Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Keeping My Cards Close to My Chest

I am a person who always likes to keep something in reserve. I like to listen more than I like to talk. I come from a long line of introverts, all of whom tend to keep their thoughts to themselves, unless pushed. I grew up in a nice, stable extended family where everyone went to church, had a job, got married, brought up children and grew old together. No-one had fights or major dramas. There were no black sheep or skeletons in the closet. Everyone was just... nice. This is not a bad thing, by the way. Growing up loved and cared for by a bunch of genuinely kind people? Priceless. The problem with that is - I have a 'nice' filter. It is very hard for me to get beyond the superficial, or publicly explore the area outside the white picket fence that defines suitable topics for discussion for those descended from respectable evangelical Christians.

Our family are all introverts. And life-long conflict avoiders. And we believe in a Stiff Upper Lip and Just Getting On With Things. In our family we resolve tensions by a)pretending that nothing is wrong, b)smiling and c)talking about something 'nice' instead. The best way to resolve conflict as an introvert is not to have any. The best way not to have conflict is to decide that your problems/issues/tensions/emotions/needs etc, aren't really that important after all and to bury them deep inside while getting on with the much simpler task of being 'nice' in public, while being terribly sad, anxious, angry or resentful in private.

I found a man to marry who had the same kind of family and upbringing that I had, so we both brought our non-existent communication skills to the table. Then we broke the script, because no matter how hard we tried we could neither of us bear to live a life of emotions swept under the rug. But we couldn't express them in a productive way either, because we didn't know how. So we sulked. For twenty three years. Well, not the whole twenty three years. When it was good it was very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid.

Ironically, during this time we did what all the child raising manuals suggested, and taught our children how to use their 'I feel' words, and tried hard to listen and reflect back their feelings. I have a dear friend, Jane, who is especially good at this and I learned most of what I know about conflict resolution by listening to her working through conflict with and between her children over the many hundreds of hours we have spent together as parents. I was astounded. Conflict apparently isn't a bad thing. Sometimes it is a helpful tool to come to new understandings about each other. Who knew?

While nowhere near perfect I think I have done a reasonably good job of talking with my kids about difficult subjects, and helping them to unpack conflict. Unfortunately that did not translate to managing to be vulnerable and honest in my marriage, and so for that, and a multitude of other miserable reasons, we decided to part. There are only so many instances of sweeping problems under the rug and pretending nothing happened that a relationship can withstand. Interestingly, as soon as the worst had happened in our relationship, we were able to talk. I think we figured that since nothing worse could happen we could finally afford to tell the truth. While it didn't save our marriage, I think it was the saving grace of our relationship. We managed to part as friends and colleagues, and can continue to parent our kids while keeping communication open and honest.

That experience encouraged me to open up a little more to my parents. Over the last couple of years we have been able to have more conversations about difficult things. I don't find this easy, and neither do they, but we are trying. To give my parents all due credit, no matter what terrible thing I have done my life, whether it be leaving the Church or getting a divorce, they have shown nothing but love and kindness. We don't necessarily talk about it, but whenever I have asked for help, they have been there, every single time. I have never doubted that they loved me, we just find it difficult to have a conversation that isn't about "What we did this week that was Nice." We are slowly getting to be able to go beyond that, and I am very thankful, if slightly spooked sometimes. When my brother's marriage fell apart I reached out and we started talking about our feelings for the first time in.. well, really for the first time ever. I am so sorry that it took his marriage breaking up as the trigger for us to start talking, but I'm glad that we can. We are both a bit broken, and having each other to talk to just helps.

Three years ago I started to go to the gym with my lovely friend Carla. I didn't know her well before that, other than that she is lovely. Turns out when you spend three hours a week with a friend in the gym, you really have to talk about something, or end up staring awkwardly at the wall while doing leg lifts. Carla talks about everything, from why her kids are driving her crazy today, to how naughty the dog is, to the frustrations of her latest medical appointment, to tensions in her extended family. "I love the gym." she says happily, "It's such good therapy!"

And it is. Sometimes I would quietly wonder why Carla told me everything about everything that was going on in her life. Not because it was boring - I absolutely adore to hear the stories of people's lives. Interesting people are like the best books and Carla is a born storyteller. But I wondered why Carla would make herself so vulnerable, telling me things that I would never dare to admit out loud. But her willingness to be vulnerable encouraged me to do the same. I started to tentatively share the small difficulties of my life, all the while feeling like a complete doofus. Then the larger ones. The day to day worries and anxieties that we all have. And what do you know, when you talk about your worries, they aren't so worrying. You know that old granny adage, 'A problem shared is a problem halved'? Well, those grannies were onto something. I had previously never bothered people with my problems, because there was no point - they couldn't fix them for me... but der, that's not the reason you share. The problem doesn't get halved because it gets fixed, it's halved because there is someone to sympathise, to laugh with over your silly troubles, to tell you that you are doing a great job.

