Say the Hard Thing

Note:  If you're looking for general information on my psychotherapy 
practice, click here.  If you want to learn about my specialized work with 
creative people, click here

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“Let us speak thereof, ye wisest ones, even though it be bad. To be silent is worse; all suppressed truths become poisonous.
And let everything break up which can break up by our truths! Many a house is still to be built.”
— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, A Book for All and None

“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.”
— John Lennon (attribution unconfirmed)

Let’s say I have something really important to tell a friend or my partner. The problem is, though, that it’s scary to say, scary because I’m afraid this significant other will be hurt, or worse, they might care about me less. They might even leave me.

But this thing I have to say is really important. It’s about something that’s true for me. Maybe it’s something my friend does that hurts me; maybe it’s something about me that’s true but I’m ashamed of, or that others have said is a bad thing. I really want to tell my significant other, but it’s a very scary thing to say.

Why would anyone say such a thing? Sure, it’s uncomfortable keeping it to myself, but people keep secrets all the time. What purpose could it serve to risk losing a friend by saying something he doesn’t like? The answer comes when we can look at all the costs and benefits, not just the potential loss of a relationship.

Whatever this thing is, this truth, it’s very present. It’s hard to keep to myself; whenever I’m with this person, it’s on my mind; it colors my experience of being with him; it feels wrong to keep it to myself, like I’m lying to him. No matter how I push that feeling away, it is always there, like a rumble in my belly, a mosquito whining in one ear, like an uncomfortable chair I’ve been sitting in too long. This is a cost, and not a small one; it takes effort to push the feeling away, to stay focused on my friend, to enjoy his company. And the more important the thing, the more effort it takes to keep it to myself. So, it actually takes me away from him: keeping a secret keeps me from really being with my friend.

And what kind of relationship do I want with this person, anyway? How important is he to me? Most of us want to have friends and lovers who trust us and whom we trust. We want someone to confide in, to be ourselves with — some one to know and to be known by. How do we develop relationships like this? By letting others in. We take risks to be intimate; that’s what intimacy is, to open ourselves up emotionally and let others see those parts of us that we hide from the rest of the world. It’s risky because this opening up by definition makes us vulnerable — open to ridicule, to deceit, or disapproval — but we still do it because we want the intimacy. We are inherently creatures of relationships: intimacy is what humans do. So, in order to have the intimacy that we’re built for, we say what’s true for us. When others hear our truth, they get to decide if they’re okay with it; if they’re not, they tend to take themselves away.

That, of course, is the scary part: the risk of losing someone who has been okay with us so far. But if the goal is to be fully ourselves with another — intimacy — then being fully-ourselves-except-for-these-one-or-two-things isn’t quite so satisfying. Still, that fear of loss can be overwhelming and we often find ourselves in the bind of holding back that last piece of ourselves from an otherwise deeply trusted friend.

So, what’s the solution? Say the hard thing. Say it. Say it because the risk demonstrates how much your friend means to you: “This thing I have to share with you is important enough to me to risk losing you and you’re important enough to me that I want you to know it.” Say it because you want a partner who really is okay with all of you. Say it because it gives you the chance to discover that you really can survive even if the person is not okay with all of you. Say it because when they tell you they are okay with this important thing, you know you have a deep and rich relationship.

In my personal and clinical experience, artists have a leg up on this:  they’ve spent their lives exploring what’s true for them and learning to express it.  Writing music or poetry, building or carving a sculpture, choreographing a dance — whatever — doing it your individual way rather than the way others say it should be, artists, by definition, say the hard thing.  And, in doing so, they are known and others are drawn to them.

In my clinical experience, relationships in which both partners are willing to say the hard thing — and are willing to hear them — are the strongest and most loving and satisfying. The more practice we have in speaking our truth, the more practice our friends and partners have in hearing them, the more both of us feel trusting and trusted, mutually known.

And that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?

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Living Art / Arting Life

Note:  If you're looking for general information on my psychotherapy 
practice, click here.  If you want to learn about my specialized work with 
creative people, click here

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The most visible creators I know of are those artists whose medium is life itself. The ones who express the inexpressible — without brush, hammer, clay or guitar. They neither paint nor sculpt — their medium is being. Whatever their presence touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.

Donna J. Stone

In my psychotherapy practice, I often draw from a body of work variously referred to as mindfulness-based, acceptance-based, or values-based therapy. These approaches emphasize developing nonjudgmental awareness of oneself and one’s environment; a part of having a more accepting awareness of oneself is discovering a clearer sense of what’s important, one’s values.

Ideally, values guide our actions and research suggests that when they do, our sense of satisfaction with ourselves and with life tends to increase. But things aren’t always that easy: as we manage our daily lives, we are faced constantly with decisions to make, from the mundane to the potentially life-changing. These choice points are often emotionally charged — whether or not it makes sense to us that they should be — and we can find ourselves caught up in knee-jerk, emotional reactions, resulting in outcomes that are decidedly not consistent with our values.

Further, sometimes our values are not that obvious. Ever had someone say, “Just be yourself” and then think “What does THAT mean?” Or, maybe you’ve had the experience of feeling that there was some “right” response to a situation you’re faced with, but you just can’t seem to think of it. We can see how being able to tap into our values would be helpful, but we’re not clear enough on what they are for them to be of use.

It’s been my experience that creative people have a ready-made, direct line to their values, but often aren’t aware of it. When you’re deciding whether something you’re creating is “right” — the right phrasing, the right look, the right sensibility — you’re tapping into the place your values live. Creatives know how to pause and feel what’s “right” — skills at the heart of mindful practices — but often feel those abilities are limited to their specialized creative niche. In fact, they are not. In my work with people, we practice following that creative conduit and learn how to open it up in other domains, like money, family, and work, to guide values-based decisions in those areas. As we bring this critical component of art to life, life starts to make more sense — and to feel more creative.

One of the things I find perhaps most exciting about this insight is how many people already have that kind of access to their values; it’s just a matter of learning to recognize it. Whether you’re making a full-time living off of your creative powers or you’re a very part-time hobbyist whose fan base is indistinguishable from family and friends, it’s likely we can mine your creative practices and identify the deep vein of your values to help enrich your life. To my way of thinking, this is part of what it means to be an “artist of being alive.”