VIBES, BODY LANGUAGE, AND UNCONSCIOUS COMMUNICATION
By Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.
(Names and some circumstances have been changed to protect people's identity and confidentiality.)
Bob comes into my office and tells me, "I hate people. They all suck. They just want something from you, and then they throw you out." He goes on to tell me how this is especially true in Los Angeles, because here "people are shallow. They're fake. They're just into looks and how much money you have."
Yet, Bob is lonely. He has no friends, is not in a relationship, and does not date. He satisfies his sexual needs by going to a sex club where he has anonymous sex with strangers, and if he could do so without looking at their faces and without any talking between them that would be even better in his mind. Get in, get off, and get out, and he'd be happy, at least ostensibly, momentarily.
Abbie comes in and says, "I don't know why I'm not attracting anyone." She is not looking for a relationship, readily admits that she would be afraid if someone were to offer her one, yet she notices that she used to get attention from men and that it is not happening now. Her reaction is a combination of puzzlement and bewilderment, with a heavy dose of self-criticism that is rooted in a belief that it is not happening because there is something wrong with her and that she is "not good enough."
What both of these people were not seeing or understanding in those moments was that there was something that they were expressing unconsciously, non-verbally, in their attitude, body language, facial expressions, and voice that was conveying a message from them and for them. They were "giving off a vibe." People were receiving the communication and responding appropriately.
It was interesting to see how these people came to discover that the response they got from others changed as their attitude and behavior changed. Bob was able to draw on his experience in therapy with me when I would point out how angry, ominous, and foreboding his facial expression was when he would talk about his perception of people generally and of the exploitive and abusive responses he was expecting from them. His body language was communicating the message, "Stay away. I don't trust you. Don't mess with me or I'll hurt you."
It is no surprise, then, that people did stay away. The only people who ventured in to make contact were either oblivious to those communications or were so focused on their own agendas that they were out of touch with him and his experience.
In his therapy work with me, Bob was also able to learn something more from listening to the unconscious messages he was projecting. His childhood experience was that he was sexually abused by a close family member. He also grew up in a family where various people manipulated and exploited him in non-sexual ways. It is understandable that he came to expect that exploitation, betrayal, and abuse were inherent components of interpersonal interactions, especially among people with whom he would have close, intimate relationships. It also helped him to see how these early experiences of his childhood were affecting his current life today.
In response to these expectations, and in self-protection and self-defense, he tried to separate sexual intimacy from emotional intimacy in his life. The result of this splitting was that he was often operating with mixed agendas and conveying mixed messages of what he really wanted.
Because of his fears of being hurt in emotional relationships, he would go to a nightclub to meet someone strictly for sex. However, he would become very discouraged, disappointed, and further disenchanted when those connections never evolved into personal or emotional relationships. This then became further confirmation of his negative perceptions of people in general and of the superficiality, manipulativeness, and narcissism of the people in Los Angeles in particular.
These experiences fed his hopelessness about finding the life and relationships in Los Angeles that he was wanting and led him to feel impelled to move out of the city, abandoning all that he had invested financially and vocationally in being here. It also caused him to pin all his hopes for fulfillment in his life on returning to his home town, which he had left in order to come here in pursuit of his dreams and which he was now idealizing.
Bob tried to change his interactions with other people and to "give them a chance." Initially, it was only a very small and short-lived chance, and later he was able to sustain his openness and availability to give them more of a chance. He tried allowing himself to look towards developing relationships as potential friendships, rather than sex hookups or lifetime eternal romances. He tried being open and available rather than wary and suspicious, especially given this new context of relationship that he was experimenting with.
He gradually recognized, though with much tentativeness and distrust of his experience and his conclusions, that as he was presenting himself with a different attitude, with different agendas and expectations, and as he was behaving with an openness and availability, people were responding differently to him. They were welcoming and engaging with him. They would talk with him instead of turning away or looking through him. They would introduce him to other people at the professional meeting or the nightclub, and they would include him among their circle of friends and acquaintances. He was no longer alone and lonely.
Abbie also learned something about how her response from people was somehow a reflection of herself. She was able to recognize that the attention she used to get was a response to her previous identity as a helpless, dependent, passive, seductive little girl who was needing a man to dominate her, to make decisions for her, and to enable her to feel good about herself. She was able to see how that attitude was also conveyed in her manner of presenting herself and interacting with people.
Through our work together, she began to change that sense of identity. She was able to examine her feelings of "not good enough" and to see its roots in her relationships with her mother and her father. She gradually came to see how pervasively those experiences and messages from her childhood intrude upon her current life, impact her self-esteem, and affect her current relationships.
She now was more able to feel herself to be a competent, independent, strong woman. She no longer was a helpless, beaten-down, intimidated little girl. She came to recognize that the message of independence that she was conveying was being received by others. This explained for her, in a positive way, why she was not getting the kind of attention that she was used to receiving.
Both Bob and Abbie struggled with how they were perceived by others and by how others were responding to them. As a result of those perceptions and the resulting explanations and interpretations they made about other people's reactions to them, they felt great hurt, sadness, inadequacy, loneliness, alienation, and persecution.
Through their therapy, each of these people came to greater understandings of themselves, the role of their early childhood in their current identity and self-definition, their expectations of the world around them, and how they interpreted the responses and reactions they received from the people in their lives. They came to recognize that their negative explanations and interpretations about those behaviors were sometimes unfounded and could contribute to how they were projecting themselves and to their unhappiness. Both Bob and Abbie came to see that their unconscious communications were influencing the ways in which they were received by the world around them. They saw that they were a part of the construction of their own world, which then enabled them to change their lives.
Dr. Shubs is a psychotherapist in practice in Beverly Hills. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.
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