Do you ever find yourself wanting to hide your true thoughts and feelings from your partner or friends?
What about those not so impressive personal characteristics you hope won’t be discovered for fear others might think you’re flawed or just plain odd.
When you feel hurt by another’s words or actions, rather than tell them how you feel, are you more likely to give them the cold shoulder, make them less important to you, share less of yourself in the future, or punish them with snide comments?
When you have an unexplainable or immature emotional response to something your partner or friend has done, do you “own it” and acknowledge it to them, or do you find a way to make it their fault?
If you’re like most of us, you can answer “Yes” to the above questions. When we do any of the above, when we withdraw or hide our vulnerabilities or true nature — rather than openly discuss these — we rob ourselves of one of life’s greatest gifts: emotional intimacy. We also lose an opportunity to upgrade ourselves and our relationships.
We Want Intimacy, But….
Most of us recognize that we have two opposing drives related to intimacy. The first is the drive to be seen. You know how wonderful it feels to be around someone who “sees you” – who gets you – idiosyncrasies, quirks, adorable traits, and all? James Hillman captures beautifully this gift of being seen in The Soul’s Code:
“To be” is first of all to be visible. Passively allowing yourself to be seen opens the possibility of blessing. So we seek lovers and mentors that we may be seen, and blessed.”–James Hillman, The Soul’s Code, pg. 122
When we allow ourselves to be seen – the good, the bad, and the ugly – we make intimacy (Into Me See) possible. When we give voice to our inner world – especially those aspects of ourselves we’re not proud of – we make possible the blessings bestowed by intimacy. Doing this requires a willingness to be vulnerable.
Therein lies the problem. Because opposing our desire to be seen, our desire for intimacy, is the drive to make ourselves invulnerable. It goes against our nature to be vulnerable, to open ourselves to rejection. From experience, we learn that letting ourselves be vulnerable opens the door to rejection.
From experience, we learn that certain feelings, needs, or personality styles are not acceptable. We learn that feeling needy, angry, or envious, for instance, leads to judgment or rejection. Many of us learned that admitting we feel hurt about what another said brings ridicule or the classic “Don’t be so sensitive.” From the reactions of others, we learn which aspects of ourselves are acceptable to share, and which ones aren’t.
When we go through life pretending we don’t have insecurities, immature reactions, unflattering judgments of others, or vulnerable feelings, we live our lives in hiding. When we pretend we don’t have a “dark side,” we go through life in perpetual First Date Mode – only showing others our “good side.” Remember what it’s like in the early stages of dating when you wonder “Will they still think I’m wonderful when they see the other side of me?” or “what will it be like once the honeymoon period is over?”
When we hide our humanity, when we hide who we are, we withhold from ourselves the gift of being seen and truly knowing another. Each time we close ourselves off, rather than bravely bring up an issue that is bothering us, we close our heart to the flow of love between ourselves and the other, and turn away the possibility of blessing.
How can we change this?
How can we enjoy the healing, transformation, and joy that intimacy makes possible? First, we need to create experiences that teach us that being open and authentic – and therefore vulnerable – is a good thing. We need to practice allowing ourselves to be seen, rather than hiding or playing immature, unhealthy games. Only through practice will we discover that allowing ourselves to be seen truly is the ticket to intimacy. We allow ourselves to be seen by engaging in authentic conversations, by talking about those things that communicate who we are and what we’re about.
Here are a few practical ideas for making this happen.
1. Examine the personal and family relationships in your life where you hold back speaking your truth; where you hide your essence and your vulnerabilities.
Explore why. Ask yourself what you fear will happen if you honestly, openly say what’s going on with you. Ask yourself if this fear is reality-based. Has this person been harsh, critical, and judgmental in the past or have they actually shown themselves to be safe? Before deciding you shouldn’t open up more to someone in your personal life, get feedback from a wise friend or therapist. They’re likely to have a more objective perspective.
2. Pick one or two people you feel safest with and start a discussion about this topic.
You can even use this article as a catalyst. Share your thoughts and feelings about what makes it hard to be open and vulnerable. If they seem open to discussing this, you might share experiences where you had withheld from them or played some kind of game, rather than being open and authentic. Invite them to do the same with you. Explore together what people do that makes them safe or unsafe to share with. This will help both of you understand how to make yourself emotionally safe with each other. If you like how the conversation is going, offer to support them in being more honest and open and ask for the same.
