Dear Carolyn: So I’m a 20-something in college, and I’m in my first serious relationship. Things are going great – except that I have trouble telling my significant other how I feel about things. Currently, I just have trouble saying, “Hey, I’m a little tired, I don’t want to go out tonight,” or saying, “I love you,” first. (We’ve both said “I love you,” but I almost always say, “I love you, too,” because I’m too shy or nervous to say it first, even though I do love him.)
These are small things, but I’m worried that something might happen that we’ll need to talk about but I won’t be able to. And I have this issue with friends and family; I always have. I hate telling people something is wrong, even when I know they would rush to fix the problem.
How do I stop making myself believe that if I bring up a problem or say how I’m feeling, people will judge me for it?
– Talking About Feelings
A: With all due respect, these aren’t small things.
That you feel too tired to go out is arguably the least consequential, least personal bit of self-representation you’ll ever take on, because it’s not a comment on your companion or the activity and therefore not an insult, it’s just about you and your physical state. At worst, it disappoints your date, and even then, if you decided to go out anyway without speaking up, your being droopy would disappoint your date, anyway, so it’s the closest a statement of feelings can come to a no-strings statement of fact.
At any level, not feeling able to advocate for yourself means you are, effectively, always at the mercy of your friends, family, significant others, even strangers. That makes giving voice to the “small” things nothing less than essential.
What you describe – “I hate telling people something is wrong” – is a state of being doubly displaced when something doesn’t go your way. You feel a wave of discomfort at having something go wrong and then another wave of discomfort at feeling powerless to fix it.
It’s possible you can walk your way out of this purgatory under your own power, just by recognizing that (1) the imperative of being your own best advocate makes even the smallest expression of your feelings a big thing indeed, and (2) using these opportunities to speak up that you regard as “small” is your clearest path to handling that eventual thing you “need to talk about.”
However, the most difficult part of this process might be one you’re more comfortable addressing with the help of a skilled therapist: You don’t “stop making yourself believe” that people will judge you for stating a problem. People do judge! It’s a simple fact, so envisioning a bond of complete trust with the world that it will never treat you harshly is unrealistic.
This, though, is easy to “make yourself believe”: People may judge, but their liking you is just not as important as your being true to yourself. In fact, being liked is meaningless without being your true self; otherwise, people like your act, not you. Maintaining a facade is physically and emotionally exhausting, and, more important, believing you need one to be likable is slow death to your self-esteem.
People’s reactions to your truth are how you sort the right people – for you – from the wrong ones. You’ll learn who will listen to you and respect your needs and feelings; who will disregard your needs in carrying on with doing whatever they want; and who will be faultlessly kind and respectful in deciding you’re not for them.
So if you can’t even say, “I’m too tired to go out tonight,” without drawing criticism from your mate, then, yes, that will be upsetting, but it’s information that’s essential to judging whether this is a healthy relationship for you – information you won’t get if you’re so criticism-averse that you always just suck it up and go out.
The only way to see the truth of your relationship is by actually stating what you actually want and need. When you see firsthand that upsetting someone doesn’t collapse the sky, buying in to the “Bring it on” mindset becomes a much less frightening step.