If there is something in your life that you want to change,
you want to feel more connected to other people, and you want to feel better
about yourself, one of the best things you can do is to open up about it.
Lately I’ve experienced a consistent pattern in my life whereby sharing difficulties I’m having or stating how I feel (particularly if it’s negative) helps to resolve these matters.
This is one of those things that I’ve known is the right thing to do, but I’ve had difficulty implementing it. One of the most troublesome behavioral patterns I’ve had throughout my life is hiding. I withhold things from other people. I try to avoid sharing how I feel and what I truly think on a subject—or, I’ll even hide myself entirely, and avoid being seen.
What I’ve found is that, for the most part, it’s not the thing I’m hiding (or hiding from) that’s the issue, but the hiding itself.
The Pain of Hiding
Hiding is stressful. When you’re hiding, your goal is to not be found. As such, the prospect of being found constantly hangs over you. Crap, what will I do if I’m found! People will hate me, reject me, or think I’m a weirdo-lunatic. That’s the usual line of thinking, and it’s not very pleasant to live with.
Sometimes I’ll avoid sharing my feelings because I “know” that I can’t have the thing that I want in the external world. Once I do share my feelings, that reality doesn’t necessarily change. However, once I share, I am freed from the pain of hiding.
The mindset that hiding requires is inherently painful. That mindset says, I’m all alone. It’s me against the world. No one could possibly understand me.
Without that mindset, there’s no reason to hide. When you have the opposite mindset, which is essentially that We’re all in this together, it makes sense to be open and honest with other people. The more clearly we can communicate, the better we can not only survive, but thrive.
If you found yourself in a situation where survival required a lot of effort- perhaps a wilderness-survival scenario- hiding in any form would be dangerous. In modern society you can get by without ever being too close to another person. Just go through the motions, say the necessary his and hellos, take what you need, and get out.
If you and I were going to live in the woods together, however, that would not be the case. Our ability to communicate clearly with one another could mean the difference between life and death. If I feel timid about talking to you, I might try to say the minimum needed to you, and thus leave out details that seem “unnecessary.” And what will happen when it turns out that those details really were quite important?
Imagine how painful it would be if you were stranded in the wilderness with another person, and you didn’t trust them. That would be a rather insecure state of being, eh? Similarly, what if the two of you could manage to physically survive together, but you didn’t feel that you could emotionally open up to each other at all? What if you were so distrustful that you couldn’t talk about things that bothered you nor things that excited you? That would be a rather lonely existence, would it not?
The mere presence of others isn’t what matters. If you feel you have to hide from the people around you, that’s more painful than long periods of time alone. If you are in the same room, house, or organization as other people, and you feel you have to hide from them emotionally, are you really in the presence of others? Or are you essentially alone?
I’d go so far as to say that hiding is one of the biggest sources of psychological turmoil. When I look back on emotionally difficult times and situations in my life, I see that I was doing quite a bit of hiding. Similarly, once I started to open up to other people about what I was experiencing, the psychological turmoil began to fade.
Growing by Sharing
That’s why blogging is such a godsend. I’m mindful about oversharing and talking about myself too much on here. I don’t want this to turn into an online journal. As such, I do quite a bit of writing that I keep to myself. However, when I feel that sharing my difficulties publicly has the potential to help another person, then I do so gladly. It increases my clarity on the situation, and mental clarity has a way of relieving emotional pain. If what I write can do these things for me, perhaps it can do the same for others.
Sharing the intimate details of my life tends to be more cathartic in a conversation with another person than it is in this one-to-many, online format. However, sharing online helps me to feel more confident about sharing my thoughts and feelings in person.
Anyway, I’ll give you an example of how opening up helped me to grow. When I was 15, I had a particularly problematic behavior (which I’ve blogged about before): cutting myself. Hiding this from other people was incredibly stressful. I wore long sleeves when the weather was warm, and it seemed like I was pelted with questions every time someone saw me change my clothes in the locker room (and they were not asking about how I had a body so fine).
I told people about this issue slowly—maybe one or two people every couple months. Obviously some people found out via the rumor mill, but I could never be sure of whether such people knew, and their knowing wasn’t particularly cathartic for me anyway. It was telling people myself, face-to-face, that made a real difference for me.
Overall, as I told more people (all of whom I really trusted, by the way—these weren’t random people), I engaged in this behavior less and less. The first several months, when no one knew, were the most violent.
Simply telling people about my problem did not fix it. I continued to hurt myself for about 7 months after I first told someone. When I look back on this situation now, I think the reason for this is that I didn’t open up enough. I told my people about the actions I was taking (i.e. the cutting), but I said precious little about my thoughts and feelings. I think that’s why I continued to feel isolated and alone: I thought that if people knew in-depth about my experience, they would surely reject me in some form (such as thinking that I was a nutcase. Of course, they probably already thought that).
