letting it rip: a rant on incongruent messaging

Standard

i’m in a mood today and i’ve been in this mood actually for a bit longer than a day. it’s not a bad mood; in fact, the more i think about it, i realize it’s not a mood at all. it’s more of a perspective. i’m a little all over the map on this subject, but it all works out in the end.

bear with me: about five years ago i used to go to this group therapy once every 3 months or so with a former therapist who (after moving south) would venture north to invite his northern virginia clients to participate in what he called “process group therapy.” this group of his was anything but random because three of the participants (myself included) had known each other quite well outside of group for years. we’d been “surface dwellers” (a term my husband coined about people who hang out, but don’t *really* know each other for one reason or another) together as parents and friends for a while. how’d they find out about this therapist? yours truly. yeah… i know. i have a big mouth.

anyway, i have a friend who is a family therapist and when i told her i was in this group together with two other friends she just about flipped. i didn’t know why she’d flipped until she explained, “that’s really unprofessional; there will clearly be breaches in the ‘sequester’ rule,” — the rule now more colloquially known as ‘what happens in vegas stays in vegas’ rule — because the three of us saw one another on a near-daily basis. my therapist friend was right; while we didn’t abuse the confidentiality of the agreement, we didn’t respect it either. in our defense, most of the commentary we made was supportive and encouraging of our fellow groupers who were clearly in a lot more trouble than at least i was.

in retrospect, it seems as though this old therapist (yes, i have a new one, a female this time) formed the group as an experiment. i also felt exploited by him (i’m blessed or cursed with a strong personality and i’m more resilient than some of the other members of the group) because i’m tougher and candid. after the 4th weekend-long session, i quit going. i didn’t tell anyone (didn’t know i was supposed to!) in the group but i told him (apparently i broke some unspoken rule that if one wanted to leave one had to present its case to the group which would talk that person out of leaving — i’m guessing). the reasons i quit were mine alone but i thought they were pretty good ones: NO ONE CHANGED in the least and i really didn’t understand the point of the sessions after a while, it just seemed like an expensive bitchfest and a comparison of who should feel more sorry for whom.

look, this was not cheap: it was $450 a weekend for basically 10 hours of therapy. each time we gathered, i took away some tools with me. unfortunately some of them were: “i thank god i’m not that guy” or “wow, remind me to pay my taxes on time…” or better ones like, “i will kiss all my babies goodnight tonight and no (more) yelling at bedtime…” or “i’m pretty frickin high-intensity… maybe i should bring it down a notch or 12…” and my personal favorite: “black & white thinking is bad.” and that’s true… that was the best thing i learned all through the process: that black & white thinking is harmful to not only the thinker, but to the target of the thinking and the target of the intention. i had a acquired and developed a taste for black & white as a kid. when you’re surrounded by chaos, the things you know are absolutes become your friends, trust me. anything the slightest bit nebulous was rejected right away.

so i began to think, what was the point in being with these people if there was no improvement and the same patterns kept repeating themselves and the same behaviors were manifesting and repeating the same outcomes…? right? their thinking didn’t line up with their actions; their words didn’t mesh with their actions. it was incongruent. if you want to get better, then stop doing the same stuff and expecting different results. stop repeating yourself. stop drinking if you’re drinking too much; stop eating if you want to lose weight; tell the truth if you lie all the time; cut back on your commitments if you disappoint people by blowing them off; if you yell at your kids all the time and want to stop then get help; if you gamble and want to stop then go to gamblers anonymous; start exercising if you feel weak, breathless, out of shape… just y’know, do it. 1+1=2; 1+0=1. progress.

easier said than done, i know. but if things don’t improve, then i have a right, as then a person in that group, and now as a person on this planet who has to listen to the complaints to sorta y’know, walk away or posit the “why are you here? just to bitchandmoan?” question. i don’t know. if you don’t like the way your life is going and you are reasonably able to attend to it, insofar as attending a weekend group therapy with a therapist and others then… y’know, start doing the do…

ok…i’ll get more to the point of all this, but one more thing (and we’re getting closer, you just don’t know it yet): i’ve always been about candor, change and self-accountability and doing what i can with the love i have for myself and others to get my shit together, pull myself up, dust myself off and start on something new and that also means leaving people be if that’s what it takes for me to continue to put myself first and maybe for them to get what they need.

some of those people in group therapy, for whatever reason — clinical, metabolic, mental, physical, whatever as i’m not judging — simply could not move on. some of them had RIDICULOUS attachments to the therapist also (so there’s that: to me, a good therapist really should work him/herself out of a job, that means you’re getting better… but not this guy — he had some of these clients for like, 20 years… and then there’s the resistance on the client side: if i get better, i won’t get to see my therapist anymore… so there’s no growth for either person as far as i’m concerned). one of the groupers was totally attached in a creepy almost cult-like fashion: she actually moved to where he lived after he left NoVa so she could be closer to him… and he allowed it… once i heard that, of course a flag went up — who’s enabling/codependent on who here? — and that freaked me out. i would say my clock to leave started ticking when she sheepishly but yet in an oddly territorial way announced she followed him to his new state (north carolina, not consciousness, obvi). nothing was the same for me after that.