So it has taken a lot of years to get to this point that I can (sometimes) share (some of) the details of my life with family, some friends, some colleagues. I have challenged myself this year to put more of myself out there into the light of day. Last year I forced myself to tell some colleagues that the reason I was taking an extra day off work this year was to do some writing. Then the first day into work this year I sat down in the staffroom for lunch and the first comment I heard was, "I hear you are writing a book?" I felt so exposed, like an ant crawling on a plate. I wanted to hide under the table, put my hands over my ears and rock. Which is, frankly, behaviour that this particular staff member sees all the time, and I am sure she would have taken it in her stride and been very kind. However, I took a deep breath and had a conversation instead, and it was fine and I didn't actually even get squashed, which is kind of what you expect when you are an ant on a plate.

Last week when I published my post about wanting to write I felt the exact same terror. After a couple of days I couldn't bear it any longer and didn't even get on the internet there for a few days, but of course I came back, and there you all were, being so kind to my exposed self, and telling me about your own secret desires as well. The best part about being a little vulnerable is the connection to the vulnerable spot in other souls.

I think I have come a little way along the the road away from Niceville. Not very far really. I am still terrified of potential conflict, and flee it on a regular basis no matter how good it may be for me. But with a little help from my friends I think I am heading along the rocky path to... where? Maybe a place where Nice isn't so important as Honest and Kind. I'll see you there. I might even write about it..


Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm moved. I'm also an introvert and would rather listen than talk. And I run from confrontation as fast as my chubby legs will carry me so I can relate to much that you have said. I applaud you for your bravery in writing and posting this entry. I don't know you, but after reading your blog, I believe you to be an intelligent and caring person. Being nice is, well, nice, but give me insight and honesty any day.

simplelife said...

I think we could be related.

Treaders said...

What a beautifully written piece Jo. And good for you for opening up. I'm the opposite to you - I will talk to anyone and everyone and probably open up too much, but I do find that that is what (maybe) makes people open up to me. I can be with someone 10 minutes and know most of their problems, and you know what, maybe that isn't such a bad thing. I think women, for the most part, are so much better than men at getting things off their chests. Not to say it solves anything but it could just be that pressure valve release. As for conflict, I hate it. I had way too much of that with my ex so will go out of my way to avoid it. If that means never hooking up with another man so be it. On that score I just feel I will NEVER put myself in that position again, but can you really ever say "NEVER"? Not sure. But like another poster said, we don't know each other in real life and if it does you good to get stuff "out there" on your blog, go for it girl! Anna

Jo said...

Specks, thanks:) I bet I can run away from conflict faster than you xx

Simplelife, I'm sure there are a number of us about. We could start a club:)

Anna, people like me love people like you, because then we get to listen instead of talk. And as you say, it is so much easier to be open when someone else paves the way. It makes us feel we aren't going to be judged..

lucindasans said...

And now you've shared some more. Well done. You've broken years of socialisation and training.

Growing up we talked about lots of things. Same with my kids. People probably think I'm an oversharer. And that I wear my heart on my sleeve. But I don't talk about some of the deeply painful things. Can't with my mother because she gets all defensive and upset. She sees it as a criticism of her, even though she was loving and as much a victim of circumstance as my sister and I were. The pain I've felt in my marriage I've not shared. We had an incident a year ago. It wasn't big enough for me to walk but it was massive. I haven't shared because I am not walking and I see it between me and Mr S. I don't want others judging nor talking about us. So yeah, even talkers and sharers habecthings they hold back. Your gym buddy might too.

Funnily enough, I'm seen as a fighter. My sister runs from conflict or shuts down. I think I like getting into the hurly burly of life. The ups and downs. Yet here I am 25 years married and living a "nice" averse suburban life. Contradictions of life!!!

I love reading novels about growing up in strong Christian families and "breaking free" from the strictures. You must have one of those stories in you?

Pam in Virginia said...

Hi, Jo!

I like to remember that it is not the conflict that matters, it is how one reacts to the conflict that matters.


Jo said...

Lucinda, I am certainly not advocating sharing everything on the internet or with the world at large. That would be insane! And I am also very wary of sharing someone else's story. Who hasn't been bitten by that one and ended up feeling like you have betrayed a family member or a friend?

I don't think you are an over-sharer. I think you have the capacity to present yourself warts and all and show how you are dealing with difficulties, which then helps the rest of us. That's what I mean about making yourself vulnerable. I find that hard because I have a ridiculous perfectionist streak and don't want to show off my imperfections! That is what I am trying to challenge in myself.

I hope you have some close confidants you can share all the really hard times with. I have wonderful friends I can talk to, but I generally foolishly try to get through hard times on my own and then tell my friends when it is all over. Which kind of negates the purpose of sharing..

