We are often encouraged to put the negativity behind us and stay positive! You know, when something bothers you or otherwise messes with you? As aggravating as it may be, you swallow it and don’t make a big deal out of it. Why keep the cycle of conflict going, after all?
Conflict avoidance is part of daily life. You won’t live well if you don’t have a well-developed sense of conflict avoidance for those millions of times an uncomfortable moment comes up. As it is said, pick your battles.
But avoiding the conflict often means leaving a problem unresolved, which only makes things much worse – especially when avoiding the same conflict again and again becomes a pattern. People who do this are under the illusion that they are “keeping the peace” by not bringing their discomfort out into the open, when in reality they are only giving themselves a raw deal by not addressing the cause of the troubles.
Folks like that tend to go one of two ways:
- turn inward and become depressed, or
- explode outward in outbursts of rage.
One of the day-to-day reasons that relationships between human beings become so screwed up has to do with this well-intentioned deception. We protect those we interact with from the negative aspects of our feelings about them, because we want to be nice and foster goodwill. And we do it so fricking often, without even thinking twice about it! (“oh, it’s nothing”)
The problem is, it’s dishonest. It’s not authentic, and it misleads people who interact with you about how you really are. And while a little half-truth with somebody you meet for 5 minutes and never see again might not sound so harmful, we carry this dishonest kindness into our longer-lasting interactions as well, because such responses are so deeply ingrained in our daily function. We try to hide ourselves from the people who know us best: many people hide a lot of their feelings from the people they are most intimate with, be it a significant other or a family member, and with ostensibly good reason – who wants to upset a loved one with the burden of negative feelings?
But then, on the other side of things… what happens when the loved one finds out that you’ve been hiding your dissatisfaction about something for a long time? This almost always happens when somebody holds something inside; the person from whom this secret was kept is left feeling rejected, distrusted, or otherwise inadequate. Why would somebody hide their true feelings from another person, especially one they supposedly trust?
- Not wanting to hurt the other person with such truths (as mentioned before)
- Feeling afraid of being misunderstood
- Not wanting to make a “big deal” about things. Comfort with “staying invisible” (which really means “staying in control”)
- Not wanting to give the wrong impression
When there’s some not-so-pleasant things to communicate, people sometimes use tricks such as the “compliment sandwich,” consisting of a criticism sandwiched between two compliments (ex: “I like how expressive you are about what you think, although I wish you would listen better. But you know how to put into words how you feel.”) as a way of “softening” the blow. This is not a bad thing to know how to do, but it’s not a substitute for addressing a problem head-on. If you want to be taken seriously, you cannot depend on softening your truth to be listened to.
You can be nice without sacrificing honesty at the same time
This is not an endorsement of “brutal honesty,” in which a person simply fires away about all the negative things on their mind. It is, however, an endorsement of honesty 🙂 You do want to find a way to tell your uncomfortable truths that will be better understood – but you must stay committed to getting those truths out. It’s not fair to yourself, or to other people, to hide what you really feel.
if you are afraid of offending the other person / people with your truth, remember to stick to what it is you are feeling, to frame with you say in terms of the reality you are living, instead of talking about people other than yourself. Just as you cannot read other people’s minds, other people have no right to tell you that you don’t feel something. The more you continuously hide the important things that you are feeling inside, the more people around you may have the illusion that what you feel does not matter as much as it would if you expressed these feelings out loud; the thinking is, it’s only when you express yourself out loud that something really matters. This is not always true – but if staying silent is not working, it becomes true, and it’s time to open up.
It is very important not to wait until you can’t take it anymore to speak up. People with a consistently strong, positive outlook know that they must pay attention to the things that are starting to bother them long before they become intolerable. When somebody is inconvenienced, the inconvenience will have to come out somehow, eventually. Would you rather have as much control as possible over the process, ensuring that everybody’s questions get answered, or would you rather stay not knowing when it will suddenly become a larger problem that leads to deep feelings and misunderstandings – that you have little or no control over?
If we as a society want more authentic interaction and less bullshit, we must be welcoming of people’s personal truths even when they might sound heavy. People who can do this – talk calmly and candidly about “inconvenient feelings” (whether it’s their feelings or somebody else’s) tend to be looked upon very favorably. It’s always nice to have somebody around that you can be honest and frank with. Somebody who values real, deep honesty enough not to turn away when the subject matter is no longer pleasant.
I have written elsewhere about the need to listen well, and the value in having people around that really listen. But that is only half of the game. You must also give others a chance to fully listen to you, and not only in your facial expressions, gestures, and overall behavior; you must come out and say concretely what is really on your mind. The communicator, as well is the listener, also bears responsibility for making sure the communication is effective – and there are times when hints and suggestions don’t do the trick. In these situations, you must clear the murkiness away by talking directly to the problem – and sooner, rather than later. The longer somebody waits to get their truth out, the more shocking it can be to those who weren’t expecting it.
For every person who lives in fear of offending other people in a stupid, obvious way, there is somebody who lives in fear of offending people in ways they won’t know about, because the offended people are likely not to come forward and address the issue. Some of these people will sing the virtues of empathizing, saying that such people who unintentionally offend others should have the sense to “look for the signals.” But how empathic is that toward somebody who truly means no harm but clearly is not seeing the signals, or doesn’t know where to begin? Empathy is a two-way street – and best shot you can give it to create a situation of mutual empathy is by putting your own cards out on the table.
There’s no guarantee your truth will be received with open arms, it’s true. But even when somebody takes what you express the wrong way, at least you’ve done your best. You’ve respected yourself by valuing your feelings enough to put them into words – and this respect can have a hidden power, also, that betters those around you. Very often, someone will in the future express gratitude for a truth you told about yourself that felt unpleasant to deal with in the moment, because with your truth-telling, you have made a statement that you prefer honesty and authenticity over bullshit shallow convenience. Not a person in the world lives life without at many points wishing they could just cut through the bullshit around them, and people will remember it when somebody speaks truth to a difficult situation; in the future, they are likely to respect the truth-teller more even if they don’t particularly like the person.
There will be times when you need to hide certain things, of course. If you are in danger, for example. But these days, truth-hiding has become so commonplace that it seems kind of normal to let it pollute our closest relationships – and even our relationships to ourselves! Some people cannot even figure out why they are so irritable, because they’ve been hiding from themselves. You know, the person who takes their anger out on people around them because they aren’t dealing with their own issues? So often, this starts with a denial of the reality that yes, something bothers me, and I need to deal with that. If it’s too inconvenient to consider onerself “bothered” or “troubled” by something, very often, the person simply goes forward with the thinking that, “well, this doesn’t stop me from carrying on my daily life, so it doesn’t really bother me.” Lie to yourself like this, and you will end up being deceptive to others about your feelings and intentions without even knowing it.
Truth itself is generally not bitter; it only becomes bitter when you hide from it for a while – and even then, it’s the hiding that makes things bitter.
Want to be a positive person? Value the truth enough to speak it out, even when it’s difficult. In fact, speaking the truth out when it’s difficult is something that is associated with some of the greatest people we know about – scientists, world leaders, religious figures, activists, and of course, people in our lives that we know and love. These people do not address truth as some brutal wrecking ball of putdowns and negativity; they know that truth is a good thing, and that it doesn’t always have to be thought of as bitter, no matter how bitter it may taste in the moment. Once you can feel this, you can feel the true meaning of the expression: “The truth shall set you free.”
And I might just modify that a little bit: “Your truth shall set you free.”