Reflections on the Struggle to Be Honest

Great title huh? Trust me, while I’d love to take credit for this post title, I really can’t. I found online this essay on Reflections and the Struggle to Be Honest by Dennis Rivers, M.A.

This is something weighing on my mind and heart and it has to do not with being honest in the first place, but the struggle I have with the aftermath of having spoken honestly. I can speak my mind, but soon afterward regret what I’ve spoken, try to backpedal or soften the words, so I won’t hurt the person I care about. I find it incredibly hard to be honest (when offering my opinion or when setting some boundaries), without then suffering the guilt that maybe I hurt someone and wonder if I was being to harsh for no reason. I have lamented before on my need for meaningful friendships and losing friends because my need to be “right” superseded the need to be kind.

Because of that, I’ve questioned my ability to give wise counsel and to set my boundaries and be firm but kind about it. I’m more of a “be firm and then defend my position strongly” when my feelings or boundaries are not honored.

According to the psychotherapists Carl Rogers (in the 1960’s) [1], Margaret and Jordan Paul (in the 1980s) [2], and Brad Blanton (in the 1990’s) [3], there is one main reason people suffer in their relationships with one another. And it’s not best understood as some jargon about ids and egos and superegos. It’s that we need to face more of the truth and tell more of the truth about what’s happening in our lives, about how we feel and about what we ourselves are doing.

Okay, sounds great and I agree. Only I wish I knew what I’m supposed to do when my feelings are made to seem unimportant, or I’m told I shouldn’t take offense. Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t, but my feelings are important to me and I’m highly sensitive. After 38 years of it (mostly) working for me, I’m not about to become callous to avoid being hurt. It’s the risk I take for caring about people. My mother didn’t care who she hurt when she spoke her “honesty”. I never wanted to be like that.

At any rate…on to the essay:

Early in life, according to Rogers, we discovered that if we said what we really felt and wanted, the big important people in our lives would get unhappy with us (and, I would add, perhaps even slap us across the face). And since we needed their love and approval, we started being good little boys and good little girls and saying whatever would get us hugs, birthday presents, and chocolate cake. If we are lucky in life, our parents and teachers help us to learn how to recognize our own feelings and tell the truth about them in conciliatory ways. But this is a complex process, and more often, our parents and teachers didn’t get much help on these issues themselves, so they may not have been able to give us much help. As a result of this, many people arrive in adult life with a giant gap between what they actually feel and what the role they play says they are supposed to feel, and with no skills for closing that gap.

For example, as a child you were supposed to love your parents, right? But what if your dad came home drunk every night and hit your mom? How do you handle the gap between the fact that you’re supposed to love your dad and the fact that you don’t like him? These are the kinds of situations that bring people to counseling (or to the nightly six-pack of beer). And life is full of them.

It all boils down to this: Life is tough and complex, ready or not. It is always tempting to try to get what you want (or to escape what you fear) by saying or doing whatever will avoid conflict, even if that means saying things you don’t really mean, doing things you don’t feel good about, or just blanking out. After you’ve been around for a while you start to realize that the cost of this kind of maneuvering is a heavy heart.

From what I’ve seen, there is no secret magic wand of psychotherapy that can instantly lighten a heart thus burdened. Psychotherapists are in the same human boat as the rest of us; they get depressed and divorced and commit suicide just like ordinary folks. You and the person you are trying to help through peer counseling are in the same human boat. There is no life without troubles. Roofs leak. The people you love get sick and die. Our needs turn out to be in conflict with the needs of people we care about. The best made agreements come unglued. People fall out of love. And it is always tempting to pretend that everything is just fine. But I believe very strongly that we will all like ourselves a lot more if we choose the troubles that come from being more honest and more engaged, rather than the troubles that come from various forms of conflict avoidance and self-deception, such as “I’ll feel better if I have another drink.” or “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” etc.

Our truthful lives will probably not get any easier, but they will get a lot more satisfying. Good counselors, psychotherapists, mentors and friends, whatever their degree (or not), hold that knowledge for us, as we struggle to learn it and earn it.

