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Reich’s Concept of Substitute Contact


Last month, I discussed Reich’s concept of contact. This month, I will delineate the opposite idea, what Reich termed substitute contact. We are aware of this relational barrier more than we might realize. As I stated last month, contact requires a certain amount of energy above a minimal level, plus excitation and authenticity. Contact requires an energetic exchange that is felt by both people and includes a genuineness founded on a felt sense of self and awareness of the other. Substitute contact falls below that minimum level and the interactions can feel insincere, artificial, and therefore disturbing, disappointing, or empty.

There are socially agreed upon superficial behaviors that are appropriate some of the time as we navigate through our tasks and errands with strangers, or meet people we don’t know at social events. Yet, even a brief interchange can be accomplished with contactfulness if we are mindful and also connected to ourselves. As we are aware of another, we can be gracious in the exchange. We might make eye contact if appropriate, speak directly, and allow reciprocity in the exchange. We can focus, for that moment, on the other.

Too often, we maintain an artificial stance even with close associates, family members, lovers, and friends. What do I mean by artificial stance? We might have a smile pasted on our faces even though we feel differently inside. We may chronically grin with sarcasm or contempt. We may laugh or giggle when seriousness is needed. We are with another without really being there, as if we are wearing a mask and are truly hidden or unavailable. And we are highly distractible, thinking of ourselves, something else, looking at our phone and nodding or mumbling, only pretending to listen. Or, we look away, keeping preoccupied with what we were doing and only pretending to be with the other. Or, the television show is more important than relating. And we speak from one room to the next, shouting without seeing to whom we are speaking.

Substitute contact can be like a pretty ribbon on a box that is empty. There is nothing there, but it looks colorful and enticing. Or, there is a sharp prickly surface on the outside of the box and it hurts to touch it, yet the hollowness inside serves to maintain those sharp edges.

We often find ways to camouflage our relational anxiety with repetitive expressions that exemplify substitute contact. These expressions are insincere in that we are masking our deeper state, or are out of touch such that we go moment-to-moment in unawareness. Others feel this unless they are in the same condition. We can sense this in expressions such as masked bravado or toughness, snideness, child-like vocal or facial expressions in adults, habitual seductiveness, affectations of speech, false excitement that is noticeable in quick speech with over the top hyper animation. The stereotype of the salesman is a good example: always slick, trying to influence, dominate and coerce with pseudo-joviality.

Other manifestations of substitute contact include continual joking, interrupting others with random comments, cavalier expressions, buried contemptuous asides, chronic arrogance, and a spacey, drugged-like bantering. These are repetitive habits of relating where the person is barely noticing to whom he or she is speaking. The expression ‘going through the motion’ fits here. We may be talking in a group and the other person looks right past us, watching another yet pretending to listen. Or, we say something and are ignored, or the meaning of our communication is disregarded. The contact has a veneer to it that doesn’t deepen or make any real sense.

When we are with someone who is in substitute contact, we may feel disturbed or discontent. The person is unable to read cues, is self-absorbed, ignores others, and may be doing actions or gestures that seem unnatural or stand out. Sometimes, when individuals are extremely self-centered, they exist in their own world and are annoying, but they don’t recognize that others are disinterested or frustrated. They do not see the other, only their own agenda. Often there is a feeling that others are pretending to relate, however, there is no experience of real connection.

To be in contact, we have to live in our own skin with awareness and sensitivity to self and other. Then we can be natural, at ease, and not filled with anxiety. Our anxiety can drive us to substitute contact. How can we make it right with another when we feel defective or self-conscious… so we paste on an artificial behavior to channel our anxiety. Or we dominate so that we don’t feel our defectiveness, and then paste on conviviality to hide that need to be dominant.

Therapy can help, as these patterns are directly seen, pointed out, and stopped. Then our anxiety becomes obvious or other feelings underneath are revealed and can be experienced. The false, outer layer of coping can change. Then our contact becomes more genuine.

Here are some suggestions. You can slow down and truly be with the other. Look carefully with your eyes at the other’s eyes and face, and take in the body language. Look and listen with your open eyes and relaxed breath without getting lost in your own habitual, superficial style. You can respond to their communication and get out of the way. Become aware of your rapid, urgent speech patterns. Stop repetitive patterns that block real contact. Be serious and straightforward in your relationships. Stop over-reacting. Relax more and be your natural self underneath the compensatory behaviors. Practice kindness and patience with yourself and others. You will be amazed how your relationships improve.

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