One of my beloved clients, a lovely, bright and talented thirty-something world-class MBA goddess, had a major insight. She realized that rather than speak a tender truth, something important to her that might hurt another person’s feelings, she often closed her mouth and remained silent.
“I swallow so much!” she exclaimed, in a tone of surprise that I’ve come to recognize as a sign that the moment has arrived when someone really, truly, gets it.
My astute client named her pattern by using a physical metaphor, swallowing, which is an ingenious approach to internalizing a lesson. Metaphors have a magical way of driving a point home, making sure we remember the epiphany forever. You know how some images just stick with you forever? I have a feeling my client will always remember our discussion of what it’s like to swallow something that doesn’t belong in her stomach, and she’ll always be sensitive to the results of ingesting something that tastes like, feels like and results in, well, you know.
The reasons for her habit of silence resonated strongly with me—I often don’t feel like making the effort; I think, “it’s not worth rocking the boat”; or I don’t want to risk a negative reaction. What underlies those thoughts is a belief that preserving someone else’s feelings (something we actually have no power to do) is more important than expressing my own.
It’s been said that we behave according to our values, and in this case, that meant she was valuing someone else’s comfort over her own desire to articulate something she wanted. I’ve probably done this a thousand times, and it never improved a single relationship.
In the end she understood that she wasn’t providing comfort—not to the person who didn’t know what she wanted, and certainly not to her already uncomfortable self.
We’ve been told all our lives to put others first, which is a nice way to operate in many social circumstances. However, sometimes it only leads to an unintended Mexican standoff:
“No, after YOU.”
“Please, go ahead.”
“No, I insist.”
This is not the Path to Deep Connection—it’s more like a Marx Brothers script. Meaningful relationships require honesty about what each partner needs and wants so that the other partner can decide how, if, and when to acknowledge and provide for those desires. If nobody knows what the other one wants, our wee, tiny, grossly overestimated mind-reading skills kick in, further damaging the situation. The result? Neither partner has a snowball’s chance of straight-up providing the goods.
Experience shows that we can’t give what we don’t have; if we’re not getting refueled by receiving what we want, we’ll risk emptying our emotional tanks. So the next time you’re tempted to stuff something down, think of a loving way to ask directly for the thing you want. Try prefacing it with your own tender truth: “This is hard for me to say because I’m really worried about hurting your feelings, which isn’t my intention,” then clearly and plainly ask for the thing you desire. Then watch the magic of honesty clear the air and make other tender truths more apparent.