As far as his take view that “we will all like ourselves a lot more if we choose the troubles that come from being more honest and more engaged, rather than the troubles that come from various forms of conflict avoidance and self-deception” well, I’m still not liking myself much when my honesty doesn’t solve anything or actually makes things worse.

At any rate…enough about my issues. What do we need to learn?

We can learn to negotiate more of our conflicts, to confront more of our difficulties and to be honest about our feelings without being mean. So the fact is that we don’t need to run away from our problems any more. What we need is to get in touch with ourselves and to learn new skills.

Okay. This is sensible stuff. But I see no mention of what happens when you are honest, but then second-guess yourself once you’ve spoken the truth as you see it. (Except, perhaps, to just accept it and let the other person come to terms with it on their own).

So… what exactly is the essence of good supportive communication? Mr. Rivers explains:

Here are five of the “deep learnings” that I see going on in almost all supportive and empathic conversations.

  1. In paying attention to someone in a calm, accepting way, you teach that person to pay attention to themselves in just that way.
  2. In caring for others, you teach them to care for themselves and you help them to feel more like caring about others.
  3. The more you have faced and accepted your own feelings, the more you can be a supportive witness for another person who is struggling to face and accept his or her feelings.
  4. In forgiving people for being human and making mistakes and having limits, you teach people to forgive themselves and start over, and you help them to have a more forgiving attitude toward others.
  5. By having conversations that include the honest sharing and recognition of feelings, and the exploration of alternative possibilities of action, you help a person to see that, by gradual degrees, they can start to have more honest and fruitful conversations with the important people in their lives.

I feel that is what was missing in some of our exchanges. I wasn’t reacting calmly and in an accepting manner to the intensity of my friend’s expressions. My biggest failing was not remaining objective and withstanding the intense negative emotions my friend needed to unload. Furthermore, he just couldn’t understand my own intense emotional response was triggered because while I can handle calm and rational negative expressions, I can’t handle the intense outbursts of negative emotions with objectivity.

Where and how do you set a boundary, particularly with someone you hardly know? The way I see it, I feel you can vent to me the frustration, the bitterness, the intense negative response, but realize I’m not a dumping ground for toxic expressions of negativity, even if they aren’t directed AT me. Or at least if that’s what they need to do, forewarn me or apologize afterward and let me know it wasn’t personal.

Because I’m highly sensitive and empathetic, I am highly sensitive to other people’s moods. Because I have had depressive tendencies and have been emotionally abused in the past by my family, I am particularly sensitive to toxic people. Funny thing is, toxic people don’t know they are toxic and I don’t always recognize them as such.

Take a look at this scenario from that Marsha Purse describes on How to Avoid Toxic People

Long ago, before I was even diagnosed with depression (my first psychologist had said I was “highly neurotic”), I was a transcriptionist at an insurance company in Iowa. The woman who sat in front of me would sometimes become upset about something that happened and start to talk about quitting. This frightened me because she was the senior transcriptionist and I was a raw beginner who needed her help frequently.

I would try to calm her down but she would rant about everything that was wrong in our department, all of it true because it was not well run. I’d grow more and more unhappy listening to her until she went back to work leaving me feeling bad for some time.

Eventually, I noticed that after she unloaded her anger onto me, she was cheerful. She had successfully transferred all the negativity to someone else and could continue her day in a better frame of mind. This was the first time I recognized toxicity in another person.

This woman wasn’t entirely toxic. She could be gracious and helpful, and in fact, when I had surgery on my arm a few years later, she was the only one of my co-workers to offer assistance with my household chores (she did ALL my accumulated laundry). And once I knew not to absorb her negativity, we had few problems working together. But I’d begun to learn a valuable lesson: there are toxic people in the world.

Huh. It’s not exactly the same as my situation, but it is similar enough. Things can be strumming along quite nicely and then bam! I’m hit with some emotional outpouring I didn’t see coming. Was he being toxic – I don’t know. My husband seemed to think it was a little over-the-top. I can’t say for sure.

But really, it’s okay because it’s not about me, and I shouldn’t take offense to it, right?