3. In the words of Richard Dreyfus in What About Bob: “Take baby steps”.
Practice being more open and vulnerable with the gentlest, safest people you know. Be careful, though, not to use them as a target for displaced anger you have towards the more difficult people in your life.
4. If you have a confusing, embarrassing, or immature emotional response to something your partner or a close friend has said or done, open up the discussion by acknowledging it.
For instance, you might say: “It’s hard to admit this but…” or “I’m not sure why I’m feeling this way, but…” or “I know this is immature, but I’m feeling…”
5. Some people – especially men – assume that when a problem is brought up, the hidden message is that they’ve done something wrong.
If you’re sharing with someone who has that tendency, be clear up front that you’re not saying they did something wrong. For instance: “I want to share what’s going on with me about whatever they said or did.. but first, I want to be clear up front… I’m saying this because I want to be more open with you, rather than do the icy withdrawal thing I typically do… so this is about what’s going on in me…it’s not me saying you did something wrong…”
6. If you start to open up and the person starts getting defensive, remind them you are sharing your experience, not blaming them or asking them to fix it.
If they don’t seem able to hear you because of their emotional state, ask them to share what’s going on with them before you continue. Although this might seem unfair (“Hey, we’re supposed to be talking about me!”), it may be the only way they’ll be able to hear you. If the intensity of their feelings and perspective lead you to feeling that the time isn’t right for you to share –you don’t feel safe now or they clearly won’t be receptive – you can let them know you want to continue later. You might find, though, that what they need to say helps clear the air and pave the way for a deeper, more meaningful conversation.
7. If the other person starts telling you that you shouldn’t feel that way or judging you, gently let them know that doing so is making it hard for you to share with them.
Ask them if they can stop doing that and just hear you. If they can’t, you might need to say that it doesn’t feel safe to continue. If you do, state again that your hope is to have a more honest, open relationship. For some people, you might learn that they can’t handle open, authentic sharing. For others, it might take some trial and error learning. Also, remember that most people haven’t seen emotionally safe responses modeled, so they might need some coaching on how to respond in an emotionally safe way.
8. Notice your preferred ways of avoiding being vulnerable when you’re upset or hurt, and then practice using them as an opportunity for developing new, healthier, intimacy generating responses.
For instance, if one of your patterns is to make your partner less important to you – i.e. closing your heart to them – catch yourself when you do this. Remind yourself that this is a Moment of Truth. You can either indulge in the old ways that rob you of intimacy or you can step into the unknown and engage the other person in an authentic conversation about what’s bothering you.
Each time we step into the unknown territory called authentic conversation, we not only give ourselves and others the gift of intimacy, we also act as both role model and visionary. We show that you can be honest, open, authentic, and vulnerable. We show that you can bring up sensitive, difficult issues rather than close off from another. Because of our willingness to face our fears and engage in authentic conversations, we show ourselves and others what’s possible. We show that it is possible for us to be seen, rather than hide, and to relate openly and authentically, rather than play games.
When we do so, we give the gift of true intimacy – Into Me See – to ourselves and others. With this gift comes the possibility of not only blessing, but of transformation.
About the author
David Lee, the founder of HumanNature@Work, helps employers improve employee performance, customer service, and morale, through his work as a consultant, facilitator, and coach. He has worked with organizations and presented at conferences both domestically and abroad.
He is the author of nearly 100 articles and book chapters on topics such as employee motivation, effective communication, and other topics related to optimizing employee performance. His work has been published in trade journals and books in the US, Europe, India, Australia, and China. He is also the author of the ASTD Press publication Powerful Storytelling Techniques.
David’s work includes helping leadership teams foster conversations that lead to greater innovation and faster execution, and working with executives on their ability to communicate with greater influence and clarity. One of the major themes of David’s work is “Ever better result you want requires having a better conversation.”
For more articles by David on effective communication, go to www.HumanNatureAtWork.com. For his work on how to use storytelling as a communication medium, go to www.StoriesThatChange.com. You can email your questions for him to david [at] humannatureatwork.com. (replace [at] with @).