A Mental Health Moment // Expressing Emotions & Building Relational Intimacy

To be honest, my mental health is a thing, it’s a big thing, and I’m more tired of it being a thing than I can adequately express. While I think it’s wonderful that so much attention is being brought to the importance of caring for ourselves mentally, the truth is there are challenges related to doing relationships well while you’re navigating seasons of sadness, or grief, or anger, or any other polarizing emotional state.

I’ve spoken about this before, but a scary part of being in life-giving community and relationships is letting people help you sort through and carry your stuff. I struggle with this because I hate being perceived as a burden and I hate overwhelming people, but I also fear being rejected by those I love. I think these are legitimate concerns, but I’ve realized if I don’t choose to trust people with my baggage then I have already determined that the relationships will be stunted due to a lack of reciprocity.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the reasons why I opt out of directness when the people I love and trust ask me how I’m doing. Being blunt has never been my strong suit, and I’m not usually ruthlessly direct unless I’m frustrated, irritated, or tired. I’m the person who usually has sugar on hand to coat something in, and I try my best to wield words carefully. It is always a personal goal of mine to cause only as much pain as is absolutely necessary when delivering a message. I am constantly in search of the best way to say something, even the things that aren’t that big a deal to most people.

But sometimes my desire to be tactful can cause me to be unwittingly misleading, or even worse, totally silent. Basically, I get so wrapped up in trying to say something a certain way that I compromise the integrity of the message. I roll the words in so much sugar that when they land they don’t have the kind of impact they needed to in order to affect the change they were intended to. Sometimes it’s hard for me to just say it.

As I reflected on why I do this, I had a realization: specificity requires a certain level of courage because it can be uncomfortably revealing.

Ambiguity is like a smoke screen, you can kind of see what’s going on behind it, but the details likely remain out of focus. Maybe you can get a general sense of who or what is really there, but unless it comes to the forefront you will absolutely not see the entire picture.

I’m guilty of artistic ambiguity, choosing to present my friends with puzzling poetic expression instead of just getting to the point. I think I dilute the real reasons behind my disposition because I’m just so sick of talking about it, but I also want to spare myself from sitting in that uncomfortable space where I can’t control how someone chooses to handle a piece of my heart after I hand it over. I bridle my diction – picking and choosing the least offensive half-truths that may or may not be in the ballpark of what I’m feeling, but refrain from hitting the nail on the head because that would be too intimate, too painful, or too transparent.

I water down my feelings and find ways to express the least harrowing portions of my emotional space, but end up leaving conversations unfulfilled, unseen, unheard, and misunderstood. In these instances, I can’t blame the other person because people can only respond to what I choose to share.

The problem comes when I let unexpressed expectation grow in the spaces between the words I refuse to say, until I’m choking on the truth. The latent potential for help goes untapped because I don’t have the courage to ask for it. But at some point, I become too tired to censor myself. And when I’m there, I just need to say exactly what’s going on.

Specificity leaves little room to hide. When you eliminate the verbal fluff, there is no soft landing space. Words hit their targets hard and fast, and that anxiety-inducing mix of release and terror that comes after I’ve said exactly what needed to be said – no edits, no rewrites, no extras – begins to pour into the pit of my stomach. Sometimes I feel sick, other times I feel proud. But I always feel some sort of relief.

Maybe you can relate.

The fear of being perceived as something you’d hate to actually be is overwhelming when you’re attempting to communicate a less than ideal mental or emotional state. Having to trust that someone won’t permanently assign the temporary emotions and reactions of a season to the totality of your identity is terrifying. Questions flood my brain in the moments before I choose to be blunt.

If I tell the truth, devoid of any sugary coating, will they remember that who I am now is not who I am period?

If I admit feeling fragile right now, will they think I’m playing the victim?

Will they confuse overwhelm with incompetence?

Will I regret having shared this if they bring it up again?

Will they perceive exhaustion as weakness?

Will they think lonely means needy?

Will they hear ‘crazy’ when I say ‘unstable’?

As pause-warranting as these questions are, I’ve learned that even the most accurate communication does not – in and of itself – guarantee accurate perception. You can’t ever know how someone will respond to unadulterated honesty, it’s the risk we have to take in order to get to intimacy. How people think about you is beyond your control. But the pain of withholding the absolute truth will sabotage any chance at growth that relationship had in the first place.

Consistently choosing ambiguity staunches intimacy. If you’re only half telling the truth because of fear, you are not only depriving yourself of having your need met, but are robbing the other person of the opportunity to meet that need.

At the end of the day, you have a responsibility to communicate your needs and desires to the people around you in a way that they will clearly comprehend. You will frustrate them if you choose to remain a mystery all the time, especially when you’re not doing well mentally or emotionally. Opting out of specificity isn’t helping you, them, or yall’s relationship.

Have the courage to be specific and say the whole truth. In the spaces that have proven themselves to be safe, with the people whose motives and behaviors have been vetted and found trustworthy, try saying the words you really want to say without the caramel coating. Test the weight-bearing capacity of the relationships you’re in by being blunt and see how it goes. I want to remind you that no matter how people respond to you, their response is not an ultimatum. You can recover from being misunderstood or rejected. But in order to truly benefit from relationships, you have to be willing to take these kinds of chances. Whether your specificity meets a favorable or unfavorable response it was worth it because you learned where you could speak safely.

Let’s talk about it. Do you have a hard time being transparent in relationships? Tell me in the comments.

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