I don’t know the answer to that question. All I know is that the ride is leaving me dizzy and I’ve had enough.

It’s true I do need friends, but I need friends that respect my feelings and my intensities too. I realize I could have done things differently, and I’ve probably irrevocably lost this friend, but hopefully I have learned my lesson and will handle things differently in the future.

This entry was posted in On friendship, personal growth, perspective. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Reflections on the Struggle to Be Honest

  1. Papa T says:

    Toxicity is relative. If one determines that something is harmful to him/her, then it is his/her responsibility to eliminate the toxin. Usually–especially regarding human interactions/relationships–this means withdrawing from the “toxic one’s” presence. Society frowns on more direct and/or drastic “elimination” of human sources of toxicity. Obviously there are times when it might be most effective just to kill the one who is harming us.

    Now, one of the reasons that homicide is not advisable–lengthy prison sentences notwithstanding–is that there are times when the harm that we experience is totally in our perception. Sometimes we “take offense” when none was intended. [Clearly, there are times when this scenario is NOT applicable, and offense is certainly intended. And, there is a full spectrum of intent that exists between the two.]

    For those times when the “transmitter” of thought might actually care about us but we find some way to see them as an enemy, it would be most unfortunate if we were to slay them. Sadly, I have seen many truly caring persons belittled–even cut to their souls–by the backlash of the ones who perceive assault when none was intended. These “perceived offenders” are branded as toxic, malignant, belligerent, or any number of other retaliatory, character assassinating terms. Sometimes this kind of behavior is necessary to create “space” between the involved parties. Sometimes the relationship can be repaired; sometimes it cannot. Either way, the experience provides an opportunity for the involved parties to grow.

    You mention that your husband opined that some “expression” that you received was “over the top.” Whether the expression was indeed over the top, or he was being protective of you and yours and his relationship, it is difficult to say. But, I would say that your relationship with your husband is a priority. There is no reason for him to justify or explain his observations.

    One other thing occurs to me as I read your essay and quotes. This matter of “negativity.” The scenario that is described with the transcriptionists is very interesting. It grieves me a tad that the junior transcriptionist–even in the conclusion of the story–labels the senior transcriptionist as being toxic…as some sort of living proof that there are toxic people in the world. I might be a little weird (I’m sure that I am) but what about owning our own vulnerability? I think this story would bother me less if it had ended with the junior transcriptionist’s admission that her own tendency to absorb and translate to her own pain what she refers to as negativity contributed to her perception of the coworker’s toxicity.

    This dynamic is near and dear to my heart. I KNOW how much I care. I KNOW how much I see. I KNOW how much I hurt. I KNOW how others hurt. I KNOW how much I want to relate…to NOT be perceived as “negative” or toxic. But, as is so often the case with “the gifted,” we get packaged (boxed), wrapped, labeled and put on the truck before we have the opportunity to get our message across. It has happened to me so many times that I’m starting to get used to being on the truck. It’s not anybody’s “fault”; that’s just the way it is.

    I accept my limited scope–my frame of reference. And I accept others’ frames of reference. I believe that true, growing genius manifests in two main ways: (1) avoiding self-justified narrowness of perspective (allowing our own expansion), and (2) the ability to accept the perspective of others without condemnation. This might explain the reasons that expansive and accepting minds result in loneliness. Unfortunately, the lonely ones are too easily dismissed and discarded.

    Thanks again, KC, for the stimulating topic, and allowing me the opportunity to join in.

  2. raisingsmartgirls says:

    That’s just it, though. I can admit the fact that I can’t tell the difference between perceived threats of toxicity and real ones, which is why I needed to ask about it.

    My family of origin – completely toxic. No doubt about it. Hurtful, spiteful, mean-spirited and would throw you under a bus if it benefited them.

    The scenario above? Is it truly toxic because that person said it was so? In reading your perspective, I see that could very well be misleading and incredibly narrow-minded to make the leap.