Pam, yes, you are right, and I react by avoidance at all costs. Well, I used to, but now I am forcing myself to have a go at dealing with it. Sometimes..

Lynda D said...

Goodness Jo, we had the same upbringing. Great, wasnt it, though i didnt think so at the time. Mine has left me with issues regarding anger. I cant deal with it and it makes me very anxious. We were certainly not aloud to raise our voices in anger, we had to be nice Christian ladies. My BFF, husband and son think im gullible, only seeing the good in things. Im NOT (she says all the time thinking well maybe a little). I'd just rather dwell on the positive and look for the good in everyone. Yes, i get burnt.

I also had large family and as one of the founding families of a pentecostal church my family extended to the whole congregation. I go home and i still call everyone Uncle and Aunt even though im 52. Im one out of the bag though. Im a communicator whereas my five siblings are all introverts. I shock them with my forwardness. Sometimes i do it just to make them squirm. Now that Mum is in her 80's we can talk about anything. This was not always the case and she will admit that she wishes she had been more open when younger. So, as you are, we are all evolving as time goes by, hopefully in the right direction, which is NICE.

Anonymous said...

Identify strongly with your description of your family. Even now,emotional issues are kept private, but I,too, always knew we were loved, although neither parent could say those words to us! My father made me a beautiful dolls' house with tiny wire hangers, helped saddle up the horse, kept my car running and when I was older, quietly oiled squeaky hinges, sharpened knives, always "did" as a way of showing love. There was a breathtaking moment when my son was 2 and he climbed into his grandfather's lap, put his hands on either side of his face and said, "I love you, Grandad" and time stood still, until Dad replied, "And I love you, M...." The younger members of the family still express surprise that he replied!
Getting on with it was a sign of the times. Now we want our children to express their needs and wants and sometimes it is uncomfortable but we share a genuine friendship with our 30 year old son. My mother still avoids anything awkward, but that's just how she grew up, and she is always kind. I think kind is so important!

SarahN @ livetolist said...

I realise I'm so very different to you - and to my ex. And I'm glad to know this, as in, to realise the differences in people. I realise my 'download' method - my talk and chatter til a line of conversation takes your interest and we deviate to that path etc. It's hard to articulate the match I'd seek in a partner, to match the chatter, but being with an introvert for four years wasn't right.

I'm glad to know your exhusband and you can work more constructively now. It's great for your kids. And great for you. Big hugs

Alyssa Corley said...

So, "Realville" isn't always as comfortable because it comes with vulnerability and learning boundaries....but I think in the end it's a "nicer" place to live because we can be ourselves fully...exactly as who we are with no barriers. It's an authentic place to be. It's funny to read this today because I came from a missionary kid background where I always felt stifled - and now the people I notice I have a very hard time to be around are the ones that make everything fine and don't share just the good and the ugly and the stories and the dancing and EVERYTHING that make the human experience. I think we all know that nobody lives in's so much more freeing just to live in the World. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I love to read about other peoples experiences along the journey :) Blessings to you and I hope you find true fulfillment in your writing!

Jo said...

Lynda, your comment took me straight back! No, we weren't permitted to express anger either. Anger was one of those BAD emotions and was shut down right away - hence my fear of conflict - conflict is bad. It is really hard for me not to shut down conflict between my kids either, rather than to help them work through the underlying issue. I manage to do that about half the time, which is an improvement I guess:)

The Baptist church I spent my later teens in became very pentecostal in nature as time went on, with all its inherent craziness. Probably a novel just in that.. but I hear you on the Big Family aspect of it. As long as you more or less toe the party line you are embraced as family, and that is a big attraction in this lonely world..

Anon, that is a beautiful story of your dad and son! It was so hard for men of that generation to express their feelings. My dad had a dad in WWII and a grandfather who went through WWI, and those poor souls went through hell and came home and just got on with it. Immense courage, but at such a cost to themselves and their families.

My dad expresses his love by doing too, and I feel very cherished by that. And while my mum is all about nice, she has never said a mean word about anybody, ever, and that is an extraordinary achievement.

I'm glad you have a good relationship with your son. As life goes on I've come to see that this is all that really matters in the end.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Jo, on taking all those little steps to this new and vulnerable place. Honest and kind are, I think, less anxiety producing in the long run.
And congratulations on all of your writing, which is exquisitely clear and elegant and warm. And honest and kind.

- Kris

Jo said...

Sarah, it is bittersweet to learn some of life's lessons from personal experience, isn't it? I hear you on the difficulty of living with someone very different to yourself. I would find it extremely difficult to live with an extrovert because I would be exhausted from all the talking. And yet my ex-husband and I were too alike in that way - we just couldn't find a way in to meaningful conversation often enough to make our relationship work. Finding that balance is so important. I am sure that somewhere there is someone who will happily take turns with you as you create a story together..

