Mixed signals can be confusing.
They can be downright perplexing.
When someone sends us mixed signals not only do we have to sort out what they really mean, but they are contradictory enough that they seem to cancel one another out.
This sets up a dynamic where we never really know if we’re making progress towards achieving any real clarity -- it’s always fleeting.
Sometimes someone’s actions don’t line up with their words. Sometimes their words don’t even line up with their words -- they’ll tell us something one day and something else the next.
Or maybe it’s not a matter of their words at all, but their investment. They’re “all in” on us one week, and completely absent the next -- and they don’t take care or consideration to tell us where they’ve gone, and why.
Mixed signals can also be a little more nuanced than this -- where the nonverbal cues we’re receiving from someone don’t match up with either their words or their actions. They say or do something that suggests they feel a certain way, but we pick up on an underlying sentiment that conveys they feel differently.
Since the extent to which we have clarity about our relationships determines our ability to be at peace about them, when someone brings discord and indecision to our doorstep we can find ourselves on our heels -- reflexively positioned to negotiate their behavior.
We wonder what the mixed signals reveal about the other person’s underlying motives, what they might say about us (our worth, our desirability), and what they could mean for the future of the relationship.
Because the stakes seem quite high for us in these situations, we take a certain responsibility for reconciling the mixed signals ourselves.
We think the other person is confused. And clearly they are. So we set about trying to determine which of the signals is actually true, or which is the most true -- so that we can know what’s true about the other person, about us, and about the relationship.
But we’ll soon find ourselves stymied by the seemingly impossible task of discerning if someone is this way, or that way.
This line of inquiry leads to a dead end we know all too well -- one we can spend so much time, energy, and attention exploring -- because it relies on discovering something that we will always have a limited perspective on: the other person’s true motivations.
As much as we might like to be able to, we can’t read minds. And since mixed signals reflect either a motivational erraticism or a breakdown between a motivating thought and its corresponding word or action, trying to work backwards to the thought itself as if it can be easily distilled will always be a flawed exercise.
We might never truly know why someone is sending the mixed signals that they are.
It’ll always be guesswork on our part.
Not only that, but pinning our ability to gain insight about the relationship on a dynamic like this is a recipe for pain and disappointment.
Is it any wonder that we can sometimes feel so stuck trying to navigate these situations?
If we are to make sense of mixed signals we need a new approach. We must access a vantage point that affords us a more complete picture of what’s really going on.
This doesn’t look like rolling up our sleeves and jumping into the midst of the muddledness. It looks like taking a step back -- distancing ourselves from the task of parsing every single word or deed and either judging it on merit relative to the rest or trying to divine its true nature.
Instead we can learn a new way of interpreting what they show us.
Because our difficulty isn’t that the mixed signals don’t make sense. It’s that we don’t know how to describe them in a way that makes sense.
So much of the confusion we have about mixed signals comes back to the seemingly impossible task of discerning whether someone is this way, or that way.
But the thing is... they’re both.
They’ve communicated both to us -- said something one day, and something else the next. Done something that made us feel one way, but then said another that invalidated the gesture. Pushed us away and pulled us right back in.
They’ve behaved both ways, so they are both ways.
We just haven’t found a way to describe their behavior that includes both the this way and the that way.
How might we describe someone who relates to us like this?
They’re moving targets! They’re unreliable! They don’t trust themselves! They’re careless! They’re clueless! They’re conflicted! They’re ambivalent! They’re poor communicators! They’re scared! They don’t know what they want! They don’t know themselves well!
Depending on the circumstances, any or all of these could be true.
If nothing else, they are consistent in their inconsistency.
Whatever revelation we have about the other person is no occasion to judge them for it -- it’s just information that we can use to see their behavior more accurately moving forward.
Now we have the clarity we’ve sought all along.
And, not for nothing, we’ve given it to ourselves. We haven’t needed the other person to grow or change or finally have their “Aha!” moment. We’ve had our own.
We’ve gone ahead and empowered ourselves where we would have remained at the mercy of their indecision before.
We can see now how we’ll always be trapped by mixed signals as long as we engage them at the level at which they’re communicated to us -- where either-or is true. We know that our freedom lies in our ability to describe their behavior in such a way that both-and are true.
This is what’s so tricky about mixed signals. In engaging them at the level of the other person’s confusion, it has manifested as our own.
But… we're not the ones who are confused, they are.
We think we have to get to the bottom of what’s going on in their heads -- for their sake, for our sake, for the sake of relationship.
But we don’t -- they do.
If we’ve erred in some way here it is in our impulse to adopt another’s obstacles as our own -- simply because that’s what they’ve shown us.
What are we left with when we’re not obsessing over someone else’s thoughts, words, and actions?
Time, energy, and attention to focus on our own!
We can get clear about what we truly desire for the relationship.
We can then take this clarity back to the person who is --ahem-- less clear and say, “I want this. Do you?”
A declaration like this can be one of the most powerful things we can do to neutralize the muddling effect that mixed signals have on us.
We’ve made our own intentions clear -- and directly or indirectly highlighted the places that obstruct the invitation of that experience.
Instead of leaping in to sift, and sift, and sift some more, we can feel settled in what we know we want.
Any underlying anxiety becomes a certain stillness.
We’ll float above the confusion and the hurt of not knowing how someone else truly feels about us or what the future may hold for the relationship because we'll know we’ll be secure in ourselves no matter what.
And we’ll leave the responsibility of figuring out how the other person really feels to them.
If they ask for our help in figuring things out we can of course offer it. But if we choose to do so now we won’t be coming from a place of needing to resolve their confusion for our own reasons.
Our own internal calculation about what to do next now rests on the likelihood that the other person will want what we want when we want it.
If we focus on the other person’s behavior now it won’t be so that we can sort it out for them. Instead we’ll simply observe any improvement in their ability to more clearly and consistently express how they feel. We can pay close attention to the direction they’re headed in (are they moving closer to us, or further away?), and the rate at which they’re making progress.
We can remain patient and supportive throughout this process as long as we are comfortable doing so.
Chances are we won’t feel as distressed as we were before because we’ll know what we’re looking for -- someone whose dreams and desires align with ours on a timeline that is compatible with our own.
If theirs ultimately don’t then we can decide what that means for the relationship.
Regardless of the outcome, we’ll have come to a new agreement with ourselves about how we navigate mixed signals.
We’ll know that no matter what kind of contradictory words or actions we might face, we’ll be able to read them loud and clear.