Monica couldn’t believe she was having a heart attack. She doubled over and gripped the back of the restaurant chair. Thankfully she was having lunch with her friend Jane, who knew something was terribly wrong and called an ambulance.
Monica told me this story a few months later when she and her husband Tom came to couple’s counseling. “ Now that I’ve had some time for physical recovery I want to do the same for our marriage. When conversation is flowing with Tom, I feel nourished and energized. But when our communication is blocked, it feels like an emotional heart attack.” I smiled when she said this, “ Yes, I know what you mean.”
Since having heart surgery, Monica had been faithfully following her doctor’s guidelines for diet and exercise. She stopped smoking and lost weight. Now she and Tom were motivated to have a similar kind of rehab for their relationship. The wanted to learn healthy guidelines for mindful communication.
While she accepted that there are some things about aging and death that are unavoidable, Monica also realized that she could gain control of her heart disease. I supported her in seeing parallels with relationship recovery. Although relationships have a beginning and an end, there’ a lot of unnecessary suffering we inflict on each other that can be prevented with mindfulness training.
Open and Closed
“ What communication habits do you want to strengthen?” I asked.
“ I want to be more honest but at the same time to be more open to giving and receiving love.”
What communication habits cause your emotional heart attacks?”
“ Well, the opposite I guess. Being defensive, angry, resentful.”
Pause for a moment and ask yourself
1. Green Light: What kind of communication nourishes you? How does this effect your relationships? What are the communication habits do you want to cultivate?
2. Red Light: What is toxic communication? How does it effect your relationships? What are the communication habits do you want to avoid ?
Green, Red, Open, Closed
After introducing Monica and Tom to the metaphor of the traffic lights and handed each of them a contemplative journal.
When you feel open, it’s Green light. “Pay attention to those times when it feels like the channel of communication is open. It could be when your alone, walking the dog. Or looking at the stars at night. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. Just notice what openness means to you and write about it in your journal.”
The green light indicates that communication is open, like a bridge that connects us. Spontaneous moments of openness happen all the time but normally we don’t pay attention to them. In this training, we learn to recognize these moments and trust the experience of our own basic healthiness. This is how we discover what authenticity feels like.
The Red Light
“When you feel closed, it’s Red light . Write about this too… with as much detail as you can. How does it feel when communication closes down. This too can happen when you’re alone, when a storm of angry thoughts sweeps you away. Or it could be with someone else, anyone. Just notice”.
The red light is the signal that communication has shut down. This is a danger zone because instead of a bridge between us there is a barrier. Words and emotions might escalate, but the connection has been lost.
Bridges and Barriers
Simply observing how we open and close, without judgment, can lead to insight about how and why we move in and out of these patterns.The image of traffic lights is helpful, because the green and red lights flicker on and off all the time, depending on our sense of emotional safety. We don’t have to find the perfect formula. When you’re open, no matter how well your words hang together, it comes across as being genuine. When you’re closed, the most glib communication style can feel toxic.
The traffic light symbols can help you navigate your conversations. At first, they offer a simple way to talk about your experience and to remind you of what you want to cultivate and to refrain from as your communication goals. But on a more profound level, these symbols help restore authenticity, guiding you back to reconnecting more to who you really are.