Reality-Checking As a Path to Authentic Relationships

How I use reality-checking to subvert my communication filters

I was in my mid-thirties before I learned what a “reality check” was and how to perform one. I was struggling with my relationship with mom, and we had a few family therapy sessions together.

To illustrate, my therapist asked my mom and I to do the following after each of us spoke one sentence in our conversation regarding the problem at hand:

I’d say something and pause. My mom would ask me, “I heard you say ____. Is that what you meant? Then I’d clarify if necessary. Then she’d say something and pause. I’d ask, “I heard you say ____. Is that what you meant?” Then she’d clarify.

It went something like this: Statement by me, pause, reality check by my mom (i.e., meaning), statement by my mom, pause, reality check by me (i.e., meaning). It was laborious exercise, but it revealed just how often meaning becomes convoluted as words travel through time and space.

The basic framework of a reality check is this: is “When you said _____, I heard/felt _____. Is that what you meant?

The spoken word can mutate before it hits someone else’s ear. That’s often why communication is so difficult. And that’s not even considering other factors such as body language, the speakers having different languages, etc.!

The culprit is filters, mainly on the part of the one doing the hearing and (hopefully) the understanding. In my personal experiences, filters usually originate from parents or other authority figures, such as teachers. They can also come from the overall beliefs of the society one lives in (e.g., women should be slender; men shouldn’t cry).

Filters can develop around traumatic incidents from the past (such as a parent’s verbal abuse), repetitive behavior on the part of another (such as a father who consistently breaks promises), assumptions made by the listener (such as a teacher who assumes that all Asian people are smart), etc. Filters can contribute to much misunderstanding.

Virtual reality headsets (VRHs) area great way to think about filters and reality checks. Imagine yourself wearing a VRH but for your ears, not your eyes (i.e., aural-reality relationship headset [ARRH]).

For example, I still tend to play the “you’ll-never-find-a-man-to-marry-you-because-of-your-lupus” app — which my dad (a verbally abusive misogynist alcoholic) actually said to me some 30 or so years ago. I have no idea why I took in that statement as truth, but I did. It still affects my willingness to get out and date, the assumptions I make about men, etc.

I didn’t know how to do a reality check with my dad back then, but I constantly reality-check him in my mind now. It’s been a really difficult ARRH to remove, but I work at it constantly :-) When I hear my dad’s “marriage-statement” app playing, I counter with “Ah, but I am s-o-o-o-o-o worth it!” (and I *do* know that now).

You may have a filter that plays an app called “my-mom-constantly-criticizes-me), which makes every. single. thing. she says sound like a criticism. If you break your interactions down with a reality check once in a while, you may be surprised at what she’s really saying!

To illustrate, in an uncontrolled real-life interaction — not one in a therapist’s office —someone might speak a trigger word or phrase that provokes a feeling that seems incongruent with the statement. For example, someone asks you to pass the salt and you hear, “You’re an idiot” and feel anger rise up (an extreme example but a good one).

Your extreme inner emotional response (i.e., very sudden and strong anger) is the clue that you need to do a reality check. You might say something like this: “Hey, John; when you just asked me to pass the salt, I thought you were saying I’m an idiot for not thinking of doing that myself. Is that what you meant?”

Thankfully, I rarely need to do reality checks with others, likely because I’ve done a lot of work to identify my filters and can catch them in operation. But if a relationship is extremely important to me, I’ll teach it to the other person so we can use it whenever we need to.

However, sometimes, the other person’s reaction to the idea of reality-checking will be a “rung” on my relationship ladder that either makes or breaks a relationship.

Recovering adult child of an alcoholic; introverted, God-loving, creatively weird human being

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