Growing up in my family I was taught pretty clearly about right and wrong. Don’t swear, don’t lie, and don’t steal. My dad once said to me, “Don’t do anything you couldn’t come home and tell your mother about.” Ha! At that point I would of had to remove about 80% of the activities with my friends! But to their benefit they did a good job of showing me how to be a good person and I am grateful for their guidance today. The type of honesty they taught me was “cash register honesty,” a term I learned many years later to describe the extent to which I told the truth.
Cash register honesty is all about basic moral and ethical teachings, like what my parents taught me. Its all good stuff, really useful for building a foundation upon which to be a productive member of society. Yet as I get older it becomes clearer to me there are other levels upon which honesty functioned, levels that take into account the nuances of individuals and dynamics of relationships. I like to call these other levels of truth-telling “emotional honesty.”
The deal with emotional honesty is that you have to have a sense of yourself and who you are. For example, if you go into a dark room looking for your red pen on your desk you may have a general idea where it is located, but there is a lot of bumping into things, stubbing your toe, tripping on the way to the desk. You may even think you find it but when it gets brought out into the light you realize it’s not the red one it’s the blue one! Obviously it would be a hell of a lot easier to just turn the light on and go in and get what you need, avoiding all the pain and confusion, but for a lot of us its just not that easy.
For most people there are conflicting emotions, some ambivalence about what you want or feel. And going into that dark room trying to figure out what’s in there can be scary. It is most often scary because we don’t have a template to speak about all the nuances that come with feeling feelings. When we don’t know how to express what we are feeling, what do we do? We act out through our habitual patterns. Maybe yours is to get angry, or withdraw, maybe it’s to berate yourself for not knowing what you are feeling. All sorts of addictions come from the fear of looking inside ourselves, terrified of what we will find, and not knowing how to relate to it.
So we start little by little. When confronted by a situation where we are confused or suddenly angry or withdrawing, we can name that experience. Just saying to ourselves first, and next to whoever else is involved, something like: “Hey, something is coming up for me right now. I’m feeling (insert habitual emotional pattern), and I want to see what’s under my (confusion, anger, hurt, sadness).” Just the act of naming what is happening is the first step in practicing emotional honesty.
As some space opens up by naming what is happening in the moment we are more able to get a sense of what’s going on inside. Often to my surprise I find that what is going on inside is multi-faceted. I may feel both angry and sad, there may be some longing for connection or a desire for space. At this point, acknowledge to yourself something along the lines of: “Whoa, ok yes I am angry and want to withdraw and there is a part of me that wants to connect to this person or situation, what feels most right to me right now?” Saying this out loud can bring about a deeper sense of connecting with the other person in the relationship because you are inviting them into your experience. You are saying “Here is what’s going on for me; I’m present with myself and with you even though it’s uncomfortable.” The trick here is to realize that the other person may not “get” or care what you are talking about. That’s not the point. The point is to “get” yourself and to have the courage to share that with the people you care about. In this way we practice turning towards ourselves and who we really are, rather than presenting a façade to the world.
This level of honesty is difficult because we are asked to hold paradox, to hold the fact that we grasp and reject the same situation or person at the same time. But for many people this is true. Rarely do we know 100% about something or someone. We are often living in the grey area, making choices from the grey area. My suggestion to you is try to name the paradoxes as they arise in you, attempt to not amputate parts of your experience and emotions so as to make it all neat and orderly. You may find that regardless of what happens in the outside experience you will feel a sense of power, advocacy, and care for yourself.
Karolina Walsh Psychotherapy
Providing psychotherapy, counseling, and support for grief, addictions, trauma, PTSD, relationship issues, and GLBTQIA.
“Karolina walks her talk, her ability to meet another in their capacities is sensational because she has done her own work” -Diane Israel
"An effective therapist needs to do at least two things: be compassionate and provide constructive feedback that actually changes the way people experience the world. I see many therapists who can do one or the other. I routinely watch Karolina do both..." -Patrick Weeg