One step I took that was particularly helpful was telling one of my friends about this problem. I had been very much attracted to this particular friend for quite some time. I don’t know what made me decide to tell her about my self-harming problem. Nevertheless, this was an emotionally risky thing for me to do because she had found me creepy in the past, and at the present time things were going well between us; now, I risked pushing her away again.
That wasn’t what happened, though. Instead I was happily surprised. She told me that there was a time in her life where she physically harmed herself as well. She didn’t say much by way of advice, but she clearly was not going to abandon me. At this particularly vulnerable time of my life, it was validating to know that someone I so admired had been through the same thing I was going through, and that she supported me in overcoming it. I continued to hurt myself for several more months, but it was around this time that I began to do so considerably less. So, a big step was taken.
Holding Back is More Painful than Taking Action
Imagine trying to hide something from someone for so long, and then finding out that they’ve experienced the exact same thing. Whenever this happens to me I feel foolish for having thought that the world was going to end if someone found me.
I love being found out. Truthfully, my life has never gotten worse as a result of being found out in some form—at least, not in the long run. In the short run being found out can entail an increase in chaos, discomfort, and/or the introduction of certain complications to my life. But none of it has ever been too much to handle, nor has any of it ever been regrettable.
This is similar to the fact that life’s biggest regrets often lie not in what we do, but rather in what we don’t do. It’s not doing something and making a mistake that is painful, but holding back and failing to do anything at all that hurts us.
Would you rather watch life pass you by and wonder what could have been? Similarly, would you like to continue watching other people from your hiding spot and fearing them? Or would you rather be honest with and therefore close to them?
There is no guarantee that someone will accept you when you are honest with them. The subject matter you bring up might call for a long, deliberate, difficult conversation. However, that is nothing to hide from. Conversations of this sort are the ones I remember most. It’s invigorating to speak so thoughtfully with other people: I feel so alive. Perhaps the future of our relationship is in a state of uncertainty during these conversations. But we can come together more closely just as well as we may drift farther apart. Whatever the case, I think the opportunity to have a deliberate conversation with someone I care about is worth it. At least for that moment, we are perhaps the closest we have ever been.
The only thing being honest guarantees is that you get to be yourself. I can’t imagine anything more amazing than that, since it means getting to be truly alive. So I’m down with it. And this isn’t purely selfish. When I get to be myself, that means that the people around me can have an easier time with being themselves, too. And what more could you want in a relationship? A relationship in which people cannot be themselves is dying. When people are hiding from each other, they are too far apart to love each other. Hiding has no place in a truly loving relationship.
Relating to other people with honesty and openness is not easy—not when you’ve been hiding for all of your life. Honesty isn’t about fessing up to everything all at once. Honesty is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing, ever-present aspect of life—not only with other people, but also with yourself. For me, becoming more honest has been a gradual process of being able to share more clearly and more fully what I think and how I feel. It has also meant being able to share my truth more quickly (rather than withholding it for weeks on end), and with less fear and shame.
I’ve found that sharing my challenges has been a great way of gaining a higher-level perspective on them and ultimately overcoming them. Challenges seem much bigger and hairier when you’re the only one in the world who knows about them. When you tell others about what you are experiencing, you exercise power over the experience. To share about a problem is to recognize that it is not more powerful than you, and you are not enslaved to it. You are not your problems. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to think about them and talk about them safely, with other people.
Whenever you share your thoughts, feelings, or challenges, remember that it’s perfectly OK to make other people uncomfortable and to make a statement that you can’t necessarily do anything about. Before I say something that might discomfort another person, I like to forewarn them and make sure they’re alright with having that sort of conversation. As for statements we can’t necessarily do anything about, I like to forewarn about those, too, if I feel it would ease the tension for both of us. I might say, “I want to tell you something, but before I do, I want you to know that I’m just telling you how I feel. I’m not going to act on this feeling, and I don’t expect you to change or do anything because of it, either.”
You can say words without demanding that anything be done about them. I can write this article without needing anyone to read it. It still is valuable to me, in that it organizes my thinking and helps me to clarify what is important to me. Likewise, you can share your thoughts and feelings without needing anyone to take action because of them. The act of sharing is in itself valuable.
Hide No More
What are you hiding? Are you hiding a particular behavior or feeling of yours? Are you hiding from a particular person? Does that hiding really serve you, or does it bring you more distress than protection? What would happen if you stopped hiding? Might you gain the strength to stop that bad habit? Could you form a closer bond with someone you’ve been distant from? Would you feel free? Would you attain the change you’ve desired—and maybe even more?
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