The Shaming of the Shrew

Contemporary American culture tells us that we’re supposed to function as free, autonomous, self-sufficient individuals. Certain behavioral guidelines and proscriptions have arisen to support this ideal. They exert tremendous influence over how we conduct our interpersonal relationships.

For example, we are not supposed to be clingy or needy. We are supposed to allow our loved ones to “have their own space”. We should be “cool” and not interfere too much. We are definitely not supposed to nag.

As long as they are properly applied, these proscriptions can be seen positively as facilitating healthy consideration for the needs of the other. But hypertrophied and over-applied, as no doubt they often are, they present a barrier to communication and true intimacy, thus rendering FIML very difficult or even impossible.

Terrified of being thought clingy, needy, or dependent, we may adopt a position of anti-clinginess; we may go so far in that direction that we end up isolating ourselves and neglecting our partners.

The idea that our loved ones should be allowed their own space may get twisted into a policy of spending lots of time apart, though deep down we may wonder at the reason for this.

The fear of being a nag (or “controlling” or a “shrew”) may cause us to repress our natural desire to better understand the other person, discouraging us from asking FIML-type questions. Or any questions at all.

FIML depends on our ability to ask questions. Moreover, it depends on our being able to query each other about trivial subjects during mildly difficult moments. This might sound easy. But it’s my guess that many or most of us, if we pay attention, will be able to recognize those culturally programmed voices speaking through us, effectively sabotaging us, at crucial moments that would be ripe for FIML practice. The voices might say things like: “Drop it, it’s not important”; “Don’t ask annoying questions”; “I’m so glad s/he doesn’t bother me with annoying questions”; “Understand Your Man”; “Oh well, she must be PMS-ing”.

Once you see it for what it is, it’s not terribly difficult to disentangle from this kind of programming. But in order to do FIML you may have to struggle against it for a while, especially at first.




The Noble Eightfold Path and Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics (FIML): Part 3

Right Thought: Just as Right Views lead to Right Thoughts, so wrong views lead to wrong thoughts.

In Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics (FIML), a wrong view occurs when one partner misunderstands what the other partner is saying to them. If the misunderstanding has no emotional content, it will be unlikely to cause serious problems. If I ask for a pencil and you hand me a pen because I turned my head as I said “pencil”, it is unlikely that any difficulties will result. This is so because I have asked for a particular physical object. When you hand the wrong object to me, I should know immediately that you misheard what I said. I will correct the mistake and ask you again for a pen, which you will now hand to me.

Seems so simple.

But if we are honest with ourselves, isn’t it true that we have at some time in the past formed wrong thoughts during an exchange as simple as that one? Maybe there was a bit of extra pressure, like doing taxes. In times like that who has never become irritated at having to ask twice for something? Who has never blamed the person who misheard the word you mispronounced? Or if you were the one doing the handing, who has never become irritated and said, “Make up your mind already!” And what couple has never gotten into a fight over an incident as small as that?

Once the fighting starts, who knows where it will end? We can be sure that throughout history many human beings have lost their lives over less than that.

I hope the example above illustrates several points: 1) that the start of the misunderstanding is nothing more than a mistake; 2) that if the mistake is discovered and corrected immediately, no wrong view or wrong thoughts will be formed; 3) but if the mistake is not discovered and corrected, there is a significant chance that an emotional scene will follow.

Even if there is no emotional scene, this situation may well result in one or both partners harboring wrong thoughts. I may not say anything, but I may think that you never listen because you don’t respect me. Or you may stay quiet but think that I am disrespecting you by making so many requests. Unfortunately, there are far too many ways in which even very affectionate couples or close friends can misunderstand each other.

If a misunderstanding does develop from an incident like this, isn’t it clear that that misunderstanding will be likely to grow stronger when similar incidents occur? Once we have formed a wrong view and bolstered it with wrong thoughts, we will have a great tendency to find even more evidence for our wrong thoughts.

In previous posts we have called wrong thoughts of this type neuroses or, to use the Buddhist term, kleshas.

FIML practice is designed to help us focus on very small incidents of wrong view or wrong thought. Doing this helps us discover exactly how and why our neuroses are formed and maintained. By focusing on very small, even trivial, incidents like the one described above, FIML practitioners will learn how to disentangle themselves from the wrong thoughts and neuroses that cause so much trouble in their interpersonal relationships.