    However, and I have said this before…and have gone to therapy sessions that said this very thing: it’s not fair to unload all your negativity and complaining onto another if that other person takes it all on. My husband takes my negativity on when I unload on him. He’s told me he’s left feeling lousy while I’m left lighter and freer because I unloaded my burden (and often unaware he’s left with a heavy heart). Shouldn’t I keep that in mind when I air my negativity – at least temper it so that he doesn’t get dragged down by my venting?

    I do know that I am also very vulnerable to other people’s moods (his moods and the moods of my friends), especially when I care about them very much. I don’t know what to do about that…about remaining objective, and allowing others to express themselves without taking it on.

    I think, perhaps though I could be wrong, it’s less about “taking” offense as it is about taking another’s burden on subconsciously. Maybe that’s due to the damage inflicted upon us as children (we expect to be hurt, therefore it’s hard to see objectively). I don’t know if that ever really goes away. I know his parents, and my parents, failed to show how to express feelings in a safe and healthy way.

    We are both realizing we lack the skills necessary to really communicate in a fully healthy way. I’m going to have some followup posts on what exactly that healthy communication might look like. I hope you’ll offer your perspective too. If you have anything to contribute (a link or a quote or thoughts), perhaps you’d be willing to share them and I can incorporate them into the blog post.

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply and your observations.

  3. raisingsmartgirls says:

    One thought came to me as I stepped away from this – what you said here:

    “Sometimes this kind of behavior is necessary to create “space” between the involved parties. ”

    I don’t have time to explore this now…but I’m going to later. I hope I remember to.

  4. Papa T says:

    You make some poignant statements that pique my desire to respond directly…

    RSG: “My family of origin – completely toxic. No doubt about it. Hurtful, spiteful, mean-spirited and would throw you under a bus if it benefited them.”

    Papa T: Indeed. This exemplifies a significant hierarchical “power structure.” [Rape by authority figure?] The child is a vulnerable “clean slate.” The superordinates are–whether knowingly or not–abusing their position. The child is a hapless, helpless victim. And, yes, these patterns continue into the later years to the extent that they are recognized and abated…or not. One of the more striking things that emerges in this scenario is that we sometimes seize on opportunities to lash out at subsequent significant others because we were and/or are unable to express the “real” angst toward the “appropriate” targets.

    RSG: “I…have gone to therapy sessions that said this very thing: it’s not fair to unload all your negativity and complaining onto another if that other person takes it all on. My husband takes my negativity on when I unload on him. He’s told me he’s left feeling lousy while I’m left lighter and freer because I unloaded my burden (and often unaware he’s left with a heavy heart). Shouldn’t I keep that in mind when I air my negativity – at least temper it so that he doesn’t get dragged down by my venting?

    Papa T: Certainly, it may be unfair to unload our stuff onto another who “absorbs it.” The unfairness “bleeds” both ways. If we dare to share in ways that are “unedited”–with or without permission–we run the risk of hitting some obstacles. This risk is magnified exponentially when we unload onto “intimates.” It is not impossible to enjoy a truly objective and well-matched relationship that can tolerate this kind of expressiveness. But such pairings (or groupings) are extremely rare.

    One of the major challenges is “ownership.” If I give permission to another person to express him or herself to me without self-editing, I need to be tolerant of what comes my way. It is difficult–in involved relationships–to NOT take things personally…but the ability to do so is essential. I own my “largess”–the liberality and loudness of my expression. I KNOW how it can be easily misperceived…especially by those who are “close to me.” I don’t blame them when there hair gets blown back by something that I do or say…but it still hurts when they lash out and blame me for doing something that they told me was “okay” for me to do.

    That your husband gets “dragged down” by your venting might indicate that you need other receptors–or reflectors–of your eruptions. Or, that he is being challenged to grow into a “place” where he can “be there” with and for you without taking your “outbursts” personally. There are so many possibilities, and I really don’t know enough about the situation to say what would be applicable. If you KNOW that your husband is likely to take your “negativity” [sneer quotes denoting my hesitancy with this label…] on, then I would say that some self-editing is in order.

