I haven’t changed nearly as much as I’d hoped.
A couple of years ago, I made some short videos about various relationship topics. Recently, after I announced the upcoming publication of my book Make Love Better, some of these videos have circulated on social media. It’s always been challenging for me to watch myself on video—not sure if that will ever change. But what struck me most in this video (topic: navigating relationship when your partner’s political beliefs are antithetical to your own), was not so much what I said, but how I said it.
What struck me was my smile. Which made me smile. And blush in front of myself.
Allow me to explain.
In Chapter 6 of Make Love Better, I discuss how information conveyed to others through non-verbal signals has as much (sometimes more) impact as does the verbal content. Nonverbal signals—tone of voice, speech cadence, facial expression, body posture—bring an atmosphere and feeling tone to your communication; when the feeling tone doesn’t match the verbal content, others are confused. If you tell me you love me while crossing your arms or gritting your teeth, I probably won’t believe you—even if you explain that you are cold or have a toothache. This mismatch between verbal and nonverbal signals is a key source of mistrust and misunderstanding in relationships. It is part of why we don’t trust leaders.
These unintended aspects of communication express highly individualized messages and meanings that may not be obvious. It can wreak havoc when those messages remain hidden or are misinterpreted. In Chapter 6, I outline the skills and practices needed to unfold unintended communication.
For example, while in my 30s, I did a lot of international teaching. In certain countries, I got criticized for smiling too much. People called it “an American thing,” and said it wasn’t genuine—which fueled my inner critic, but also made me curious. So, I videoed my teaching sessions and studied my smile. Here is what I wrote about what I learned:
When I listened to my verbiage, I was pleasantly surprised. I found my content intelligent and interesting. But the smile bothered me. So, I let my smile speak—in its language. I forced myself to imitate the smile I saw on the screen. I felt into it, trying to discern what my smile was trying to say.
I want you to like me. I want you to think I’m smart. Please…
I curbed my shame and realized some things.
One: I needed more feedback… My smile begged for interaction, but indirectly, which annoyed people. There was nothing inherently wrong with my desire for feedback—but I was asking in a covert, confusing way. If I could be more deliberate and conscious about my needs and communicate them in a more direct fashion, not only would I be a better communicator, I’d be likelier to get what I was asking for.
Two: Young, female, and working in a field that valued years of lived experience, I felt insecure and in need of others’ approval. I wanted from others what I couldn’t yet give to myself—a confidence boost. But, my smile worked against me, lessening my impact.
My overzealous smile became my teacher. I paid attention for years and tracked the results. I discovered that my smiling was not constrained to my working life; I smiled excessively with partners—particularly men—indirectly seeking their love and approval. I smiled when I wanted attention, when I wanted to influence a dinner or movie choice, and even when I was hurt. On the surface, I appeared flexible and generous, or sometimes incongruent or fake. On the inside, I begged or expected, was angry, or attempted to control.
The smile held worlds of information, all of which could have been lost, had I forced myself to subjugate my facial expression.
Apparently, my smile is tenacious. Twenty-five years later, there it is! Banging on the door of my awareness to remind me of the traps of my female socialization—the desire to be liked and approved of, to be thought of by others as smart, to place the locus of my worth outside myself.
Putting a book out in the world requires that I work on this anew. I want to feel proud of my accomplishment, regardless of how I’m received—quite the daunting task for someone who has spent much of her life combatting a tendency to over-focus on feedback from others. I’d like to find that quiet spot inside—more of the time.
I’m reminded of something C.G Jung said.
“The serious problems in life, however, are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so, it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of the problems seems to lie not in its solution, but in our working at it incessantly.” (1)
If you’ve been working on the same issues over and over again, if you find yourself saying, I’m _______ (fill in whatever age you are) and should be over this by now, don’t despair.
Join me. Enjoy it—and keep on.
(1) C.G. Jung. “The Stages of Life", Collected Works, vol 8, 1931, p. 39
Jan Dworkin, PhD. Coach, Therapist, Author, Educator, Awareness Cultivator, Art Dabbler. If you like my blog, please share or subscribe here.