I’m the type of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve.
I’ve never been much good about hiding my feelings; even when I used to try, anyone around me could easily tell something was up. On the other hand, the more I’ve let myself honestly and openly express whatever I feel at a given moment, the faster it moves through me… the faster I return to a natural grounded, happy state.
But an ex’s recent comments have me questioning this practice of radical emotional honesty, wondering if it can be – by its very nature, often contradictory, often complex – manipulative?
As we were breaking up, the night before I returned home from my last visit, I cooked her dinner – homemade kichari, dhal & a bottle of champagne we’d picked up at Trader Joe’s. I remember feeling that – if our relationship was over, I’d rather spend the evening celebrating the wonderful things we’d shared, not fighting to save it and making us both more miserable.
In those moments, I had no conscious intention of winning her back, or convincing her to change her mind – sharing a wonderful dinner just seemed like the best way to accept what had happened. In her memory, however, I was ‘playing nice.’
On the last day, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out and apologize for what I thought I’d done to hurt her – digging up skeletons from my past that I’d really already given a proper burial, just to try to explain – to myself, even – the bewildering events that had just occurred; in those moments, I truly believed that I’d made all the big mistakes, truly wanted to take on all the responsibility, because at least then I felt some power to understand. But could it have come across as another ploy – apologetic, self-dismissing? I think so.
In other moments, I felt angry at her, for not being willing to listen to what I was saying, to my requests to step back and get out of the intense situation before trying to figure out what to do. I felt most angry at her for telling me so often what she thought I wanted to hear, rather than what she wanted. When I told her these things, though, she felt I was playing mean, trying another tactic to manipulate her feelings.
In my mind, I expressed how I was feeling through my words and actions in those moments, and many of them were so intense, but so were my feelings.
Even in a recent email, I had suggested dinner on my birthday because I was supposed to be in town that weekend. After a few days of no response and an unexpected change of travel plans that meant I wouldn’t be there on my birthday, I retracted the offer, following it up with ‘things have changed for me since then, too…’
She felt that I was trying to get a rise out of her. I thought that I was saying what I felt – namely that I’d changed my mind; discussing our painful past wasn’t really a good idea. I’d had experiences in the meantime that made me see the whole situation in a different light.
I feel troubled, because I see each of these instances as pure expressions of feeling, but now face the possibility that – individually or as a whole – they might not be so innocent.
When I’m trying to explain my feelings, I try to choose my words carefully and wisely – much easier when writing them down than in conversation – I try to share what I’m thinking as openly and honestly as possible while keeping tact and respectful communication in mind. I don’t always succeed; frustration gets the better of me occasionally. So I know I make missteps, but how do we tell the difference between extreme honesty and manipulation?
How do I express my moments, as varying as they may be, in ways that can’t actually or figuratively become manipulative? I don’t know that the opposite behavior (telling others what they want to hear) is any less manipulative, and personally find it far more manipulative to my personality than radical expression.
What’s the middle ground?
In a sense, I already know, just by having asked that question. Not everything is appropriate to express, especially to the person toward whom you feel the emotions. Not everything is a good idea to express in the moment, especially the negative emotions; and that’s often been difficult for me.
I can see how – when interleaved with of expressions of fear, despair, anger – even sharing feelings of love, care, kindness can take on a darker tinge. I can see how the pain of some can bleed onto and stain the more joyful things, and how all then appear false, acted, designed with control in mind.
And though I know within myself that’s never how I meant any of these things, I can’t help but understand that what she said isn’t about each of my individual moments… she’s telling me that all of them combined paint a much different picture for her than they do for me.
Recently, too, I’ve been seeing just how wonderful it is to be totally free to share feelings of joy, love and excitement. I feel these things far more than fear and worry these days, and because I express these feelings without filter or understatement, the people with whom I share them know without a doubt that my feelings are genuine.
So perhaps the way to avoid radical emotional honesty from becoming a form of manipulation – conscious or unconscious – is to let loose with positive feelings, express them when they arise, and to give negative feelings a chance to simmer, to percolate in the mind and the heart until we understand them well enough to share.
And giving voice to those negative emotions by talking to those who are not the target of the emotions, mulling them, considering them, allowing them to reach maturity rather than unleashing them full force upon those for whom we feel such things – I think we could dull the force of anger and fear and find the wisdom waiting underneath.
We can’t deny our negative feelings, any feelings for that matter. But we can give them pause, make them wait until they are ready for expression.
And perhaps – by avoiding the ups-and-downs, the slings and arrows of outrageous emotion – we can share ourselves completely without fear of unintentional manipulation or control.
And that, my friends, is a consummation devoutly to be wished†.
† my apologies to the Bard!