Who to Turn To:

Source: Joan Cusack Handler

Note: Since I’ve moved on to the second stage of opening up to one’s feelings, namely, sharing them with another, it may seem that I’m suggesting that I’ve exhausted the topic. Of course, that’s not the case. Nor is it the task. A few pages can barely introduce such a vast topic. This is the beginning of a process that I hope will continue indefinitely. The goal is to underscore the importance of identifying what one feels and sharing those emotions with another/others.

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If communication is the hallmark of psychological health, the circle is not complete until we’re opening up to another.

It follows that first and foremost, we need to make the best choice of a confidante/s. That takes thought. Keep in mind that just because we’re close to someone—family, lover, friend—does not mean that they’re the ideal person/s to open up to emotionally. In fact, they may be far from that. Trust your judgement. Having known the people in your life for a reasonable amount of time, you’re likely the best judge of who will be critical and/or judgmental (in many cases, despite a good heart and a wish to help). Closeness, love and years of history do not automatically render a person a good listener. Good listeners have a gift—they do just that—they listen.  So choose wisely. Watch the person with others as well as yourself. Are they capable of empathy? Do they have an agenda other than to listen?

The impulse to speak may be so compelling that we open up to the wrong person; this often backfires and even catapults us back to a place where we’re convinced that no one can be trusted to listen without judgement; hence, it’s fruitless to attempt to open up to anyone. That leads to an unhealthy isolation and lack of a supportive network that we all need and pushes us back even further than we were in the first place. The tendency to trust indiscriminately, is often a defense against intimacy. The constant flow of people who fail to come through supports our belief that emotional contact with another is not possible. Thus, we’re ‘safe’ in our isolation. Study this issue carefully. If you see yourself as one who trusts easily and quickly, consider the possibility that that tendency will likely work against you rather than for you. Our aim is to trust people who deserve (have earned!) our trust.  At all costs, protect yourself from one whose first impulse is to dictate, to preach, to chastise or accuse. We’re very vulnerable in our feeling lives and can be crushed easily, so we need gentle care. It’s helpful to think of oneself with the same level of protection as we would a child or other loved one. We wouldn’t expose our child to anyone we didn’t trust or who would speak harshly to them; resolve not to do that to yourself. So much of psychological health stems from our commitment to act responsibly and lovingly with ourselves; challenge is good, yes, but not with the deck stacked against you.

Though I’m cautioning against talking to anyone who might increase our distress with careless or irresponsible comments, I don’t necessarily mean that we can never open up to them. If the goal is to come to that place where we can, it is wise (in all cases really!) to test the waters disclosing to others first. Though it may seem awkward or silly, make a list of issues/emotions that are troubling you and rate them from least serious/troubling to most. Start with the lowest rating and proceed gradually toward the areas in which you’re most vulnerable. Once again take your time. Though it’s important to not give up too easily, it’s also critical that you not push yourself to reveal more than you can.

Though one may choose not to open up to a particular person in his/her life, that person may be essential to one’s well-being –particularly one’s partner. If we’re committed to the belief that openness generates greater understanding between people, we’re likely to regard that as a particularly critical dimension with our partner. But just as you wouldn’t attempt to walk unattended after back or knee surgery, it’s critical that we open up to others carefully and in stages.

