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Unlearning Unhealthy and Unhelpful Communication Styles

*I do not own the rights to this photo.

Hello everyone! I started writing this blog a few days ago snuggled up under a blanket writing on very cold, snowy day. I am finishing this blog with freezing rain falling outside. This has honestly been perfect writing weather to talk about communication in relationships! Sometimes our relationships do get a bit "icy" and this where communication is key. We've all heard communication is important and good– that's an understatement honestly. It's not just that communication is important and good, it's the kind of communication. Healthy, helpful communication is important. I am in the process of unlearning the unhealthy communication styles I used to survive in an abusive marriage and in my unhealthy patterns. I want to replace unhealthy, unhelpful communication styles with healthy, helpful, and life-giving styles of communication in all my relationships. I know I will make mistakes, in fact I already have. It's what we learn from our mistakes that matter. It's what we change that makes all the difference to those around us, and to those who love us. So how does one unlearn this unhealthy communication? We start with coming to terms with our past and how we learned to communicate poorly in the first place. Once we have admitted to ourselves that our poor communication styles came from a place and time in our lives that was not healthy, good, or life-giving for us, we can then begin to move forward to unlearn those unhealthy communication patterns just as we unlearn our unhealthy life patterns.

On my journey to healthier communication, I have learned one central premise: you can have healthy boundaries and healthy (helpful) communication styles. These two things are not exclusive. In fact, you can't have one without the other. It requires healthy boundaries in our lives to be able to communicate in healthy, helpful ways to those around us. One important reminder to all of us – boundaries are not walls. For too long, my boundaries were walls. Walls keep everyone out. They cut people off. They prevent open and honest communication because we hide behind them. No one knows who you are behind a wall. Boundaries that are walls are built on and with fear. Fear drives our unhealthy communication patterns. We are afraid therefore we outright lie, tell half-truths, omit information, say nothing at all when we should say something, say something insensitive or cruel, and even worse – use our communication to manipulate and control others. We first have to unlearn our fear. I have spent the last 10 years unlearning fear in my life from many sources – childhood, young adulthood, school, work, and yes in relationships.

Unlearning my fear in relationships has been hard, lengthy, and painful. In recent months, I have been unlearning a lot of fear and learning new, healthier ways to communicate with others, particularly with others I have had severe disagreements with and we don't see eye to eye. This (and I) is a work in progress and I am committed to this process. In fact, just yesterday, I told a silly half-truth out of fear about a movie. I told this half-truth to a good friend, none the less, who would not have responded poorly to me if I'd told the truth! Why would I do that if I were still not afraid on some level - afraid of what this person would think of me if I told the whole truth? The truth is this has been a pattern for me in my life a long time – telling half-truths, omission, or outright lying because of fear. And as I am a work in progress, I decided today, January 14th, 2024, that the pattern of telling half-truths, outright lies, and omissions because of fear of what others would think or feel is no longer going to control or be a part of my life. I will speak and communicate the truth in healthy, helpful ways that encourages and gives life to people, or I will not speak. This won't be easy and that is okay. Nothing good is ever easy. Nothing life-giving is not without the pain of dying to one's self. Taking responsibility for my words and communication requires hard choices, and will not always feel good. I am good with the hard and the uncomfortable. I am good with not caring what anyone thinks of me or about my life. Choosing healthy, helpful, life-giving, truthful communication is good, good for me and good for you.

Now you may asking at this point, “Elizabeth, if letting go of my fear to choose healthy communication is good and good for me, where do I start? What do I not do when communicating with others? What do I do?”

First Things First

Let go of and unlearn your fear of other people and their opinions of you (e.g., validation). To be honest, other people aren't thinking about you and what you are doing as much as you believe. The fear of people will hold you back. The fear of people will keep you from helping others. The fear of people will keep you locked in unhealthy, toxic relationships going around and around in chaotic circles on a never ending merry-go-round because you can't say “no” or “I don't want to do that”, or “I don't agree with you (that).” The fear of people can keep your from being who you are and living life in your purpose. The fear of people can even keep you from enjoying life, robbing you of your peace, happiness, and joy. Does any of this sound inviting? No! Letting go of the fear of people and their opinions won't be easy, but it will be worth it. It will take practice and perseverance. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, at times it will be uncomfortable or even unpalatable and you will be free – a freedom that I can tell you is like no other! Let go and be free!