and before you get all whatever on me, yes, i realize there are really good therapists and it sucks to have to begin a relationship with a new therapist, but y’know, therapists die too; you deal. in fact i now remember saying that to her, that he’d die one day, when she told us she followed him and she looked at me with flames in her eyes. she sank back in her chair — her body said, “yes” but her eyes said, “NO! NOT HIM! HE WILL NEVER DIE!!!”

as for my co-surface dwellers, we all have our stuff (and you do too, you can’t deny it), and i wish them well but i barely stay in contact with one them and the other one and i don’t speak at all anymore out of mutual agreement. so, the moral from this semi-digression: if you have surface dwelly relationships with friends and you share the same therapist and you are invited to group therapy by the same therapist: DON’T GO. sometimes TMI is TMFI. i mean, c’mon… we have to see these people again. that’s the beauty of a proper group therapy assemblage: you never really see those people again. in fact i think they import participants from iowa, virginia, georgia, north carolina, oregon, tennessee, florida (always florida), new york, maine and bolivia. if your state is taken you have to find a new group.    

ok, my point: i’ve thought a lot over the past few months about a concept i first learned in that group therapy about 5 years ago. the concept was called “Incongruent Messaging” and it has everything to do with where i was going earlier when i talked about walking the walk and doing the Work to get better and not just bitchandmoan. incongruent messaging is about the inner dialogue you have with yourself in comparison to your outwardly stated message. believe it or not, the two don’t always mesh.

so i was called out in group one time for my own incongruent messaging and i thought the person who called me on it was like, freakin’ stupid. but she was right. i was caught shaking my head, winking my eye and smiling when i said really intense and personal things. like how vanna white would turn the massive illuminated letter tiles on wheel of fortune (‘cept for the head-shaking). i was actually recounting a vivid personal memory of a deeply unpleasant moment in my childhood (c’mon… you had at least one two, that time you didn’t get the pony for your birthday or something) and i winked and smiled as i talked about it while also shaking my head.

i won’t go into details, it’s none of your business. but the fact remains that:

i guess i’m not as strong (in retrospect) as i thought i was… i felt like they’d found my flaw and were going to kill me for it. i was asked, like at a witch trial, why i did that. “WHY DID YOU WINK AND SMILE WHEN YOU TOLD US THAT STORY?!” i was asked, “YOU SHOOK YOUR HEAD TOO! ARE YOU LYING?!” and “DO YOU THINK THIS IS A JOKE?!” and i was sorta freaked out by that reaction; i mean, i didn’t get it. i didn’t think the severity of the “crime” met with the reaction from the judges. i probably looked behind myself for someone else telling the same type of story because i certainly didn’t think it was ME they were castigating…

it was me.

and then the spotlight was mine. shit. so i sat and took it; they were totally right. i shook, smiled and winked. i realized much later, because i simply had no answer — i mean, i just learned about my behavior — that the reason i did those things was because i had such a hard time reliving / re-experiencing the emotional weight of the memory and the sadness i felt at both the active recollection in 2007 and the revival of the physical memory from the 1970s. i surmised that i smiled, as i often did as a child in the face of difficult emotional moments, to ease the pain of those around me and to hopefully ease the pain i was feeling myself. and also to appear tough, strong and capable so i wouldn’t get in trouble for crying or showing sadness. and probably, as years went by, to wash off the pain and pretend it didn’t exist. it’s heavy just saying that right now in 2012.

as such, incongruent messaging is a big deal to me. i learned that we can be survivors and perpetrators of incongruent messaging: did you have someone ever smile at you (even a peer as a child) as that person dismissed / reprimanded you? “You’re in big trouble, mister…” or not smiling when you as a child or your kids come through the door but saying “Hey! You’re home!” i remember someone saying to me, “if you want your children to feel valued and loved, smile when you talk to them in a pleasant way and be serious when you speak to them in a serious way…” have you ever walked into a room when no one smiled at you but said they were glad you were there? sucks doesn’t it? (or you can pretend to be tougher than you are and say, “no, that’s their problem.”) you know they don’t probably mean they’re glad you’re there (or they’re not glad they’re there) and yet you stay. why? because you don’t want to hurt their feelings… or because you need to be there because it’s important to you. but if you tell me it didn’t matter to you and yet you tell me about the experience, you’re lying, because if it didn’t really matter to you, you wouldn’t bother talking about it.

sarcasm (one of my personal favorites actually, but i try very hard to use less of it nor apply it to people) is a perfect example of incongruent messaging.

