or encouragement from family, friends, pop psychology, or advice columns!  Another way to go, another way to handle the situation, or another way to respond, the individual, couple, or family tries new things and creative things without success.  And repeatedly come back to the same solution, answer, or action considered before.  But it remains difficult to follow through with the original solution for some reason.  The therapist should assert that the original solution is the hard thing because it is the "right" thing.  It was always the correct thing to do.

Terry had problems with Bert who was very tenacious about pushing boundaries.  Over and over, they discussed with the therapist what to do.  Therapy worked through various developmental issues, temperament issues, learning disabilities, and family dynamics.  Therapy would come back to the need for Terry to have clearer and stricter boundaries for Bert.  This was evident them from the beginning of therapy.  Terry said she would follow through.   Bert accepted that it would be positive for their relationship.  They continued to have problems.  Terry still had trouble following through.  As therapy began to examine why it was hard for Terry to follow through, it became clear that there were family-of-origin issues that she was projecting on Bert.  Most of these issues have to do with boundaries.  No big surprise here!  Terry's experience from childhood was of boundaries being erratic, harsh, and punitive.  This made it very hard for her do have clear and strict boundaries and consequences for Bert, because it made Terry feel like she was being harsh and punitive as her parents had been.  So, Terry continually tried to avoid having to be "mean."  As much as Terry tried to avoid being mean, having better relations with Bert keep coming back to Terry needing to be more assertive or stricter.  The non-verbal communication was permission for Bert to push boundaries.  Bert needed to be called on it.  Bert even demanded Terry give her better boundaries, despite it being so hard for Terry.  Bert said he preferred to be confronted rather than have Terry secretly resent him for another boundary violation he had not been aware of.  Terry needed to do the hard process because the hard process of clear boundaries was exactly what their relationship required.

Terry mused how it would be so much easier if Bert would just get it... if Bert did not have his personality quirks with boundaries.  Terry finally accepted that Bert was Bert, and Terry needed to assert herself.  But Terry did not want to antagonize him.  She wanted it to be easy.  Terry pleaded with the therapist to tell her just the right words to use.  Instead of giving her the perfect words to use, the therapist asked "Do both of you appreciate how much each of you has been trying to be a good co-parent?"  They were able to acknowledge that the commitment and effort was there.  The performance was sometimes lacking, but they both really tried.  The therapist proposed that the key was to recognize that to try harder or be better is not to demand perfection.  Then each individual can appreciate the other's effort and integrity at working at being a good co-parent or partner.  To be able to appreciate oneself however, the individual needs to be aware of (wary of) the desire to be perfect… to be a perfect parent, a perfect partner, a perfect mirror, a perfectly in tune person, and so forth.  It can be a devious trap- a dangerous ideal self-definition that destroys self-esteem.  What is a perfect co-parent, partner, family member, or colleague?  What makes a perfect relationship?  Each individual has his or her individuality, which makes another person's "perfect" responses dependent on getting his or her specific needs addressed.  The perfect behavior response set for one individual can easily be problematic and even dangerous for another person.  While the basic principles of good communication and cooperative behavior can be reasonably agreed upon, every individual has his or her own nuances of energy and processes that require some adaptations in the relationship.  There is no singular universal perfect model unless the individual believe there is a matching singular universal perfect relationship model.  Sound relationships will always require some flexibility and creative on-the-spot in-the-moment decisions.  An art teacher can teach the individual how to mix paints and colors; teach the individual how to choose and use different brushes; and show the individual the principles of composition, but as the individual mixes the paint, it will always be an artistic decision that it is the right color and texture.  As the individual places the brush on the canvas, it will always be an artistic decision how thick, wide, and long a stroke the individual will make.  And, then the individual make an artistic decision again with the next stroke.  And then again with the next stroke.  The therapist is like the art teacher.  With all the therapy, at the last moment... in the moment, each individual has to make the final judgment call to do this or that.

The therapist will conduct therapy as a craft and a science, but needs to also know that it is also an art.  Information that is shared by the therapist suggests craft and technique, and offer science and theory, but after that it is in the individual, couple, or family's hands.  With that, then the therapy and the individual, couple, or family must allow themselves experiments and inevitable mistakes.  And, if an individual is consumed with guilt or shame about the mistakes, he or she will not be able to activate the energy and focus to handle the mistakes.  He or she becomes likely to compound them.  Normally it is not a mistake that destroys a relationship, but a pattern of mistakes over time that are not recognized and addressed.  When one, both, or all partners or family members end up blaming and shaming self or the others, the relationship's focus moves away from problem-solving various issues back into a morass of old self-doubts and recriminations.  In demanding that the other be a perfect partner, family member, friend, or colleague, a powerful message is sent that perfection is possible.   As the therapist expects him or herself to be a perfect therapist, the message to the individual, couple, or family is that they must become perfect as well.  They know they cannot be perfect.  If the therapist is disappointed in and angry about the therapeutic process, the model to the individual, couple, or family is of fundamental unhappiness and low self-esteem.  Individuals will always be most likely to emulate the therapist- both positively and negatively.  The model of self-love, of loving, of honesty, and of humanity, whether from the therapist or anyone is the best message for self-esteem and health for the individual, couple, or family.  Individuals are then the most likely to have compassion for their own and others' challenges and humanity, rather than leak self-esteem from trying to be perfect.  

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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