Unhealthy vs. Healthy: Some Comparison

Unhealthy Communication #1: “Cut and Run”

I have used this tactic most of my life. It is driven by fear and the intense want to not be hurt again so you just leave. It's the easy way out, but it doesn't really solve any of the interpersonal or communication problems you have between you and the other person. It may even feel good and freeing when you do it, but that is part of the lie. You may technically be free of the person but you are not free of the pain and the elephant in the room – the elephant still remains. You have only postponed the inevitable. You will have to revisit the issue with the other person, it will just be later instead of sooner. Cutting and running can also hurt the other person deeply, particularly if they don't have a clue what you are thinking or why you simply disappeared or ghosted them. I have done this too many times. Some of the people I have been able to repair the relationship, at least to where we are at peace, others I have not and that saddens me very much. The easy way out is always easy, but never fruitful and so much more damaging to you and the other person. There is an alternative.

Healthy Alternative #1: Don't Give into Fear

When you don't give into fear, you don't run. You choose to engage the person and the issue. You can also separate the person from the issue. I failed to see the importance of separating the person from the issue for a long time. I am just now fully understanding this myself. Engaging someone may not be easy and it may prove fruitless, at least for a time, but you have also shown them you are willing to stay and work it out. Most people will be willing to work with you, even if it takes time, when they see you are willing to talk it out and work with them toward a solution. You may find that you and them can be at peace with one another, even when a closer relationships is not possible. I have found this to be true.

Now please let me be clear. I am not saying stay in an abusive relationship to show you are not afraid and/or are willing to engage them. When dealing with an abusive person, you will have to not give into fear in a different way – by letting them know where the boundary lines are and what you will and won't do and what they will and won't do to you. Abusive persons need firm boundary lines and structured expectations because they don't have internal boundaries and operate with a fearful mindset about themselves and the world. Many of them are also hurting very badly and have chosen to hurt others because they hurt so much. It's a vicious cycle. In this situation, not being around the person may be best for a time or permanently until they are willing to repent and get help. Silence and absence may be the only thing that gets the attention of an abusive person. Staying away from an abusive person is not cutting and running – it is creating safety in your relationships and preventing harm to you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I'm not running anymore. I am not afraid anymore. I will not let someone treat me badly nor will I treat them badly by cutting them off. All of these things can exist synonymously and they will for me in 2024 and beyond.

Unhealthy Communication #2: Lashing out in anger and/or frustration

Anger and frustration in your communication with others may feel good and even empowering for a time but in the end, it will drive everyone away from you that you love. I have lashed out many times, even with the truth. The truth tied to ugliness of heart, however, is not palatable nor welcome. You will simply shut down communication not to mention the shame you bring into the conversation. Shame doesn't work. Shame just hurts the relationship and the person you are lashing out at in the moment. I have done this so many times in my life. It hurts my heart when I think of the pain I've caused people throughout my life. As I've said before, some of them I have been able to repair the relationship on some level, some I may never be able to repair the relationship. There is a cost for your anger, frustration, and “truth-telling” without love. I'm no longer willing to pay that cost.

Healthy Alternative #2: Practice the Pause

Just breathe. Wait. Don't respond to that text just yet. Don't answer that question just yet or respond to that accusation just yet. This will give you time to get out of the emotional center of your brain and let you cerebral cortex, the higher thinking brain, control your words. Pausing also gives us time to pray or meditate about the situation. By doing this, you will have time to separate the person from the situation. You will have time to look at the situation and consider another perspective. You will also be less likely to lash out and shame someone. After you have paused, this may take be several minutes, hours, or days; then you can respond to the situation in a much more loving and helpful manner. If you need time, tell the person you will respond to their comments in a specific time frame and stick to that time frame. This does not mean that you won't have to share truth or tell them hard things. What it will mean is you will be able to do so in love and with less bite and no shame attached. I am choosing to practice the pause in my relationships. I will take the time to respond in peace and love. One of the things I will put into practice in 2024 to help me do this is a concept I learned in therapy called LEAP. LEAP stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree on something, and Partner (I have not always listened or empathized well, especially when I'm angry). To practice LEAP requires the pause. And if you haven't figured it out already, you can't LEAP with fear. I am going to LEAP into 2024 and fear can't come along for the ride this time or any time.

Unhealthy Communication #3: Continuing to entertain toxic conversations

I could write volumes about this type of nonsense. I call it nonsense because when you entertain toxic conversations, you just go around and around and around on the proverbial merry-go-round. Problems don't get fixed. Relationships issues don't get solved. You simply continue to enable poor choices and behavior toward you. You get hurt and the other person gets hurt. I can tell you from experience that many things get said that would be better off not said. Toxic conversations also revolve around blame, accusation, and a great deal of whining – three things that signal you are dealing with someone who has victim mentality. You can't talk someone out of being a victim, I have tried. You can't talk them into solving problems or looking at their own problems. A toxic person with victim mentality has to choose to change their life. Going around in endlessly pointless conversations with them will not make them change. Toxic conversations wear you out and steal your peace and joy. I have a better idea.