children don’t get sarcasm. they BELIEVE YOU when you say “nice shoes” but don’t mean it, or “good job” on a test or game but don’t mean it. or “take your time” when you’re in a rush and don’t mean it. kids actually don’t have a cognitive appreciation for sarcasm until they are about 13 (based on my own personal experiences). at 11 they think they get it, but they don’t and it’s really hurtful to them when they realize your insincerity. yes, i’m guilty of that. i’ve said to Things 1 and 2 some pretty sarcastic things and then wondered what they were thinking when they followed through.  how about this one, “gimme a hug!” when you are in the other room or walking away or “i’m so glad to see you!” when your back is turned. guilty.

or how about false apologies, “I’m sorry you’re a jerk.” is one example.

what about when you think you’re being congruent and well intentioned? usually incongruent messages like these go unregistered because they’re so common, but we’re still committing them. for example: the shaking of the head (negative) when you *think* you’re saying something positive, “i would love to help you.” often with the words is your internal message “it’s no bother to me” and that’s where the head shaking comes in when it should be a nod/positive. i did that to a dear friend last fall and i laughed with her at my folly and apologized. she didn’t notice it, but because it’d been on my mind for a while (clearly) i’d tried to be more mindful of it. i still do it every once in a while, but now i call myself out on it and literally say, “wait; i didn’t mean to shake my head. i was saying inside that it’s not a bother at all…” do they look at me like i have three heads? sometimes, but i feel better that i’m being more sincere and sometimes we actually talk about the unintentional incongruent message.

“it was absolutely incredible; it was so beautiful.” accompanied by a head shake when the internal message could be “i’ve never (negative / head shake) seen anything like it; and (negative / head shake)  i may never see it again…” i do that one all the time — for instance when my husband took me to The Phillips Collection for the “Impressionists by the Sea” exhibition, i was awe-struck when i encountered by surprise Renoir’s “By the Seashore”  and i simply stopped breathing. i shook my head, slack-jawed, in humble awe of the grace of the painting and the feeling of grace it gave me. in that museum there were pieces by Miro, Dali, Picasso, Matisse, Turner… you name it and they were inspired. so when i finally got myself together, i said, “it’s stunning. the most amazing thing i’ve ever seen… it’s so big!” (and it was!) but i was shaking my head. dan thought i hated it. until i said i loved it.

incongruent messaging is ALL over the media; you’ll see presidents nod when they shouldn’t and shake their heads when they’re speaking pridefully about something truly good — i’ve come to believe that it’s not intentional and we’re so used to it that we don’t notice it, but it’s there. we’re just “asleep” when we do it. it’s all over my favorite guilty pleasure, “The Real Housewives of ____.” those ladies have NO clue about the hidden messages they’re not saying. i see it all over “Mad Men” and i’m sure i’d see it in church if i went to mass. but that’s for another posting…

the point i’m trying to make, as i shake my head at the dysfunction of incongruent messaging but should be nodding in agreement, is that it goes back to mindfulness and intention and that all-too familiar subject i bore my friends to tears with, motivation: if we are mindful in what we are saying, then we will be intent on choosing the appropriately corresponding head motion or body language and our motivation will mesh with our messaging. 

motivation: do we mean to be true or to be false? mean what you say and watch how it works for you. do we follow through on our intention? are we mindful in our commitment?

pay attention to what you say and how you nod or shake, i swear, you’ll see yourself doing it. if you can line up your inner dialog to mesh with the words coming out of your mouth, your actions will flow freely and you will be on your way to getting things done and getting out of your own way.

thank you.

2 responses »

  1. Ahh, this resonates. First, I am sorry about your ex-therapist's betrayal (yes, I count it as such) of your trust. That sucks. Sarcasm still confuses and hurts me, and I just turned 40. And body language is oh so important. I'm not the master of my own either: I smile when I am sad or guilty or confused or just trying to mask pain. But that can be overcome. I think in my case the cause of incongruent messaging is childhood trauma. It simply does not feel safe to show vulnerability. But you are so right as far as the deleterious effects that arise from acting one way when you feel the opposite. For years, it has frankly stymied my social interactions because I am so busy trying not to show my pain that I will do almost anything to hide it. The thing is, I am thawing, and that process is slow and hard work but what I am finding (big sigh) as I start to express what I am really feeling is a whole new world, full of bright colors and real emotions. And it takes both mindfulness and great courage to unpack these pieces and let the world see me for what I truly am. No longer incongruent.

  2. thanks, el. i would not consider you incongruent. i agree very much though that the skill is rooted in childhood trauma and sadness. i began to never consider things as real until they manifested as true. i trusted very little of what i experienced and even the sensations and observations i generated myself became of little solace to me when what i thought didn't jibe with what i was seeing, hearing or experiencing. when you are so conditioned by the messaging that you hesitate to trust yourself… well, that's when the iceberg gets fatter. miriam said so.

Whatcha Think, Smahtypants?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s