Tuesday, November 16, 2010

If You Don't Have Anything Nice To Say, Come Sit By Me

I'll take off my disguise, the mask you met me in 'cuz I got something for you to see.
Just gimme your skeleton, give me the skin it's in, yeah baby, this is you according to me.
I never avert my eyes, I never compromise, so never mind the poetry

Ani DiFranco

In another story I wrote a little bit about people avoiding conflict. In this story I’m going to touch on that again, but mostly this is about having uncomfortable conversations and truth telling in general . . . and it has been a hard story to write. Probably the worst piece of crap I’ve ever written but, so far, I would say the most poignant.

Movies and books and magazines give us the idea that life should always be perfect and pretty. What prepares us for the less than optimal times in life? What shows us how to have some very difficult conversations and know that just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s bad? Watching our parents? Fighting with our siblings? Belief in a higher power? Years of 50 minute hours in a therapists office? Maybe all of these things, overwhelmingly though, people tend to avoid what’s not pretty because ugly and awkward is . . . you know, ugly and awkward. In my stories I tend to get preachy but I want to assure you the only reason I even have these stories is through my own epic failures . . . EPIC failures.

Communication is always best and telling the truth is always best. Both can be hard. Telling the truth can make you feel so afraid and vulnerable, particularly when you know the person to whom you’re speaking doesn’t want to hear it. Trust me though, they want the truth more than they want a lie. A lie makes a tense situation even worse and people, when you lie, it’s obvious. You may as well have a neon sign above your head with an arrow pointing down that says “I AM LYING RIGHT NOW”. But, when you tell the truth, even when it hurts, then both parties can begin to move forward together. It’s the only fair thing to do. I recall a time a couple of years ago when a friend of mine looked me in the eye and told me one of the most outrageous lies I’ve ever heard in my life. Really, I almost laughed out loud. I was also a bit insulted that someone thought I was so stupid as to believe such a tale. Nonetheless, I let it go. My friend knows he lied, he knows that I know he lied. What can ya do? Well, you can find people that value the truth and real communication but we all say we do. Do we really? My friend is still my friend. He lied because the truth (which I already knew) would have hurt me and he knows me well enough to know that my reaction was not going to be something he felt like dealing with. It’s not necessarily ok, I was very hurt, but I do understand. It’s hard to hurt people and it’s hard to know their reaction is going to be, shall we say, a bit fiery. But here’s where we get into the topic of uncomfortable conversations. Yes, the truth would have been hard on me, but not as hard being lied to, we needed the uncomfortable conversation. We needed to get it said and then move forward in our friendship together. I should point out here that other than hiding the truth, my friend was not doing anything wrong, I just didn’t happen to like what he was doing and the pained part of me wanted to say “Hey, you can’t pull the wool over my eyes, I know what you’re doing. I KNOW! WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE FRIENDS AND YOU KEEP SECRETS FROM ME? HOW DARE YOU?!” So, you see why he might not have wanted to be totally up front with me? I’d like to think I would have been slightly more noble than that, but then being noble wouldn't really have been truthful. See how hard it is? You gotta tell the truth, ya gotta. And me, maybe I need to learn to be a little more accepting. Nonetheless, life is fraught with uncomfortable conversations and we need to have them and I will indeed be talking about being a good recipient of the truth as well as being a truth teller. Both sides people, both sides, it’s about valuing the truth by speaking it and hearing it. If you were mentally pointing a finger at someone else, now is the time to stop.

Saying what needs to be said is scary sometimes. You’re standing there muttering these words and cringing or crying with every syllable and you feel vulnerable, embarrassed, and so very afraid. What if I show my real self in this moment and the person to whom I’m speaking raises their hands in disgust and horror and walks away? What am I risking by showing my true inner self? If this person knows who I really am I’ll be shamed and shunned from the herd. So much at stake, so much to risk. Well, what if that person does recoil in horror and walk away? It will hurt, but let them go. Likely it’s not so much their judgment of you as of themselves. I dunno, I’m guessing. I’m fumbling through this entire story because it really is hard to talk about tough stuff. I’d rather talk about unicorns and pots of gold and rainbows, but who wouldn’t? That’s why I’m writing this story.

