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..
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (16) and Posy (11). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much..