The message not the messenger

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I am seeing an increasing number of communication dilemmas involving misperceptions between what’s being said versus what’s being interpreted. When explaining this perplexity, I describe it as not being the “message” but the “messenger”. For example, the “message” a father was trying to communicate to his daughter during a recent incident was that he thought highly of her and couldn’t understand how not being able to zip her books into her bag could cause an emotional melt down. The messenger was a career retired military officer. What he stated was, “What is it now!” His daughter is an extremely intelligent, talented, and capable adolescent. However, what she heard was that she was unworthy, could never do anything right, and was being overly emotional.

The cognitive dissonance between what was said and what was interpreted had been occurring for a while and had taken a toll on this young lady. Parents are the first real relationship we have in life. Unfortunately, mental health issues, a lack of communication skills, and/or unexpressed expectations can taint the development of a child’s self-esteem. This phenomenon often exists between parents and their children. However, you may also see these dynamics occur between a husband and his wife, or between friends. In extreme cases it could be considered emotional abuse, which is a deliberate invalidation of a person’s emotional health and well-being. But what do you say or how do you communicate this when there’s actually an earnest intent to help someone?

“It’s not the message. It’s the messenger.” If your intent is to help, then perhaps you can start by meeting the person where they are, or finding out why something small to you seems so large to them. Again, in the case of my extremely talented client, it was not the books she couldn’t get into her book bag. It was waking up late, bumping her head on her bed, makeup snafus, academic stress, and a couple of year of having her feelings unintentionally invalidated by her parents. Without knowing this information, of course the tearfulness that followed her father’s ‘help’ was confusing to him. As a person randomly walking into someone else’s chaos, her actions made no sense to him.

What she needed to hear was that he could see she was having a difficult morning and that he believed she would get herself together. Asking her what she needed him to do would have been the cherry on top of his valiant efforts. The perfect exemplification of such support was actually given by my young client. She shared with her father that she had a friend who was frustrated with her algebra class. This friend had been avoiding my client because she had already taken and successfully passed algebra. My client told her friend that she remembered how hard algebra was when she took it for the first time. She told her friend whenever she needed help, she would be there for her friend. In her young and limited life experiences, this young lady’s communication skill had surpassed that of her experienced, educated father.

I offer to you and your clients the same advice I extend to everyone who faces this issue:

  1.       It is considered rude or disrespectful to deny someone’s emotional state because you’ve overcome that stage of life or you have not taken any steps to understand why a mole hill has become a mountain.
  1.       Gary Chapman’s Love Languages concept is real. A ‘words of affirmation’ person doesn’t recognize or acknowledge the unexpressed apology of an ‘acts of service’ person. Over time, the innocence of these miscommunications can be disastrous. Meeting a person ‘where they are’ is as simple as finding out their love language and “speaking” (i.e., acting out) the other person’s love language to express appreciation and support.
  1.       Lastly, you cannot tell a person they’re wrong or illogical because they don’t do something in the same manner as you would. This egocentrically places expectations on people who may not have the same resources or life experiences that influence your decisions. Reference the Albert Einstein quote that everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.

Even good intent sometimes needs to be modified or interpreted. It’s not the message. It’s the messenger.

About Chevette Alston Psy.D.

Chevette Alston, Psy.D., has earned two bachelor degrees from North Carolina State University (Multidisciplinary Studies & Sociology), one masters degree in Counseling from UNC-Chapel Hill, and a Clinical Psychology doctorate from Capella University. She is currently pursuing a masters in divinity at Regent University. Dr. Alston has almost 20 years of experience in mental health counseling and treatment. She has also been an adjunct instructor for schools such as Johnson & Wales, Tidewater Community College, Regent University, and currently South University. Dr. Alston is licensed as an LPC in North Carolina and Virginia. She is also trained and Board eligible as a clinical psychologist in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Her clinical skills include EMDR, hypnotherapy, and trauma training. She is currently the director for the Center for Attention Deficits at Christian Psychotherapy in Virginia Beach. Other duties include psychological assessments for children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Alston’s target populations are women's issues, marital counseling, AD/HD, depression, trauma, anxiety, stress, grief, and parenting skills. She sees a variety of clients in all age ranges and cultures. In addition to clinical supervision, Dr. Alston is also an occasional co-host for local radio shows and is available for public speaking. Esiri Ministries is her grassroots mental health initiative. The women’s empowerment organization was incorporated in April of 2013 and is a 501(c)(3) charity organization. ESIRI is a non-profit venture that is dedicated to the mental health and well-being of all, but the specific population targeted is women of all ages. In addition to psychological treatment, a variety of classes, networking, and conferences for self-improvement and education are offered as well. Contact esiri-va.org or esiri@outlook.com for questions or for more information.

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