If you can catch yourself forming a wrong view and the wrong thoughts that must necessarily follow, you will probably discover one of your neuroses (kleshas) as it is happening. If you can discuss this objectively with your partner and see the matter from their point of view, you will very likely succeed in disentangling, at least for the moment, from that habitual neurotic reaction. And if you can do this three, four, or five times with incidents involving the same neurosis, you will very likely cause that neurosis to be eliminated from your mind like smoke in the wind.

On the Importance of Honesty and the Decision to Believe

An element of FIML practice that will no doubt receive further emphasis is this: At the outset, both partners must agree to be honest with one another.

Perhaps if we were totally honest with ourselves, we’d admit that this sounds kind of scary. Perhaps it conjures up images of tear-soaked confessional outpourings, during which you disclose all your deep, dark, embarrassing secrets on demand. But this is not the kind of honesty we’re talking about.

Say you feel a slight twinge of irritation at not being able to get your meaning across as quickly or easily as you’d like during an exchange with your partner about some mundane topic. If you were to assign a percentage to this irritation, perhaps it would only be 4% of everything that’s in your mind at that moment, but nevertheless you feel it. Say your partner, detecting this slight twinge of irritation in your voice, initiates a FIML discussion and asks, “Did you feel at all irritated just now? The last thing you said sounded a little short,” you must admit to it, rather than saying, “No, I wasn’t irritated at all. I wasn’t being short.” The fact that the irritation was slight, that it only represented a very small percentage of what was in your mind, does not mean it’s too trivial to bring up. Quite the contrary! As far as FIML is concerned, the more trivial the better.

The other side of this, and just as important, is that both partners must agree to believe each other. This can be surprisingly difficult for a neurotic being to do, even during a trivial exchange. Which is why it may be helpful to make a conscious decision to believe your partner, rather than simply relying on a general feeling of trust that seems rock-solid during placid times.

When a neurosis perceives that its ability to perpetuate itself is threatened, as during a successful FIML exercise, it will do what it can to undermine such feelings; it really wants to keep on spinning its tired old tale. But the decision to believe that you made is more impervious to neurotic wiles. It can take over during an emergency and carry you through to the end of the exercise, so that you may enjoy the ultimately pleasant consequences of the death (or at least the weakening) of your neurosis. Over time you may find that your reluctance to believe was itself neurotic.

So, following the example given above (topic still unspecified) say your partner replies to your inquiry: “Yes, I did feel a twinge of irritation. It did occur to me briefly that perhaps you were being a little obtuse, that you were not understanding me on purpose. Please tell me if I’m wrong but I don’t actually think that was the case. I think I was mostly just frustrated at not being able to find the word I was looking for quickly enough…” You must believe them, rather than harboring suspicious thoughts like, “You’re just saying that! You really do think that I was misunderstanding you on purpose! I know what you’re up to!” Of course, if you were being obtuse, even just 4% obtuse, you must say so. Pretty soon these kinds of admissions will seem like no big deal.

As you build up a history of more and more successful FIML sessions, it will become easier and easier both to be totally honest and also to believe. Pretty soon, you won’t have to think about it anymore, it’ll just happen automatically.

The Noble Eightfold Path and Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics (FIML): Part 2

Right View: The opposite of a Right View is a wrong view or a delusion. In Buddhist teachings almost all people are considered to be deluded almost all of the time. Another way of saying that is everyone is crazy.

In Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics (FIML) wrong views (or neuroses or craziness) arise when we form an erroneous interpretation of what someone is saying or has said. When we are not certain about what someone means, we are all but forced to fill in the blanks with an interpretation that arises in our own mind. Generally, those kinds of interpretations will have a long history in us. If we are insecure, for example, we will tend to interpret what people are saying to us in a negative or self-abnegating way.

With most people in most situations, we cannot do much to correct this problem. In most situations, if someone says, “you look nice today,” we cannot ask them if they really mean it. If we are insecure about our looks, we may be powerless to avoid drawing the conclusion that the person is patronizing us by trying to make us feel good. If we are really insecure, we might even decide they are insulting us and walk away feeling offended.

