Say the Hard Thing

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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?