Alyssa, so many of us with similar backgrounds! I think religion is at its best when it is a crutch for our broken, broken selves, but in many churches it becomes a competition about faith and righteousness. Who can admit to being broken and continually struggling if the sign of a good Christian life is success in overcoming difficulties?

Kris, thank you, that means a lot from you xx There is a lot of anxious in our family, and a lot of kind, and hopefully the extra honest will help with the anxious.

Anonymous said...

See how well you write? I've always thought so.

I'm an introvert too, but one who welcomes conflict if it is part of the process of exposing the underlying problem, shining a torch on it and revealing it for what it really is...just a shadow, a darkness that grows bigger the more it is allowed to hide!

GretchenJoanna said...

"...a place where Nice isn't so important as Honest and Kind" - What a good description of where we want to be. But as you point out, that is a place that requires some careful work to stay in. It's really hard to be both honest and kind. It's probably good to start by being honest with oneself and with God... when I make that effort, I become cautious about telling other people's stories, as you put it.

Even though my parents are no longer with us, I am hesitant to talk or write about their failings because for one thing, they are not only my parents, and the stories of their parenting and of our pain belong also to my siblings.

Sometimes I find there are stories of my own that are the most significant, and I long to tell them to someone who is most trustworthy and understanding, and who won't be hurt - and there is no one! Then I remember that God is real, and sometimes it's not a bad thing to keep it between the two of us. I can be honest and He is always kind.

Thank you, Jo.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jo,

Beautiful, just beautifully written. :-)! Writing does make you vulnerable though doesn't it? Oh, by the way, blessed are the introverts!



Jo said...

Anon, see, you are the kind of person I want to be when I grow up..

Gretchen Joanna, ah, there you have my whole dilemma in a nutshell. I think that people like us sometimes confuse kindness with Not Upsetting People.

I have spent a lot of my life trying not to upset people. It's not really benefited me or the people around me, because it makes me angry and resentful. Also, choosing the road of Not Upsetting People feeds into a conspiracy of silence which doesn't help our children grow up with a healthy idea of relationships.

I love the idea that although both my parents and I grew up in families without really being able to communicate effectively, here we are, decades later, learning how to have honest and meaningful conversations. Not without pain or difficulties or false starts or wrong turns, but I think that is marvellous, that we can change and move forward.

I hope that one day you do write down the truth of your childhood. Do it for your siblings, and for your children. It's important to acknowledge where you came from. And the kindness comes from intent, as the last commenter noted, to shine a light into a dark place. And it comes in forgiveness. Until you speak the pain aloud it is hard to forgive.

Chris, blessed are the introverts indeed, for we are easily amused. Just give us a book and a cup of tea, and we will be right for hours.

GretchenJoanna said...

Oh, I'm not averse to Upsetting People, if that is called for. I really am talking about Hurt as in something the hurt one might not even feel. Thank goodness, my siblings and I seem to dwell in a land of forgiveness and I think we could talk about anything we wanted.

Not everything is helpful or necessary to talk about, though, as various of your commenters and you have pointed out. That's all I was trying to convey. Because it seems that in our society -- actually I don't know if it's the same in your part of the world -- the pendulum seems to have swung so far toward painfully unkind public confessionals that I am not surprised if relationships are hurt to a degree from which it is extremely difficult if not impossible to heal.

While I'm holding forth, the other thing I'm cautious about is trying "forever" to understand Where I Came From and What Happened. Because while a degree of self-knowledge is important, we humans are so complex and complicated, our understanding is always incomplete, and we ultimately want and need is to go forward, even with some things accepted as mysteries, events and people forgiven even when not understood.

I think the things you all have written are part of that Going Forward. It's very heartening!!

Jo said...

I am so glad you are not averse to Upsetting People. That is a state I aspire to. Not that I plan to be upsetting people for the sake of it, just that sometimes I need to get things done without worrying about What People Will Think.

There is a fine line in the whole arena of sharing. I think it is important to share as much as possible of what has been hidden in the dark, even if it concerns other people. But often that requires only the confidence of a trusted friend, not the whole internet. On the other hand, I am beginning to want to explore in public as much of my own story as does not directly involve other people as I can, for the reason that I have benefited so much from the public vulnerabilities of others. I am not good at vulnerability, a lot of us aren't. But the more I try it the more connected I find myself becoming to all the other humans out there, which is a place I want to be.

I think I am also on the side of looking back to see where I have come from, and how I got here. I am not always very clear about where I am, so looking back helps me to make sense of the person I am now. Not that I expect to find a perfect correlation. A certain amount of mystery is fine by me. But still, I want to trace a line from there to here. Because if I don't, I feel I will just repeat the many mistakes I have already made. I am looking to concentrate on only making new mistakes into the future... :)

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