Healthy Alternative #3: Take a Break

As simple as this sounds, taking a break from a toxic person and their conversations is not only helpful and healthy, it will send a very important message to the individual who is toxic. The message the toxic person will receive is that you will speak with them when they want to solve their problems and not blame others or accuse others including you. Let me give you an example of taking a break from a toxic conversation and person:

John (who has repeatedly crossed your personal boundary lines): “I don't know why you hate me. You know I love you. I just can't help myself. You just don't love me like I love you. Please sit down and have a conversation with me.” (He repeats this to you five times and does not let you get a word in)

Elizabeth: “No John, I will not sit down and have a conversation with you. You have repeatedly crossed boundaries I have asked you not to cross. You have repeatedly blamed me when you face the consequences of your actions. You have repeatedly accused me of things I did not do and refuse to take accountability for your actions. You do not love me if this is how you want to continue to behave in this relationship because love does not accuse or blame, love rights wrongs. I am hanging up the phone now and taking a break for the next 3 days from speaking with you. When you want to have an honest conversation about what is really going on in this relationship, you have my phone number.”

And then you hang up the phone promptly and you don't answer the phone or texts if it is that person for the allotted time you stated. Sometimes this time has to be longer than the example above because the person is simply not safe. You hold your ground. I can guarantee you they won't like it because they are being called to task on their responsibility in the relationship. They also have lost their control over you and their ability to manipulate you. The truth is, they will either own their issues and speak with you again or they will not own their issues and then you have other decisions to make. Taking a break from a toxic person and conversation is not selfish or wrong – it is necessary for your mental health and well being. You are not responsible for a toxic person. You don't have to fix them nor make them or their situation better. They have to decide to help themselves. Take that break and be free!

Unhealthy Communication #4 (as it pertains to social media): Blocking and Deleting

I have been the queen of blocking and deleting on social media. I took myself off an entire social media and online community using delete and block a few months ago. I punished everybody with absence and silence and everybody didn't deserve that type of unhealthy and unhelpful communication. You know what? It also accomplished nothing. I simply made people wonder if I was okay and wonder what they did. The individual I had the issue with should have been my only focus. However, I could not even focus on dealing with the person I had issue with because once again instead of having an honest, even uncomfortable conversation, I took the easy way out. This was my version of cut and run on social media. Once again, driven by my fear. I have blocked and deleted many people on social media for some really silly reasons in the past – whether it be a silly disagreement, someone else didn't like them or once again, I couldn't have an honest, hard conversation. The people-pleasing, frightened, avoidant (e.g., me) struck all the time. This was silliness on my part. I know a better way now.

Healthy Alternative #4 (as it pertains to social media): Wait and See

First and foremost, if you are a people-pleasing, frightened, avoidant like I was, you have to deal with yourself first. This type of dysfunctional coping will find it's way into all of your interactions and communication. You must deal with the roots of this dysfunctional coping in your own heart and mind. The next most important thing is have an honest, uncomfortable conversation before you block and delete. Yes I said uncomfortable because no conversation worth having was ever easy. If the person will engage you and you can have a respectful, civil conversation and come to an understanding or a solution in your relationship, then this is a win-win. If you can't do this with this person, then you may have to limit their access to your life if they continue to be toxic and harmful for a certain time or permanently. You won't know until you wait and see if you can have the conversation. If you block and delete first, and never give opportunity for a conversation, then you will never know and you will not be giving the person a chance to make it right if they want to do so. Also, if a person does not know that they offended you and suddenly they are put off your social media, this will create a lot of confusion and do a lot of damage that may be hard to repair in the future. Please wait and see. You may be surprised what can be worked out in your relationships, even on social media.

My hope is that these comparisons and my experience with them can give you a place to start on your own journey to healthy and helpful communication. You don't unlearn the unhealthy and unhelpful ways you used to communicate in your relationships overnight. You don't learn healthy and helpful communication overnight either – all of this will require time, humility, and effort. I implore you to take the time, be humble, and put forth the effort to make your relationships better. You may never get the chance again. Life is too short and too precious to live in regret, bitterness, anger, frustration, and unforgiveness toward other people because you simply would not have a conversation. Have the conversation! Get uncomfortable! Be free! Don't wait another day!



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