Why Did You Tell Me That & Expect I Wouldn’t React?

Why Tell Me ReactOne of my stations in life appears to be that of confessor. I studied psychology in graduate school because life seemed to be sending the message that I should make counseling my profession, rather than my pastime. As long as I can remember, people have been unburdening themselves to me and I’m honored by the trust put in me. I admit I enjoy holding reams of privileged information inside, to privately analyze and synthesize. It increases my understanding of people, while adding complexity to that knowledge. I realized in my second year of graduate school that if I went into the profession, I would never get a break, because it’s unlikely friends and associates will stop confiding in me. I knew the responsibility of helping people change and grow via the therapeutic process wasn’t the right role for me. I prefer to speak the unvarnished truth, which I affectionately call the frying pan. As in, “I had to hit him across the face with the frying pan, because he keeps repeating the same unhealthy patterns”.

Immediately I attempt to make clear that I am not the person to whom you should tell anything if you don’t want honest feedback, unless you’re willing to explicitly preface that you only want an ear. I can do that, listen without comment. But should I begin to hear a pattern, and see that you’re not happy, you better believe I’ll be telling you what I see as the truth. So how come people tell me things, and are surprised, hurt or upset when I react? I can’t make sense of why people tell me gobs of information about situations in their lives, then believe they can sweep said information under the rug when they need to go back into denial, or whatever emotional and behavioral state keeping them stuck. It seems to happen a lot when it comes to partner relationships, for starters.

Within the last year I made a pledge with myself as witness, that I will always show up with the frying pan, when I believe a person is in danger (pardon the ironic imagery). I’ve decided it’s wrong for me to sit by and watch someone suffering because no one is willing to call it out. If I’m not being honest with the people around me when they’ve trusted me with valuable information, then I know I’m not the person I want to be. It’s not right for me (voyeur that I am) to withhold an important truth that could help someone, because I don’t want to get involved, or make waves, or any other self-serving excuse.

The oath means I’m willing to risk losing friendships, interpersonal discomfort and social status. I take this promise very seriously, and I’m completely committed. When I was off the wagon the most recent time, I was engaging in all kinds of high-risk, bad behavior and scaring people. No one spoke up. I found out later that during gatherings, people talked openly about my drinking from the moment I left a room until the moment I returned. I knew I wasn’t ok, but I used the social silence as an excuse to keep drinking. I worried I was crazy for worrying about my drinking, because although my behavior seemed crazy to me, NO ONE SAID ANYTHING. One shaky, miserable morning I walked into a New Year’s Day brunch, terribly hungover after a blackout (and series of grossly impulsive and inappropriate behaviors, which I heard about upon waking)  and a hostile acquaintance said sharply, in front of everyone, “are you going to DO something about your drinking?” Her words caused the proverbial needle scratch across the record and I felt entirely humiliated in that room full of people, some of whom were strangers. I was sure she did it solely out of disdainful cruelty. Looking back, I see it as an act of pure kindness, and though neither she nor any of the other people there that day are in my life anymore, I will always be grateful to her for hitting me across the face with the frying pan. From that moment, I was confronted with my alcohol problem and thus able to take steps to heal.

I know from my own experience that facing the truth can crumble the broken system, and clear space for something better and new. I believe it’s the job of the community to offer this kindness to the suffering individual. And yet I think as a society we throw up “don’t judge me” and “you don’t know my life” excessively. We have got to put a premium on being honest with each other, in order to teach each other to be honest with ourselves. Consider yourself warned. Tell me about it only if you’re asking me to watch out for you, and want to feel the heft and release of the frying pan against your face when you most need it.

10 thoughts on “Why Did You Tell Me That & Expect I Wouldn’t React?

  1. cheesebot5000

    If you open yourself up to someone, you should be prepared to encounter feedback that is uncomfortable. If you’re not able to handle such information, you may want to reconsider disclosure in the first place. If you want mindless validation, get a dog.

  2. Marty

    I’m in an environment where I have a lot of contact with undergrads on a small college campus. I’m neither professor nor counselor, just a much older friend in their choir. Because they trust me I’m in a position to hear a lot of their personal stuff and I’m inclined to share my wisdom. Whenever I need to offer a hard truth I always say, ‘”I would have given anything if someone had told me this at your age.” And I mean it. Our society sets up so many protective relationship buffers that many adults are far too comfortable keeping their mouths shut and swallowing their wisdom. As you say, some of us are willing to take the risks. Far better that more of us did, and see honesty as truly an act of love and respect offered on behalf of others. We have a responsibility to build a better world by actively engaging in it, just as you’ve so beautifully explained.

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