In FIML practice, this kind of very common problem can be corrected by working with your partner. In a secure setting if your partner says, “you look good today”, if you feel a jangle of insecurity or discomfort at hearing those words, you can stop the conversation right there and ask: “Why did you say that? What was in your mind when you said that?” Chances are your partner, especially if they are your spouse, really does think you look good. If that’s the case, you can talk about that for a while and explain how compliments like that usually make you feel, how you both understand what looking good means, etc..

If your partner really was just trying to cheer you up with their compliment, from now on they will know that this is not a good way to do that. Once you both understand each other’s states of mind when that compliment was given, you will then have the opportunity to have a long conversation about compliments, how they feel, why you like or dislike them, when you give them and why, and so on. The important thing to understand is that in doing a FIML exercise, at the very moment that a jangle of neurosis begins to arise within you, you will disentangle yourself from the usual cascade of bad feelings that normally follow. Your partner will also benefit from understanding you better, and in many cases, they will benefit because they have similar feelings themselves.

If conditions allow, FIML practice can and should be done whenever either partner feels a jangle of discomfort, anxiety, fear, sadness, etc. while interacting with each other. If we are mindful, we should with practice be able to immediately stop our conversation and fully explain our states of mind to each other. What we want to do is explain the few seconds just before and during the jangle of discomfort as it arises. If both partners can remember their states of mind and if they can explain them in an objective fashion (no emotion here), both will greatly benefit from the increase in mutual understanding. And both will have taken another step toward basing their relationship on a Right View of each other.

FIML practice emphasizes language because when we work with language, we have good objective data. We want to avoid, especially in the beginning, going into long explanations about our psychology. Instead, we want to focus very clearly on what the words just spoken were and how we may have interpreted them. We can also focus on tone of voice, expression, gesture, or demeanor, but keeping a clear memory of what the words were will almost always make FIML exercises run more smoothly. In many cases, the speaker may simply have chosen a vague word, or a wrong one, and by explaining that remove the need to go any further.

FIML exercises can also be done with excessive or misplaced positive feelings, but negative ones tend to be more common and are easier to deal with at first.

The Noble Eightfold Path and Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics (FIML): Part 1

The first four parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action. In the sections below, we will discuss Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics (FIML) in relation to these four parts.

Right View: An important aspect of having Right View is knowing that our minds are deluded in many ways. In Buddhist terminology, we say that our minds contain many kleshas. The word klesha is translated as “defilement”, “hindrance” (to enlightenment), “toxic fixation”, etc. A klesha is a delusion. It is an error or a mistake in consciousness. It is a wrong view.

It is very difficult to overcome or eradicate kleshas because much of what they obstruct is Right View. When we add the practice of FIML to Buddhist practice, because we are including an intimate partner, we make it much easier to identify our kleshas and correct them.

Right Speech: In the practice of FIML, we focus on the dynamics of our speech and our partner’s speech as it is happening in the moment. For our purposes, a moment is defined as 3-10 seconds. It cannot be longer than what both partners are able to remember with great clarity. Spoken language is a linear series of sounds whose basic unit of meaning is generally a phrase or a word. By focusing on only small bits of language–usually no more than a phrase or two–we provide both partners with real data that they both can agree on. If I say, “I want to go to the store” and you agree that you just heard me say “I want to go to the store”, we can do FIML with that phrase because we both agree on it. If you think you heard me say “I want to go to the floor”, we can also do FIML, as long as you accept my correction when I say that what I really said was “store” not “floor”.

Right Thought: Once two partners (for discussion we will use only two partners in our examples) have fully agreed on exactly what was said, a discussion of the thoughts and feelings behind what was said and heard can take place. To be very crude, if I said “I want to go to the store” and you thought you heard me say “I think you are a whore” much pain and misunderstanding would result if this mistake were not corrected immediately. A good FIML exercise often begins at this point–when one partner believes they have heard something disturbing, something that makes their nerves jangle or that causes unpleasant feelings to arise. At this point, the hearer should immediately begin a FIML exercise by signalling that that is what they are doing and then proceeding in a neutral state of mind to open a FIML query. In this case, the hearer would say something like, “Stop: What did you just say?” The speaker, ideally, would stop and recall what they had just said and then repeat it: “I said ‘I want to go to the store.'” At this, the hearer will probably laugh and say, “I thought you said ‘I think you are a whore.'”

