Feelings and self-disclosure

People usually find they have the most difficulty with identifying and admitting to themselves what they actually feel, and then disclosing their feelings frankly to their partner. This may happen partly because we’ve accepted certain values uncritically from earlier models. Often we adopt attitudes (such as, “It isn’t ladylike to get angry,” and “Only a weakling admits to feeling jealous”) that make it difficult for us to look inside and call a spade a spade. Sometimes even when we do recognize a feeling we’re afraid to risk voicing it because it might make us too vulnerable, might give too much “power” to the other person. This is especially likely to happen if we suspect that our partner shares our convictions — for example, that it is “unmanly to have hurt feelings.” And to some extent we may simply lack enough trust in or respect for the other person — we don’t credit them with being sensible or compassionate or honest enough to really listen to and care about us, and not to take advantage of the fact that we are being straight with them.

Basically, problems about self-disclosure come down to a question of lack of self-esteem or self-respect — what Virginia Satir calls “low pot.” A person who doesn’t think very well of himself is naturally going to be reluctant to tell his loved one what he’s really like, and what he actually feels. The same person will also find it difficult to compromise or give in on an issue because he views concessions as evidence of his “weakness.” To convince himself that he isn’t weak, he’s always got to “win.” Each of us has flaws and blemishes; there is always some way in which we can grow and improve. But the person with “low pot” has generally convinced himself, or allowed himself to be convinced, that his own thoughts/feelings/nature are so unique and distasteful that he either can’t face them at all or at least can’t possibly risk sharing them with someone else. This isolation prevents the kind of communication that can reveal to him how common his “unique” thoughts and feelings are and how acceptable his true self really is. The person with “high pot” automatically assumes that while he is far from perfect he is basically okay, that his thoughts and feelings must therefore be perfectly normal, and that there’s absolutely no reason why he can’t share them whenever it’s appropriate to do so. Ironically enough, the process of sharing them reinforces his self-awareness and his sense of normalcy, of being okay.

There is nothing good or bad about thoughts and feelings; they just are. At different times and in varying degrees of intensity we all share the same thoughts and feelings: there really isn’t anything new under the sun. Feelings are our reactions to what we perceive and experience. To be unaware of our feelings, or reject them, is to fail to understand and use them. It is worse than being deaf or blind; it is existing rather than being alive.

To be in touch with our feelings, to be able to accept them and weigh them objectively, is the only way we can understand ourselves, be creative and grow — the only way we can change ourselves and our environment and our feelings in a direction of our choosing. Feelings can be modified — there is nothing mystical or sacrosanct or immutable about them — but we can change them only after we allow ourselves to recognize and deal with them. When we accept them — “own them” — they lose most of the power they got from being repressed and secret, and it is easier to share them in clear, explicit messages.

Sharing our feelings with our partners not only makes change possible, it increases our feelings of esteem for ourselves and our partners.

When you are able to be open with yourself and your partner, and to risk confronting the unknown parts of your partner, three things happen simultaneously:

  • You like yourself more.
  • Others like you more (people do tend to take us at our own evaluation).
  • You like others more.

Openness encourages us to share our essential sameness as humans, and that sameness is both comforting and appealing. It is the walls we erect with phoniness, secrecy and hypocrisy that create fear, suspicion and dislike. Look inside, call a spade a spade, and be prepared to take some risks with what you see. Be as relaxed as possible in the process, taking comfort from the fact that whatever you have to say probably won’t be new to your partner.

And if it is, don’t anticipate disaster. Life would be dull if we were all alike, and there are differences and conflicts of needs and desires in even the most ideal intimate relationships. These differences are harmful only when they’re kept submerged, and create the confusion and uncertainty of underground warfare.  Once they’ve surfaced, growth and compromise and resolution are possible — using several techniques that we’ll be discussing shortly.

~ Lori Heyman Gordon

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