This week I had an incredible conversation with someone who I trust dearly. We discussed a tendency I have in my personal life to react to certain challenging situations with the typical M.O. of putting on a smile and convincing everyone, myself included, that everything is awesome. Even when something like this may be closer to reality…
I smile. I work hard. I get shit done. On the outside, everything looks totally great. And people, for the most part, love me too – I get to be the happy one who everyyyyyone else depends on. Frankly, it’s great. …Or so I thought it was.
How does this serve me? Well, I get a lot done, I function really highly, and people know that they can depend on me.
…But at what cost?
Initially, I’d thought not much – I was “happy” and telling people that everything was wonderful. What could be wrong with creating a reality where my shit didn’t stink? Then I didn’t have to smell it, nor would I have to inconvenience others with it either.
The problem with not actually addressing things in life that are uncomfortable is multifold: By ignoring problems, they get worse. And no, your specific situation isn’t an outlier that doesn’t apply to this situation. Really. When you ignore things they don’t go away – at best the issue remains the same, feeling uncomfortable and unresolved (which I would argue makes it worse), and most always gets worse by ignoring it. I promise.
Think about legitimately any issue you’ve had in your life. I’m gonna give the example of a splinter I had once when I was a kid. I got a splinter in the ball of my foot from my wooden deck when I was playing around and didn’t want to tell my mom because I knew she’d have to get it out with a needle and that would be uncomfortable. So, what did I do? I pretended I was fine, went to soccer practice, and told myself it would go away. Spoiler alert: It did not go away. The thing got pushed deeper into my foot causing a HUGE blister and it got infected immediately, and essentially my mom had to conduct surgery to cut it out of my foot (she’s not that kinda doctor). And don’t even get me started on how painful it was to take the thing out. It was so infected and so tender I still shutter just thinking about it, I couldn’t play for like a week. Miserable.
Consider what would have happened if right then and there when I’d scuffed my foot, I’d done something to get the splinter out. Sure, there was potential for a little discomfort upfront, but that little pain was nothing compared to the resulting fiasco it was to get the thing out once it had burrowed into the ball of my foot.
The analogy applies aptly to our emotions.** By limiting emotions or pushing down feelings we create a pressure that ultimately builds up into an infected blister surrounding the splinter of painful emotion. When you ignore real problems you limit experiences and void opportunities for openness and thus closeness that you otherwise would have grown from. You also create a buildup of pressure that at minimum causes discomfort, and often leads to deterioration of relationships, misunderstandings and resentment. The other thing that happens if you actually just talk about whatever the little thing is upfront is that there’s less tension that initially builds up and thus it’s a much easier and less painful to release.
We’ve all fallen victim to the opposite approach: Think about the time you got into it with a loved one or significant other. Something was bothering you and you didn’t say anything over and over again until they looked at you wrong or accidentally knocked over a glass and you FLIPPED out at them creating a much bigger fight that erupted not from this one little incident, but from the pressure buildup of not addressing the root issue.
We all do this, myself included, with good reason. We don’t just form opinions about our communication tendencies (like ignoring problems or sweeping them under the rug) out of thin air. It’s done because we learned that doing so benefited us in some way, and thus we concluded this was the best or “right way” to proceed. For me, ignoring conflict was the “best” way to make it go away and not cause, what I saw, as unnecessary waves as a young adult. For me, by ignoring problems I (wrongly) thought I’d avoid conflict and thus be able to get along better with everyone including myself. What actually happened was that I didn’t work on improving relationships and missed out on opportunities for personal growth. I missed out on talking with those I trust to gain perspective from them, I missed out on the chance to improve the relationships with conflict, and I missed out on the chance to honor myself by acknowledging my feelings and actually asking for what I wanted, not just get by with the scraps I was given.
I want to acknowledge how absolutely terrifying it is to talk about problems or conflict you are experiencing. There’s no way around it, talking about your feelings, something you are going through, or challenges in relationships is vulnerable. It feels dangerous. And of course, it would be easier in the short-term not to ask for help or support.
It just feels easier to ignore the problem, and that’s not your fault. We are all programmed that way – first we avoid pain, and then we seek pleasure. And this kind of work definitely feels scary and painful to do. Then, on top of that fear and pain of communication there is today’s world of technology and social media and what I wrote about in my last post of “instaperfect” filters on life. It’s easier to send a text then to make a call, post the pretty photo then a real one, and ignore the problem instead of getting it out in the open.
For me it’s always felt like something that should be my problem and that I need to “get over” or not talk about for fear of making that other person uncomfortable or upset. What I’ve learned though, is that by not talking about the tough stuff with compassion and curiosity, I’m being unfair to myself and unfair to the relationship – whatever it is, and it will always just push that splinter deeper inside making it hurt much, much more when eventually it has to come out.
This exact issue is a large part of what brought me to coaching and why I’ve worked with a therapist – both of whom have helped me to grow in this area immensely. Sometimes having a totally outside, non-biased opinion can really help you to see things more clearly. My coach has helped me to understand how not talking about the painful stuff was meeting some of my needs in low-quality ways, and thus not serving me. My therapist has helped me to understand why I was operating the way I was and what it stemmed from. My best friends have supported me and encouraged me as I make these changes and foster more open and communicative relationships. All of this has felt uncomfortable because it was new, but I can tell you it’s been completely worth it. I feel better and my relationships with myself and those who I love are better for it.
Look deep on this one. It’s not always easy nor does it happen overnight, but by consistently working to make small shifts in your actions and perspectives, and relying on those who you trust, I promise you you’ll start to feel a lightness you’ve been missing. And I also promise you it’s worth the work. The time passes anyway, so why not make it worth living?