In this example, the FIML exercise might end there. It might also continue with a discussion of why the hearer misheard in that way. Partners might also want to discuss what might have happened had the mistake not been corrected.

Right Action: In FIML exercises Right Action entails observing and/or controlling our emotional reactions the moment they arise. We want to be mindful enough to catch them the moment they arise and trusting enough to discuss them with our partner right away. If the two partners in the example above start arguing about what the speaker really said (“You did too call me a whore, you stupid drunk.”), obviously no progress will be made and basic kleshas will be strengthened.

Good practice of Right Action requires partners, to the best of their abilities, to be mindful of what was said and heard, to observe and control their emotional reactions, to listen to each other, and to be honest with each other. If emotions get out of control, it is best to agree to drop the subject and return to it the next time something like it comes up. If a real klesha is involved, you can be certain a similar or closely related misunderstanding will arise again. Both partners will be better equipped to deal with it when that next happens if they are capable of realizing that they might not have handled themselves as well as they could have during the exercise that just got derailed.

Right Action also comes into play in FIML in that during FIML exercises we must also be aware of our tone of voice, our expression, our gestures, demeanor, and so on. All of these are “actions”. We will get Right about them when we are clear about what they are and how they appear to our partner.

FIML exercises can get heated and go wrong, but once you get the hang of it, that is a very rare occurrence. Over time, a strong foundation of mutual trust and understanding will help partners achieve a Right View of almost all situations that arise between them.

Communication Errors and Neurosis: Part 1

Human communication requires us to fill in many blanks. When we speak with others, we are forced to make guesses about their intentions, choice of words, tone of voice, and more.

In most of our dealings with other people, there is not much we can do to change this. If we are in a store, we normally accept the context of being a customer buying something and expect little more from the salesperson than a pleasant demeanor and basic good manners. If we are the salesperson, we know that we have to offer those qualities and can only hope that our customers will reciprocate. If they are rude, there is little we can do.

No matter where we are, our speech and interactions with others are determined by the context. The context may be a doctor’s office, a bus stop, a hunting camp, a school, a store, or a floor of cubicles in a large corporation. When the context is public, professional, or otherwise well-defined, most of us do not have too much trouble conforming to expectations and playing our predetermined roles in a suitable manner.

When the context of our speech and behavior is more private, however, it also becomes less well-defined. Private interpersonal communications cannot rely on the public norms that support us in stores and offices. Our private lives require a different sort of communication from our public and professional lives.

During private or intimate communications, our need to make guesses about our companions’ intentions, choice of words, or tone of voice becomes both more significant and more difficult to do.

When we blindly fill in the blanks while communicating with a close companion or friend, we inevitably make mistakes. Moreover, the mistakes we make will tend to compound or snowball causing us to build up a consistent and mistaken understanding of our friend. Generally, these compounded mistakes will snowball along the same courses of mistakes we have made in the past. If we are insecure, we will tend to fill in the blanks with interpretations that confirm our insecurities.

What makes all of this even more problematical is our friend is forced to do the same thing with us. If you are insecure and start mistakenly withdrawing from them, they may start to believe you are being arrogant or cold due to their mistaken interpretation of you.

I want to emphasize that we are talking about mistakes here. In Functional Interpersonal Meta Linguistics (FIML), a neurosis is defined as an “ongoing mistaken interpretation.” Mistaken interpretations keep going on within us (and becoming neuroses) because we keep reconfirming them again and again by our mistaken interpretations of what our friends are saying to us. FIML is a method of correcting these kinds of mistakes and thereby of eliminating neuroses.

How many mistakes does it take to form a neurosis? I believe we can and often do start forming neuroses from as little as a single mistaken interpretation. Once the ball starts rolling down the hill in one direction, it will keep going in that direction.

How many mistaken interpretations do we form in a day? I believe we form many mistaken interpretations during any day that we interact with friends. Some of these mistaken interpretations will be positive and some negative. Most of them will seem normal to us or even pass by unnoticed.