RD&T contributing author, John Amodeo, shares his take on the question: Is your self-expression damaging your relationships?
We’ve often been told that it’s important to speak our truth – voicing our honest feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. We’ve been warned against being codependent and concealing our true feelings to protect or placate others. Intimacy cannot thrive in a climate of emotional dishonesty and inauthenticity.
Fair enough. But the research behind Attachment Theory suggests something that may seem contradictory: we need safety in our relationships as a foundation for love and connection. This raises the question of what’s more important, our autonomy or maintaining healthy attachment?
There is much complexity in having mature relationships. If it were simple, we’d all be in relationship bliss by now – living happily ever after. So let’s sit back and delve into the complexity of holding both sides of this seeming contradiction: what would it take to be ourselves and speak our truth while also maintaining a climate of emotional safety in our important relationships?
Narcissism as the Shadow Side of Autonomy
We’re all prey to the grip of narcissism, and to the extent to which we’re one-pointed in the pursuit of our own pleasures and desires, we’re not inclined to consider how we’re affecting others. We may pride ourselves with the conviction that “I say it like it is” (or how we think it is) without regard to the potential fallout. Lacking empathy, there is little sensitivity to how we’re being received.
I’ve often noticed an important transition phase in personal growth where we prioritize self-expression as a step toward healing childhood wounds and overcoming a history of being shamed and disrespected. Crippled by a tendency to think there’s something wrong with us, we may have disrespected ourselves putting others’ feelings ahead of our own.
If we’ve had a habit of downplaying what we want in order to respond to what others want from us, we may feel liberated to declare, “I have a right to honor my own experience and express my true feelings and needs!”
Voicing our truth is refreshingly empowering. It’s a relief to speak our mind without feeling overly responsible for others. But here’s the rub. We cross into a danger zone when runaway self-expression becomes so dominant or intoxicating that we disregard how we’re affecting others.
As we gain more facility in knowing and expressing our personal feelings and views, we might be willing to accept a larger challenge: sharing our experience in a way that preserves trust. This means cultivating the skill of going inside ourselves, noticing genuine feelings, considering whether it feels right to say something – and then, most importantly, how to say it.
When we know in our bones that we have a right to our feelings, we can give them space to percolate a little longer without acting them out, which buys us time to respond with sensitivity and skill rather than react impulsively. This is the meaning of maturity, which comes from the word, “ripening.” We honor our feelings while staying connected. This means being gentle with people’s hearts and communicating without being shaming or critical, although, importantly, not having to do this perfectly.
John Gottman conducted important research into what makes relationships thrive or fail. One essential ingredient is being mindful of how we’re affecting each other.
It takes a hearty amount of self-worth to realize that our words and actions can profoundly affect people. If we grew up feeling powerless, we may forget that we have the power to hurt others with a casually unkind word or an attitude of contempt. Being aware of the power of our words can remind us to pause before we speak. We can go inside, notice what is emotionally resonant for us, and find a way to convey our experience so that it’s more likely to preserve trust than blow up the interpersonal bridge.
Communication expert Marshall Rosenberg was keenly aware of the power of speaking our truth while also maintaining safety in our relationships. He spent a lifetime refining communication tools that would empower our voice while simultaneously inviting people toward us rather than pushing them away.
When the “fight” part of the fight, flight, freeze response gets triggered, we may attack people when we feel hurt or insulted. Itemizing their flaws, we blame, judge, criticize, and shame them in the name of speaking our truth – often with a subtle air of self-congratulations and arrogance. But unless our truth is voiced with respect and sensitivity toward others’ tender hearts – that is, unless we put safety ahead of impulsive self-expression – we will continue to damage trust, leaving us alone and disconnected.
Honoring authenticity while safeguarding trust
We need to be authentic. But if we want nourishing relationships, we also need to safeguard trust. It’s an ongoing practice to develop the skill of speaking our truth while also attending to how we’re affecting people. This may include noticing the healthy shame that results from violating another’s boundaries – not beating ourselves up for our miscues, but learning from them.
Speaking our truth in a way that preserves trust means cultivating inner resources that expand our tolerance for emotional discomfort. We need to dance skillfully with our intensely-felt emotions rather than act them out. Taking time to gently hold our feelings internally before speaking allows us to find a non-aggressive, trust-building way to reveal the emotional truths that live inside us.