This semester I am teaching Interpersonal Communication for the first time. The class focuses on relationships and how they are formed, maintained, and/or destroyed through communication.
One of the required readings for the course is the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In Chapter 1 of the book, Gladwell discusses the psychologist John Gottman, author of several well-known books on relationships such as The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.
Gottman is an expert at telling whether a relationship will be successful or not, largely due to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations based on narrow bits of experience, also known as “thin-slicing” (Gladwelll, p. 23). Gottman has studied so many relationships that he can analyze an hour of video of a husband and wife talking and then predict with 95% accuracy whether they will still be together in 15 years.
One of the ways Gottman can successfully make predictions about a couple’s success is based on what he calls the “Four Horsemen”: stonewalling, criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. If he sees these specific emotions displayed in a couples’ communication with regular frequency, it is a sign that the relationship is in trouble.
I want to clarify here that even though Goffman is a psychologist, most of what he is studying is based on communication practices. This is what interests me as a scholar. We can’t fully read someone’s brain. Instead, we rely on communication to show us what is going on at a deeper level. The way we communicate, including verbally or nonverbally, both to others and ourselves, can have significant consequences for our success or failure. This is true not only in marriage, but also in all of our other relationships.
The thing that stood out to me while I was teaching this was the idea that the four horsemen could also be applied to how we talk to ourselves. I’ve been focusing on using more positive self-talk lately after realizing how my negative view of myself was making me depressed and affecting my ability to be the person I want to be. In the same way that stonewalling, criticism, defensiveness, and contempt are terrible for marriage, those communication practices are also terrible for our relationship with ourselves.
Think about it this way: When you think about how you are acting in a situation or your life in general, do you tend to criticize yourself rather than acknowledging what you are doing well? Do you shut down and refuse to reflect on how you are doing? Do you get defensive and justify or make excuses for your actions, blaming it on someone or something else? Or do you feel such disgust and dislike for yourself that you deny your right to be here at all?
Gottman has found that the last one, contempt, is the strongest and most important. In fact, the presence of contempt in a marriage can predict how many colds a husband or wife gets because the stress literally begins to affect the functioning of their immune systems.
The presence of the four horsemen is just as damaging to our relationship with ourselves. It’s a tried-and-true idea: that what you say to yourself matters. Think about the way you talk to yourself, and not just if it is positive or negative. Be specific about the kind of communication you are doing, whether it be criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt, or something else. Being specific about the type of negative communication can help you know how to combat it with specific positive self-talk.
- If you are criticizing — try to compliment yourself.
- If you are stonewalling — open up and ask yourself honestly why you feel the need to shut down at this moment.
- If you are being defensive — embrace humility and acknowledge if you haven’t been doing your best, and then forgive yourself for that.
- If you are showing contempt towards yourself — list out the ways that you are important to other people and the things you like about yourself.
Communication is powerful, but we forget that it applies to the way we talk to ourselves as much as the way we talk to others. Be kind to yourself today.