Uncomfortable conversations and situations are building blocks that create a strong foundation. I think of the few people in life that know everything about me, that have seen me at my worst, and still love me. I have developed closer bonds with these people because they know my weaknesses, my frailties, my faults, and they love me. Not in spite of, not except for, they love ALL of me. There is nothing I could tell Therese about me that would make her look away in disgust and say “That’s it, friendship off”. There are times when, as a good friend, she may say “Wow, not the wisest choice you’ve ever made but ok, let’s talk about this”. I think of all the horror stories from my youth that I unloaded on Steve Whittier and he never, ever walked away and said “Wow, you’re gross. I only liked you when you were pretty and fun. Now you’re not so pretty and you're bordering on crazy.” Several years ago my friend Michele told me that she and her man had just had a disagreement but they talked about it and everything was fine. Oh you heard me, they TALKED about it, and some uncomfortable things were said. I imagine some terse words were exchanged BUT, each voiced their opinion, each listened to what the other had to say (WHAT?!) and she said “Of course we got over it and moved on and, as always after a disagreement, our relationship is stronger now.” I was stunned into silence. Their bond grew and became stronger because they HAD A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION, THE AIR HAD BEEN CLEARED HONESTLY, AND NO ONE GOT UP AND WALKED OUT ON THE OTHER ONE. What the F? This is the nature of true intimacy. Knowing that you can fillet yourself wide open and let the other person look inside at all the not so pleasant parts of you and that those not so pretty parts will be accepted and, in fact, even loved. We hear that misery loves company, because it’s comforting to know that it’s not just you. When you’re crying like you’ve lost your puppy and snot is slinging out your nose and you’re rubbing it on the back of your arm and confessing to that time you kicked a kid in school it’s horrifying, but then, oh yes then, your partner, friend, spouse, parent, sibling shines a beacon of light on you and says “You know what? When I was a kid I stole a dollar from my mom” and suddenly you have reached true intimacy nirvana because neither of you is perfect. What’s more comforting than that? Telling the truth seems frightening because we think everyone else has done everything right all the time and we have done everything wrong all the time. Not true my friends. Take comfort, we all suck sometimes.

And now we come to the other side, the listening to the truth side. Speaking the truth is scary, hearing the truth can really hurt and I have failed, failed, failed at times on both sides. There have been times I’ve been so busy pointing out fault in others that I have not been good at listening to what others have to say. Pointing a finger outward is a thinly veiled distraction to get focus off of ourselves. “I’d never lie to you!” Well, that may be true but have I been a safe harbor for you? Have I made our relationship a place where you can feel safe saying what you need to say? I’m shamed and saddened to admit I have not. I have been quite deficient at accepting some people as they are. How can I expect anyone to care for the weakest parts of me when I only accept the best and most beautiful parts of them? And yet, I am most comforted by people who are real. I am a bundle of imperfection so I don’t really want to hang with anyone who doesn’t have some flaws as well, I can’t live up to that! I don’t want to live up to that. I want someone who knows what it’s like to be imperfect.

The hearing part of an uncomfortable conversation is mortifying. It can feel like an attack, even when the most graceful and gracious words are used. You want to jump to your own defense and say “well you did that one thing and then you did that other thing and that’s way worse”. Maybe, but now isn’t the time. Or you listen politely, wordlessly, until you get your chance to say “Hmmmm, yes, I’ll take that into consideration, thank you so much for your enlightening view point”, then roll your eyes and move on. This is a successful and cunning avoidance. It appears you’ve listened but only because you haven’t spoken. I’m talking about uncomfortable CONVERSATIONS, you know, between two people, where they discuss openly and as a team try to reach some sort of happy conclusion. Uncomfortable, by the way, is not always an attack, what if you’re saying something really nice to someone who is about to break up with you? Wow, that’s an uncomfortable conversation in the works. What if you’re saying something really beautiful to someone who is squirming to get away and just doesn’t want to hear it? Awkward. But sometimes in life we have to hear things, as difficult and ego bruising as it is. We need to let our friends know that they can show us their less than beautiful parts just as we want them to see ours. It’s hard, I know it’s hard. And we need to have good friends by being good friends and letting them feel that they can come to you, or to me, and say “This isn’t good, you may not like it, will you listen anyway?” You can get angry, it’s ok. Try to be gentle when voicing your anger and try to maybe hold off for a couple of minutes and see if maybe, just maybe, there is some validity in what is being said.

So many times in my life I have not told the truth, not told a lie mind you and that has been my defense, but avoided saying what was really on my mind because I was flat out scared. What pains me even more is that so many times in my life I have not provided a safe space for some people to tell me their truths, thus they have felt more comfortable hiding the truth from me and then, in my pious and righteous indignation, I have gotten to tell them how wrong they are. So as I said in the beginning, this was a hard story to write, I’ve revealed myself to all of you.

No one likes uncomfortable conversations, they’re nowhere near as nice as unicorns and pots of gold and rainbows but actually, they kind of are because they do bring you closer to each other. Really, I’m not even kidding. Always speak the truth, speak it kindly, and be comforting to the listener. Always listen to your friend, listen kindly, and provide a safe space for your friend to be honest.

As I said before, you can angry, it’s ok. Remember you love each other. The goal isn’t to be right, the goal is to love each other.

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