Back in the 1970s there was a popular book entitled, The Transparent Self, by Sidney Jourard. One of Sidney’s main points was that for good mental health, everyone needed at least one person that they could be "transparent" with — one person they could drop the personas and masks with, one person they could reveal their true selves to. What’s important here is not so much what the other person says and does when you do, but rather the positive impact that that revealing, that letting down of one’s guard, the having a safe relationship, in and of itself, can have. A good idea that still resonates today.
Obviously many people are lucky to have such a person — a parent, partner, sibling, friend. For others it may be a therapist, it may be God. But many others have no one. Sometimes this is due to physical reasons — they truly are isolated — by disabilities perhaps, by a simple lack of human contact.
But more often the source of this isolation is psychological, the result is a holding back. Here are few of the common sources:
Past hurt and abuse
Those who grow up with emotional or physical abuse not only leave their childhoods with painful memories and scars, but also with a view that the world is unsafe, that others can’t be fully trusted: "There’s me… and there’s me, and I take care of me." As a result no one is let in, acquaintances replace true friends.
Accommodation & fear of conflict
While this can be tied to abuse, often an accommodating approach to relationships, the need to make others happy is a learned childhood way of staying out of trouble, avoiding criticism and disapproval. But this coping style usually lingers into adulthood, and the result is that you are always in a reactive mode, your focus is less on you and more on the other person, you hold back speaking up or opening up for fear of imagined disapproval.
Disconnected from oneself
Some people are closed to themselves. They have feelings, but they hold them in or can’t label them. They have thoughts, but they have a difficult time unraveling them and putting them into words. Because they’ve often been emotionally isolated for so long, the simple act of talking to others, the navigating the give-and-take of relationships feels foreign, is a struggle. What to say to others? They don’t really know.
Realize the past is the past
You can’t forget the past, but you don’t have to keep reliving it. Yes, your distrust and accommodation rose out of your past reality, but your impressions of yourself, of others, your always expecting and needing to prepare for the worse are like old software in a computer that no longer works in the bigger adult world. Maybe time to upgrade.
If you are disconnected from yourself and have trouble sorting and shifting through your thoughts and feelings, journaling — writing down your thoughts about your day, writing down how you feeling in some moment — can help you begin to match words with these thoughts and emotions. Over time these will come to replace the jumble you sometimes feel.
But writing also helps those who are accommodating. It’s all too easy to say yes and not realize that your gut is saying no. Writing can help you step back and figure out what you really want and need.
Once you become more attuned to your own emotions and thoughts, wants and needs, your next challenge is expressing these feelings and thoughts to others. But becoming more transparent is not about divulging deep, dark secrets, but about more simply stepping outside your comfort zone; it’s not about the content and more about the process.
So, if you tend to hold everything in and talk little, your baby-step goal is to simply talk more — to the person handling the register at grocery check-out, to your brother who asks what you’ve been doing, and your going beyond the "not much". If you tend to say, "It’s great!" when the waiter asks how is the meal that you’re choking on, try saying you don’t like it; it is not about the meal but about being assertive and finding out that the waiter is not upset. This is how you heal those childhood wounds, by moving forward, overwriting your wiring, and discovering that what you are afraid will happen, doesn’t.
Step it up
With small successes under your belt, you can now move onto bigger challenges. When a work colleague asks about your weekend, you tell her about your weekend. When you internally seize up when your partner says she is thinking of inviting her mother to come stay for two weeks, you take a couple of deep breaths and say that you don’t think that is a good idea. And even if you’re not sure what a better idea may be, you don’t collapse but instead say that you want to think about it and talk about it later.
The aim here is to find safety in the world, one safe harbor in at least one relationship so that you are less afraid, less closed and isolated. Yes, not everyone will respond the way you want them to, but many will. You’re no longer a child, you have control, you can pick and choose. The safety and connection are there to be found.