Two Powerful Steps to a More Satisfying Life
The body reveals our inner life. Moment to moment, our unmet and often unconscious needs are revealed as feelings, expressions, moods, or actions. Yet, we are not taught how to speak about or understand them.
The ability to sense behind sounds and actions is hardwired into all mammals’ nervous systems and brains. It helps us respond to the needs of our tribe to ensure survival and help us thrive.
In the vacuum between the knowledge of our unmet needs and the ability to speak about them, we jump to assumptions about what we experience in ourselves and each other, moving past inquiry to judgment. Guessing about the inner life of others creates a lot of relational churn.
When we can decipher and speak about our unmet needs and feelings, relational satisfaction improves and conflict decreases. Speaking a need is like air to the lungs.
Recently, I was talking with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Our conversation that normally flows was strained. I felt hesitant and guarded. There was a virtual wall preventing us from connecting. We both felt it. What was it? I wanted to feel connected and in tune, but I couldn’t. Was the block in me – was I being standoffish? Was the block in them? Or both?
Humans are complex organisms. Nuances in relationship—a slight downturn of the lips, a glance away, a shoulder shrug—can cause disrupted expectations at work or home and trigger big reactions in our body that others experience.
Revealing our inner life feels unsafe. So, we try to hide our reactions. This is like a three-year-old covering their eyes and thinking you can’t see them. Everyone knows something is up. They just don’t know how to relate to you or ask about it.
When I was young, my father – the head of the household – would occasionally come home from a long day at work disrupted. He would be silent and closed off. He would not play, talk much, or make eye contact. We all observed these actions and were impacted by them.
When asked, my father would say he was fine. My young self knew he was not. His body and face told the real story. Though I didn’t know the word at the time, my father was being incongruent. He was feeling disrupted on the inside, but claimed he was not. This incongruence led me to make up stories about what was going on instead of understanding, often blaming myself for his cutoff when it had nothing to do with me.
As a child, in this short, but consistent communication, I learned two things: 1) If something is wrong, pretend like it isn’t, and 2) Don’t reveal my inner life to anyone. I embodied these skills. This was my normal.
Through feedback from others, I began to understand how even though I thought I was doing right – using the skills I was taught – keeping my inner life to myself was causing turmoil.
Just like my Dad, I was hiding in plain sight. My face and body told the story I was trying not to tell. My voice, actions, and mood said something was disrupted. Connecting to this disrupted feeling, understanding why it was occurring, and talking about it was a skill I never knew existed.
With help and patience, I began the journey to learn and practice ways to communicate the feelings and needs driving what I expressed through my body. When I shared my inner life, I felt lighter, more in tune with myself, and more connected to others. The relationships in all aspects of my life deepened. I became more empathetic. When I could understand my feelings and needs, I could also understand that others had them too and inquire about them.
I decided to apply this skill to the situation with my friend. I had felt my reaction to hide and avoid arising. Something on the inside needed to be named. It was my job to discover it.
Here comes the rub. Hiding feels right. It is what I learned to do. Revealing feels as if I’m betraying some long-held pact or sharing a secret. I am. The pact was a contract I never consciously signed, and the secret needs to be revealed for me to move forward in my life and feel connected.
This is the conversation I had with my friend.
“I feel hesitant and guarded. I need to matter to you and be included in your life.”
Revealing this felt as though I was walking out high above the ground on a cracking limb.
My friend responded with their feeling and need. They felt uncomfortable and needed more clarity.
I was asked to reveal more. It was heart wrenching. My stomach was full of buzzing bees. I longed to get back to the tree before I fell. I felt tears well up. My heart rate increased. I wanted to hide. That’s how I knew I was getting closer to the truth.
“I value your friendship and haven’tt had much time with you lately. I enjoy our connection and miss you. I want to add value to your life and feel you’re moving beyond me, and that you may not need me anymore. I guess I’m blocking you out because I feel scared I will lose you as a friend.”
At this point they visibly softened. Their shoulders dropped and they sighed. We were again connected. We entered into a lovely conversation about the benefit we each receive from the other and the commitment to our friendship. The conversation was air to my lungs. That short period of discomfort helped me feel satisfied in my need for connection.
This disconnect between what we reveal with our body and what we share in words happens daily. It is often the subject of my coaching conversations.
We are hardwired to sense something is off with another. We make assumptions about people all the time. To improve your satisfaction in relationship both with yourself and others, you have to break the unconscious pact you signed and reveal the feelings and needs behind your mood and actions.
Usually, we feel compelled to use this skill when we are disrupted. Once you try this process a few times, I highly recommend using the skill when you feel GOOD! It’s just as important to name your satisfaction as it is to name your disruption.
If disrupted, begin with the “I feel unsatisfied” column. Find the word or words that best matches your inner life. And share what YOU feel.
Then move to the “I need…” column. Find a word or words that best matches your inner life. Share what YOU need.
When my husband and I practice this with our two children, we often choose three to seven feelings and needs using Grok cards, whittling the cards down over the course of the conversation. You have permission to choose and speak about all that you can handle in one conversation.
When you first begin, it may take multiple rounds to land on your truth. Your listening partner may have follow-up questions. Go to this article on active listening for some ideas on good follow-up questions.
I encourage you to share this widely. When more people have these skills, the world will be a more satisfying place for everyone.