There may be things we never share with a partner—we’re too ashamed or fearful – convinced they won’t forgive or accept this truth about us. That’s an important reality to confront. It refers back to what we require in a partner. How well do we need a partner to know us? What is a satisfying relationship? What can we accept, not accept?  Contrary to popular belief, it is often better to hold back (certainly initially) than to reveal and potentially damage a relationship that is otherwise working well. This is particularly pertinent in cases of addiction, illegal activity and infidelity. These are likely to be very difficult for a loved one to hear/accept. Therapy – both individual and couples’ – can be very helpful in such cases – zeroing in on our own vulnerabilities/feelings regarding this activity/compulsion as well as on questions we need to explore to be sure that the revelation is made at the best time, in the best way and under the best circumstances. As a non-judgmental counselor, the therapist’s acceptance of us will go a long way towards helping us to accept ourselves such that, we can imagine approaching the topic with our partner. Likewise, keep in mind that the therapist has experience and expertise with such problems and can be helpful in teasing out issues that might be less obvious to the person experiencing them (it follows that Individual therapy often leads to couples’ therapy – the more we open up about ourselves, the more likely we are to confront the frailties in our relationships). Ideally, we discover deeper truths than we’ve been aware of previously. Critical questions need to be addressed: Why do you want to tell the person? Is it for our own comfort – to ease guilt and hopefully get forgiveness? Does the other person need to know? Why? Admission of infidelity is particularly tricky; it can backfire and derail, even destroy the relationship; it certainly puts trust on the line.

All of that said, while I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a mistake to disclose without careful consideration, I am cautioning that it can be—especially if it’s only to relieve one’s own discomfort. It’s critical that we examine all aspects of such a disclosure and the array of possible partner responses. What is the likelihood that this will be helpful? In cases of infidelity, as with all behaviors, there are reasons why we have an intimate relationship with one who is not our partner. What are they? When did this behavior start? Under what circumstances? What else was going on in our lives at the time? What is its history? Be wary of the quick answer. It’s critical that one looks beneath the surface of the extra-marital encounter (sexual or emotional as in the ongoing sharing of intimate confidences with another) and questions what problems it may be masking and avoiding. Oftentimes it’s a symptom of a deeper problem that needs to be addressed. Are we angry? Is the spouse unresponsive sexually? Are we searching out reassurance of our attractiveness and competency in bed? Is our spouse unavailable emotionally? Abusive? Are we bored? Do we not believe in monogamy? Do we no longer love the partner? Would it be better to tell the partner? How does one do that? Once again, explore each response thoroughly. Whether you’re already involved or just thinking about it, do your homework, question what this activity or impulse resolves or may resolve for you. What does it give you? What does it risk? How does it influence the rest of your life? This is definitely a place where the relationship and the partners need help confronting its/their weaknesses as well as its strengths. I would heartily recommend searching out a couples’ therapist to help you both find a path to choosing a healthy direction for the relationship. What is the best course for each of you? Renewed commitment or separation? It’s important to know that one has choices, and that there is no universal right or wrong. But the process of exploring the ground that this relationship is built on is critical to making the right one for each of you. Couples therapy can help with this and make it a less painful experience.

CODA:

Not surprisingly, I recommend searching out a therapist (individual or couples) when communication is crippled or when one wants the assistance of an accepting non-judgmental person to accompany him/her on the road to self-discovery. But just as I caution that you be prudent in your choice of a confidante in your everyday life, so also do I suggest the same discrimination when it comes to choosing a therapist.

Therapists are people and as such have their own personalities, attitudes, and beliefs; likewise, they have preferences for the type of treatment they offer. Recommendations are helpful—from primary care physicians, from friends, from the Psychology Today list of therapists and that of the American Psychological Association. Though not necessary, it’s helpful to know what type of therapy the person practices: short term, long, psychoanalytic (exploration of the unconscious) cognitive (questions the individual’s thought patterns and belief systems), couple’s (the focus is the relationship), family (the focus is on the interrelationships between members—the problem exists in the family not in any one individual) to name but a few. Whatever the reason is that brings you to therapy and to this particular therapist, be clear that this person may or may not be right for you. You’ll know that by the end of the first session or two. Do you feel comfortable with that person? Hopeful? Don’t be afraid to ‘interview’ the person as you might a lawyer or other professional. Trust your instincts. Does this person feel like someone you can learn to talk to? One who you may learn to trust? If the person feels wrong for you, pursue other referrals. Do not insist that you stay with someone just because they are well recommended or have an impressive pedigree.  There are scores of other very capable clinicians right in your neighborhood who are available to help. The likelihood that you’ll find the right fit is very high. 

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