A big part of relating to another person is staying in the present with them and taking in immediate impressions of their actions, words and feelings and then being able to respond spontaneously. So often we are desperately concerned with what impression we are making on others, we have little internal space for taking in any new impression of them.
As a result, we become limited in our perceptions of them. In this case, we limit our perceptions by how we are imagining them to be receiving us and it may have nothing to do with what is actually going on with them. It is also hard to stay in the present moment with another person if we already have a well-formed preconception of who they are. Our pre-formed mental representation filters how we interpret any new impressions of them.
Our minds organize our experience by bringing past associations to new experience, so that we quickly place new information into old categories and often miss the opportunity for a new experience. In order to prevent this automatic function from completely dominating how we take in new impressions, we have to make a conscious effort not to do so. If we cannot form new associations we get stuck in repetitive experiences and often find ourselves stuck in the same old conflicts with people.
One reason we experience conflicts with others is that we habitually form a series of thoughts and feelings into a reaction. Our reactions become an emotional fact about our experience of someone else. We take our feelings to be facts. Often there is a judgment associated with this “fact”, i.e., the other person has done something that has harmed us in some way and we feel angry, or hurt and basically wronged.
We hold onto these “facts” in which there is already a narrative about what has happened and who said and did what, and how we judge each of these actions. We make decisions as to how we want to relate to this person in the future based on these facts, often concluding that we do not want to relate to them. Sometimes our minds go over and over these narratives, adjusting them slightly here and there, as if rehearsing for a play. We position ourselves as if on a stage.
It is a difficult question to answer why we hold onto these emotional judgments. What do we gain by holding onto our “facts” when it seems that our emotional creations eliminate the room for new impressions, new interpretations, new information and new understandings of events or feelings about events? Our creations make it impossible to relate to the other person. We are now only relating to our own feelings about this person or event.
There are so many possible interpretations of our own behaviors, as often many things are going on within us at any one time; and there are equally as many possible causes for any other persons reactions. The intersection of any two people in an event that provokes either or both of them becomes a multi-layered complexity that cannot be easily reduced to any one simple meaning.
When these complex emotional events are untangled by the process of each person telling their side of the experience and expressing their feelings, so that each person becomes aware of all the many layers of meaning, it becomes a challenge to hold on to a one-sided, simplistic position. Our emotional “facts” recede when we can hear the complexity of another persons experience and realize how little our “facts” have to do with what is going on for them.
Part of the process of untangling is to express what you really want the other person to hear about what has happened for you. Getting more in touch with your own need for having your experience recognized by the other person, can relieve some of the need to cling to the narrative, your “fact.” Sometimes our fixed narratives dissolve when they have been heard and understood by the other person.
Once either or both people in a conflict grasp the multi-layered, often paradoxical nature of their own feelings and behaviors, their new perspective helps them to listen less defensively to the other person. They may come to see that the need to defend themselves by holding onto a pre-conceived position prevents them from being present and actually relating to the other person. Being less defensive is an opening to being more present.
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