Let’s begin with a couple of quick exercises. First, I want you to pause for a moment and think of someone you’re fond of to whom you have something to say, something you haven’t yet said. Think of your feelings for this person. Maybe it’s a close friend, someone you have leaned on for support recently, someone who ought to hear directly from you just how much you appreciate them. Maybe it’s a friend who you wish was more, but you haven’t yet gathered the courage to say, “I think I’m in love with you.” Maybe it’s an acquaintance, someone you don’t know well, but would like to know better. Maybe you’re thinking it’s time to say to that person, “Hey, want to grab a coffee? I think we could be good friends.”
And now I want you to ask yourself why you haven’t yet spoken the words. Is it fear of being rebuffed, fear of making yourself vulnerable? Are you afraid it would just seem awkward? Have you convinced yourself there’s no time in the day for such things, that you simply haven’t had the chance? [Spoiler alert: At one time or another in my adult life, I have been in all those situations listed in the first paragraph, and I have not spoken up for all the reasons — and more — enumerated in the second.]
Second exercise: Now think of the Other People in your life, the ones who have wronged you, who have angered you, who have hurt you, or who have done the same to someone you love. And think of the one thing you would like to say to them. I’m not referring here to the simple “F____ you!” or “Go to H____!” I’m suggesting you think of something you would like to say to them calmly, rationally, something that would be substantive, that would convey to them the full measure of why what they did or said was wrong and hurtful and damaging.
And again, I want you to ask yourself why you haven’t yet spoken the words. Is it fear of confrontation, fear of their reaction? Is it an unwillingness to revisit something unpleasant that is now over and done? Is it your sense that you could never say completely and eloquently enough what it is you really wish they could hear? Or is it more immediate than that? Is it that the person you’re thinking of for exercise 2 is also one of the people you thought of for exercise 1, and you fear bringing up the hurt again lest you kill a still-valued friendship or romance? [Again, over the course of my adult life, I have been in all these situations as well.]
This being a Monday Musings post, it will come as no surprise to any of you that I have been giving these issues a good deal of thought in recent weeks and months.
I was brought up in a family that did not suppress expressions of love or anger. We were an affectionate family, and we followed the example of our loving, affectionate parents. We could be a combative family, and we followed the example of those same parents, who actually bickered quite a lot, and occasionally had some pretty heated arguments. I was brought up believing that expressing emotions was healthy (mostly), that just as it we owed it to one another to say the extra nice thing, we also owed it to ourselves to speak our minds when put out (mostly).
When I was in graduate school, I shared a house with someone who remains to this day a cherished friend. Her family did NOT express anger, and so the first time I expressed annoyance with her about some trivial household thing, she grew very upset. I tried to explain my upbringing, to make her understand that just because I was angry, it didn’t mean I no longer wanted to be her housemate or her friend. She caught on quickly, and by the time we moved out of our place, she was much more comfortable giving voice to her anger. Funny, her spouse has never thanked me for this . . . .
Still, speaking freely with family and close friends is relatively easy. Doing so with people we don’t know as well can be a challenge. As I have grown older, I have grown far more comfortable sharing the extra kind word with people I know less well. Most respond well to expressions of appreciation or regard, and I am ALWAYS conscious of saying what I wish to say in words and in contexts that will not come across as creepy in any way.
But then there’s that anger thing. Just as expressing ourselves with those we know best is easier than it might be with looser acquaintances, so is kindness easier to share than anger. This may seem counterintuitive, especially given the breakdown of civil discourse across so much of present-day society. Again, though, I’m not talking about the verbal equivalent of flipping the bird, which IS easy. I’m talking about opening up and saying, “You wronged me, and here’s why it made me feel hurt or angry or diminished.” That is an act of intimacy, which is why many who find it relatively easy to say, “I love you,” can barely fathom saying, “I’m angry with you.”
There are in my life right now a number of people to whom I would like to express resentment, my sense of having been wronged. For myself, for a loved one — when the bonds are close enough it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. And as I contemplate such encounters, as I try to game out the conversations in my head, anticipating where they might lead, I find myself asking those questions I brought up earlier. Why haven’t I done this already? What do I believe such expressions if emotion might cost me (or my loved one)? What do I think I would gain from speaking my mind, and is it worth the potential risks or fallout?
As with so many of my recent Monday posts, I have no clear answers for the questions I’m asking. I know there are things I want to say, and at times in the past I have dealt with similar feelings by writing letters — letters I know I will never send, but which allow me to put words to my emotions so I can move on and look in the eye the objects of my anger.
Perhaps that is what I’ll do again. Or perhaps the time has come to speak my mind.
Have a great week.