    RSG: “I think, perhaps though I could be wrong, it’s less about “taking” offense as it is about taking another’s burden on subconsciously. Maybe that’s due to the damage inflicted upon us as children…”

    Papa T: Perhaps it is not an issue of right or wrong. Allow me to clarify: When I say “take offense,” I am talking about things that leave us feeling, thinking, reacting, responding in defensive ways. I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time I have thought/said, “I am not your enemy.” Others who “take offense”–no matter how much (or little) the perceived offender cares for them, or vice versa–tend to treat the perceived offender as an enemy…or flee from his or her presence (because they don’t want to “fight” the enemy). Sound familiar? Fight or Flight? [And, yes, this has the same impact on our endocrine systems that “real” threats have.]

    Thanks again…interesting topic.

  5. raisingsmartgirls says:

    You make some very interesting points, that really drive home some things for me. I appreciate your views and have a better understanding of some things I did not before. I don’t really have anything to add to what you have said and simply agree with your statements.

    One other thing I wanted to address was this:

    “Sometimes this kind of behavior is necessary to create “space” between the involved parties. ”

    Could this be applicable to a situation where a person needs space for their own good but at the same time can’t moderate themselves because they lack discipline?

    Let me try to give a really poor analogy: For instance, take the person who is addicted to the computer (something relatively harmless, but still addictive). They tell themselves they are going to limit themselves to a certain amount of time, yet they find themselves going beyond that designated time, only to find hours have past and they’ve neglected many of the things that need doing – you know, like housework, or bill-paying, or errands or relationships. So, if they can’t stop themselves (even with timers and such), what’s the solution? Well, one drastic way is to pull the plug.

    Perhaps, while one might not be aware of it at the time, could it be that “difficult” behavior you describe be a way of effectively pulling the plug?

    Let me put it in terms of my family. Two of my family members come to me at different points for my perspective on a problem they have with each other. I work hard at bringing understanding to both parties yet no progress is made on their parts. Not only that, I’ve lost time, and have been drained by the experience because I can’t remain disinterested in the events that they describe. Because I care about them, and they don’t apply what I’ve just tried to explain, but do the same thing again (or give excuses why what I suggest won’t work)…it’s incredibly frustrating and makes me wonder why I bothered in the first place if they aren’t going to take my advice.

    So…what happens? Somewhere along the line I realize this, and sometimes this makes me incredibly mad. So I end up getting angry at everyone involved and myself as well, for not remaining objective and for asking them first whether or not they wanted advice or if they were just wanting to vent and wanting me to agree with them. Sometimes they get mad at me and “I” end up the enemy – not the person they were originally took issue with.

    See how all that can get convoluted?

    So how did I handle that kind of stuff? Well, I first asked them not to drag me into their fights. But then they would say…but wait…just hear me out. And then I did. And then inevitably I empathized with their point of view. And I tried to keep my comments neutral while offering my perspective. Yet, invariably, my comments, advice etc, got misunderstood, and taken back to the other person (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) and I become the enemy.

    The second thing I did was try to avoid phone calls. But that only worked so long because they’d call often, and my curiosity got the better of me.

    The last thing I would do, since the first two techniques didn’t work, I would lash out, set my boundaries, told them if they aren’t going to listen to what I have to say, to stop coming to me with their problems (I recognize that I have difficulty remaining objective because regardless of what they’ve done to me in the past, I still care what happens to them).

    Did it work? Yes, when I got mad at them and was harsh enough, they got mad back at me, and they stopped coming to me (at least for a while, until the next big problem). I didn’t feel good about doing it, yet it created the space from them I needed to get back on track.

    I thought of some different way to consider the scenario of the “toxic” negative person and the “sensitive” person.

    While the “toxic” person may not really be intentionally toxic, the “sensitive” person may be “allergic” to anything that resembles “toxicity” for them.

    Here’s a wiki entry on allergy (yes, not the end-all be-all source of infinite wisdom):

    “Allergy is a disorder of the immune system often also referred to as atopy. Allergic reactions occur to normally harmless environmental substances known as allergens; these reactions are acquired, predictable, and rapid. Strictly, allergy is one of four forms of hypersensitivity and is called type I (or immediate) hypersensitivity.”

