In my last post, I wrote about the recent challenges my therapy clients in Plano, TX have faced with their partners. I shared general communication approaches and mindset shifts proven to help strengthen relationships. In this post we explore how to improve communication, and how this can improve symptoms of anxiety and eating disorders. Get ready to learn how to stop avoiding hard topics!
Why work on communication in eating disorder and anxiety counseling?
I find that clients are sometimes surprised when I bring up communication skills. But so many of my counseling clients find it challenging to express feelings and set boundaries. Indeed, research has found that effective communication is a struggle for those with eating disorders and anxiety disorders, particularly social anxiety. If you can’t communicate your needs, they won’t be met. If they’re unmet, it can lead to resentment and feelings of failure. It can lead to seeking out other (less healthy and effective) ways to meet needs. Part of the therapy process is to learn what we are trying to communicate through our behavior, rather than using our words.
Learning to seek validation effectively
I tend to work with a lot of high-achievers, which is not uncommon in those with anxiety and eating disorders. A key focus of our work is to help them keep the passion but ditch the perfectionism. Many learned at an early age that it was a matter of survival to people-please. Some found that doing well in school, sports, or other measurable endeavors helped them get affirmation they were missing at home.
In adulthood, this seeking of external validation might translate to other tendencies. Like taking on too many projects at work to avoid disappointing bosses. Or accepting every social invitation or request of one’s time. Or perhaps bending themselves into a pretzel for their romantic partners, no matter the impact on their self esteem. I work to help my clients seek validation in healthier ways, and communication skills are vital for this.
Learning to change what we can
Part of the work in therapy is to create moments of Zen even within chaos. To this end we work on skills like acceptance and mindfulness. This is the work of accepting what we cannot change.
But sometimes what’s needed is to corral some of that chaos. To change the things we can. This is especially important during the pandemic. We’re facing demands from all sides, and we’re in such close quarters with our family members. As I’ve noted before, living in close quarters correlates with relationship troubles, and divorce is on the rise. We CAN change the way we communicate with our partners. We CAN learn to communicate better to get our needs met!
The good fight
One difficult decision we face in relationships is whether to bring something up if we know it will lead to an argument. On one hand, holding on to irritation can lead to resentment. On the other hand, isn’t processing it on our own better than dragging our partner down with us?
What if those are not your only options? What if it was actually possible to have a constructive conversation that brought you closer to your partner? To do this, we can learn from the so-called “Masters of Relationship,” a term used by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, who specialize in couples therapy.
They observed hundreds of couples and found that the actual frequency of arguments was pretty much the same across the board. Successful couples didn’t argue any less frequently than couples who eventually broke up! The difference was that when these successful couples DID argue, they avoided certain behaviors. These are known as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. [https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/]
Because of this research, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And we definitely don’t have to hold anything in to avoid an argument. We just have to learn to fight fair. Here’s how:
1. Use a soft opening
First and foremost, set the scene. Make sure it’s a good time to talk. Do not approach your partner when they’ve just logged out of their tenth Zoom meeting or five minutes before bed.
If they’re watching TV, treat this as a yellow light. Let them know you’d love to chat, and ask how much more time is left in the show. This allows them to either pause, or finish the show and feel even more receptive to hearing you because they’ve had time to prepare for a conversation.
Keep in mind, too, that a majority of people have a knee-jerk reaction to any version of the phrase, “We need to talk.” One way to be proactive about this defensiveness is to highlight your intentions for teamwork and understanding. Try something like, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about _____ and wanted to make sure we were on the same page. Is there a good time for us to talk today?”
2. Speak from the heart
When you share about something that’s bothering you, keep the focus on your feelings and observations. Many of us make the mistake of interpreting our partner’s behavior and framing the interpretation as fact. For example, let’s say your partner is often late. You might be tempted to say, “It really bothers me that you’re so inconsiderate.” But this is an interpretation of their behavior. It’s pretty much guaranteed to make them defensive.
While interpretations are sometimes accurate, they often just reflect our own view of the world. Luckily, if you can identify an assumption as one possibility of many, it doesn’t matter whether it’s “true” or not. It’s still part of your unique way of seeing things. This is why sharing your thoughts and feelings with your partner, in the right way, can help them to get to know you better and deepen your connection.
The best practice is to state what you know for sure, to frame your interpretation as such, and to get creative about ways to address the issue.
“So, I feel really upset when you’re late. My story about it is that I’m not a priority to you, and that you don’t value my time. Can we work together to figure something out?”
Speaking from the heart in this way allows more wiggle room for possible solutions. If we just focus on getting your partner to be punctual, you’re both held hostage by that specific behavior. You might even get caught in a power struggle. But if we focus on the feeling that you want to have, which is impacted by many things (yes, including their punctuality,) you might figure out other ways to feel prioritized. That way, even if your honey is late every so often, you have that foundation of knowing that you’re valued.
Troubleshooting your troubleshooting
Before we close our eyes and sing Kumbaya, be aware that communication doesn’t always go the way we imagine. Part of the reason love is so exciting is that our partners are always surprising us, for better or for worse. I sometimes have clients tell me that they tried communicating, and it didn’t work. So what now?
This is where the line can be blurry between being flexible and enabling poor treatment. It’s important to notice what “not working” means to you. You can usually find a way to continue working on things. You’re still not getting your needs met, but you may have to keep working at the communication.
Practice makes progress in anxiety and eating disorder counseling
Getting this right takes lots of practice, but that’s what we do together in counseling! You try out new things, and see how they work. If they don’t, you keep practicing or try a different approach. You are always improving communication skills along the way by paying attention to your needs and how to express this to others.
Sometimes, though, you’ve done all you can. You are truly communicating in a healthy manner, but your partner is minimizing your feelings, blaming you, or avoiding conversations. This is tough to realize. Your counselor might then help you transition into the hard work of ending a relationship or finding a couples counselor to work on this with your partner. In learning new ways to communicate your needs, it might sometimes seem like things get worse before they get better. But you will be facing, rather than avoiding, the hard things that were always there. This can ultimately lead to better managing your mental health, including anxiety and eating disorders.
Relationships are hard, and we certainly don’t learn this communication stuff in school. Nor in our families, for the most part. Learning healthy communication has an amazing impact on our self-esteem, our mood, and our relationships. I hope these tips help you get more connected in quarantine!
If you’re ready to work toward communicating your needs better, I’d love to help. I OFFER VIDEO COUNSELING FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE!! If you’re looking for counseling in Plano, Texas contact me here or at 469-850-2420 or email@example.com for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include anxiety, depression, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, and body image issues. My counseling office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.