This is for you if you are ready to build closer relationships with family and friends, without losing yourself in the process.
Many of us learned from the time we were just itsy bitsy that the best way to stay close to those we love is by not rocking the boat. As eager little students of how to survive in a family, we understood early on that our own emotions could upset the adults in our home, those who we most needed to love us and like us.
For example, our childlike distress may have provoked frustration, fear, or guilt for these grown-ups. Their scowls, exasperated tone of voice, or overwhelmed comments etched themselves in our little brains, and we started to believe we must be bad for having such feelings. See, if I believe my feelings are bad, I can make a very quick hop and skip over to, I’m bad. Thus, for many of us, peace-keeping trumped emotional openness on our list of priorities. We learned to do our best to keep everyone happy, to smooth over wrinkles and rough edges, even if that meant downplaying our own distress.
In our journey from childhood to adulthood, that mentality can continue to guide our relationships.
Even as adults, many of us try to preserve our relationships by swallowing our hurt feelings and telling ourselves to just get over it.
Have you ever said that to yourself? It’s not that big of a deal. She didn’t mean to. I’m just being silly. I’m only hurting because I’m selfish, or immature, or…crazy. Have you ever been the one who smiles big for friends and family to keep them from seeing the tears in your eyes? When others hurt you, do you hide yourself away in a back room to cry in secret and avoid burdening your loved ones with your own emotional needs? Or perhaps you have stuffed the aches down so far that all you feel now is numbness.
This approach appeals to many people because it totally avoids conflict. No screaming, no crying (in front of other people), no messy. We worry that our loved ones would be overwhelmed if we told them honestly how we feel. In fact, that burden might be too heavy for them to carry. They might end up resenting us, and in the end, they might cut us off from their love and care. They might even just pack up and leave. These are real fears many of us harbor, if we’re honest.
But another reason so many of us wear masks, so to speak, is because our feelings really embarrass us. Perhaps we suspect our emotions are nonsensical, exaggerated, silly. Maybe at the end of the day, we even question whether we belong in an insane asylum for how moody and emotional we can be. Having others bear witness to our emotional messiness can really bring our shame right to the surface.
Now, this “pretend-everything’s-fine approach” was me in my college days! Brunette A-line haircut and rolling backpack in tote, I smiled to all friends as I strode across our small campus. Almost no one knew that smile was a mask. I would never tell any of my girlfriends if they had accidentally bruised my heart. If I talked about such emotional topics, I might start crying, and that would be supremely, deathly embarrassing. Most of the time if I felt shunned or rejected, I pretty much figured it was my fault for being so pathetic anyway. So I swallowed my lumps, kept that plastic smile on my face, and made sure to spend most of my time by myself, where it felt safe.
Reconnecting with our emotions takes focused work, and therapy can help.
Many of us have suppressed our “unacceptable” feelings and needs for so long that we honestly don’t even know what they are anymore! As soon as they are birthed, those hurt feelings or yearnings for greater closeness automatically dive so deep below the surface that we may not even be aware of their existence. Bringing them back up into the light can be a task not for the faint of heart. We often associate our emotions with the yuck of shame and embarrassment. We believe no would really like us if we wore our hearts on our sleeves. We all know how annoying it is to be around the drama queen, the victim, the whiner, the needy Nancy. Who really wants to be needy Nancy?
But we suffer when we hide from others. Our relationships suffer too. While those around us may find us agreeable and pleasant, they won’t know our truest hearts – they can’t. We won’t let them.
As you might imagine, long-term hiding away of our feelings and needs can contribute to depression and loneliness.
There are 4 secrets to expressing your feelings and needs without overwhelming the other person.
Secret #1: Use “I statements” and avoid blaming language.
When pouring out your heart, the quickest way to get the other person to become defensive and cold to you (not exactly what we’re going for here) is by making them sound like the bad guy. I mean, how do you feel when someone starts telling you everything you did wrong, and painting you to be a horrible person?
Rule of thumb: always assume the best of the other. Even though they hurt you, remember the big picture of all the thoughtfulness and generosity they have shown you in the past.
“I statements” include 1) how I feel, and 2) the specific action you took that triggered that feeling. “I statements” mean you take responsibility for your own feelings, and avoid assuming you know the other person’s motives or intention. (None of us can ever fully know or judge each other’s motives!)
- I felt unimportant to you when you came home 2 hours later than you said you would.
- I felt left out when you didn’t invite me to your bridal shower.
- I feel overwhelmed and alone when you leave me with the kids all day on Sundays while you watch the game.
Secret #2: Ask specifically for what you need.
Don’t leave your loved one guessing. Don’t expect them to read your mind – that’s unrealistic. The ability to read your mind should never be a test of someone else’s love for you. Give them a concrete and positive statement of what you need.
- It would mean a lot to me if you call me if you’re going to be home late.
- I would help me feel more accepted if you include me in group outings.
- If you could watch the kids one Sunday a month, I could go out with the girls and get refreshed.
Secret #3: Relinquish control of the other person’s response.
I cannot control what you do, or how you respond. I can only control what I do. In this case, I’m choosing to be soft and vulnerable and stay engaged in relationship with you by letting you know how I feel.
I can’t force you to care. I certainly can’t muscle you into changing. I can’t wrestle you into showing me comfort or letting me cry on your shoulder. It is your prerogative to be icy to me if you choose to be, although I certainly hope you won’t!
It is key to remember our worth isn’t measured by the other person’s response.
But even though the other person can respond however they choose, the vulnerable act of opening up your heart to another invites (not guarantees) care and warmth. Sow seeds of vulnerability and openness, and you are likely to reap the same from your loved one.
Secret #4: Diversify your social support network.
It’s not a great idea to demand that all of your emotional needs be met by one person. Even if that one person is your boyfriend or spouse. There will always be moments when others are not capable of comforting us or caring for us. So it’s wise to diversify.
As a Christian, my biggest and most consistent supporter is God Himself. God is my doting father and best friend. I know He adores me and really gets all my pain, whether anyone else does or not!
Beyond that, I highly recommend a good flock of same-sex friends who can take turns holding your heart when times get tough. Then when they have hard times, as we all do, you can do the same for them.
So now you have some basic guidelines for opening up about your feelings and expressing what your heart needs to those you love.
However, one caveat.
It isn’t necessary to share every fleeting moment of hurt.
I don’t recommend making everything into a big deal. Your words have less force if you are constantly bringing issues up. You will wear others out, and you will be like the boy who cried wolf – when the real wolf shows up, people won’t know if they should take you seriously.
Sometimes you will want to keep an offense to yourself, such as if it is a one-time rather than recurring issue, or if you know you’ll get over it in a few moments, or if it just isn’t a fitting moment to bring it up. Sometimes our loved one is already having a bad day and just can’t add a potentially stressful or emotional conversation right at that moment. Be as sensitive and generous to others’ emotions as you would have them be to you.