    So, perhaps, some of us sensitive types developed an allergy to certain “normally harmless” external sources, and consequently misinterpret things that aren’t meant to be harmful.

    Families definitely have the ability to rape the “soul” of a child, even when they didn’t lay a hand on them. That can definitely set the stage for the hypersensitivity and consequently, adverse negative reactions can happen for that person when subsequently exposed to certain allergens. Those certain allergens may hold some similarities to previous allergens, even if they aren’t exactly the same. For instance, someone allergic to ragweed must take caution when drinking chamomile tea or using chamomile topically, because it’s from the same family, even though it’s not exactly the same as ragweed.

    This sensitive person does not want to be that allergic and wants to continue to be of service to another, even though doing so might trigger an allergic response.

    So…what does a sensitized person do when they find themselves inadvertently reacting? Well, since there are no epi-pens for this type of allergic reaction, I suppose one could process one’s reaction without having to address it with the person who unintentionally set the cascade off.

    Or, rather than react…ask more questions until I know what the intentions are and what the needs are of the other person…or always assume positive intent until proven otherwise.

    At any rate…thank you for letting me explore this in more detail. I think, perhaps, it will help in communications with the people who are important to me as well as it helps me understand a little more my own reactions to certain things.

  6. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Oh, and yes, I know all about the Fight or Flight response to perceived threats to safety and stress. As an aside, there’s a third option: Freeze (you know, the deer in the headlights, or the bunny that freezes when they detect your presence or the possum feigning death). That’s exactly what dd2 would do when her selective mutism shut her down. That was her maladaptive coping strategy to stressful stimuli.

    If you want to go even deeper than that, those responses are the result of primitive reflexes that typically integrate as infants/toddlers (specifically the MORO reflex and Fear Paralysis Reflex). When they fail to integrate (settling comfortably in the background of the mind, only to come out again in times of bigger stresses), as they did in my dd2s case, these cause malfunction in perception.

    Getting back to me…did I have a similar failure to integrate those primitive reflexes, or did the constant threat to my psychological safety growing up simply caused me to alter my perception and perceive threats where there are none.

    Perhaps both.

    At any rate, I must get on with our day. The smart girls have a ballet recital in the afternoon.

    Thanks for this enlightening conversation.

  7. Papa T says:

    Excellent observations.

    Analogies? Yours is/are great (not “poor”). One of the things that our present condition is “short” on is the awareness that our choices are “life or death.” When our “lives depend on” something, we are more likely to respond decisively.

    Two little things:

    (1) Imagine flying at 30,000 feet with a planeload of injured/sick patients whose survival is at least partially in your hands (from my military experience). Some of the patients are on oxygen. In the event of a rapid decompression, TAKE THE OXYGEN FROM THE PATIENT. This might sound cruel to some less-informed people, but the logic is sound. Which is worse…a momentarily unconscious patient? Or a bunch of unconscious crew members, nurses, docs, etc.?

    (2) Or, what if you swim out to save a flailing, drowning person. Sometimes they are so scared that they don’t recognize that you are there to rescue them. Sometimes it is necessary to knock the crap out of them to get ’em to see what’s happening. Which is preferred…one drowned? or, two? Sometimes it’s easier to revive an unconscious drowning victim than to fight with one who is “almost” drowned.

    Your comments about “freeze,” MORO, the Fear Paralysis Reflex are spot on. Imagine a society whose members have become stuck in the Fear Paralysis Reflex…that hasn’t “outgrown” the immature reaction to “freeze in fear.” No, wait…we don’t HAVE to imagine it. All we have to do is look around.

    The allergy comparison is also totally apropos. Just as I know that I am a “normally harmless environmental substance,” I know that there are a lot of people who are allergic to me. Thanks for clarifying.

    Hey…I’ll be around. I wish you the best.

    Signing off…

  8. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Thanks PapaT.

    I’m learning new things all the time from friends like you. I sincerely appreciate you and others who have contributed to these discussions. Just know that my new-found observations along with these discussions have actually come in handy when relating to my dh this very day.

    I am very grateful to everyone who’s contributed lately to my new “growth”.

    I will be back, and sooner than later, I imagine.

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