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 I have lamented before on my need for meaningful friendships and losing friends because my need to be “right” superseded the need to be kind.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) , Margaret and Jordan Paul (in the 1980s) , and Brad Blanton (in the 1990’s) , 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.
- In paying attention to someone in a calm, accepting way, you teach that person to pay attention to themselves in just that way.
- In caring for others, you teach them to care for themselves and you help them to feel more like caring about others.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 About.com 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.