TELL ME (SOME) THINGS
Every now and then I’ll notice that something fundamental about me has changed without me trying or even realizing it. It’s a strange yet wonderful feeling. I spend so much time struggling to better myself and reach my “potential” that when something clicks into place behind the scenes it’s like getting an unexpected holiday bonus. The most recent example of this is realizing that I no longer need to know what everyone else is thinking all of the time. I no longer need people to tell me everything I want to know. I can handle not having all of the information and, in a shocking turn of events, sometimes I prefer it.
This mental shift has come at an unusual time considering what happened with my ex-fiancé. Our engagement fell apart overnight instead of over the course of weeks or even months because he was actively withholding information from me. He didn’t tell me he was riddled with doubt or contemplating leaving. In the immediate wake of my abandonment, I became even more obsessed with knowing how other people felt than before, which is saying something. Historically, I have sought intimacy through vulnerability and transparency. I didn’t feel connected to someone unless I knew a certain number of facts about their life and how they thought about those facts. When my friends would go through big moments and not tell me until much later, I would take it as a slight. Why weren’t they sharing with me immediately? Didn’t they want my support? Didn’t they want me to know? Doesn’t knowledge about each other’s lives and experiences have a direct correlation to closeness and connection?
But then I started dating John. And at first I made it my mission to make sure he was always being transparent with me. I didn’t want to end up blindsided again and made him promise he would share any doubts he had about us as they were happening. He agreed and we began the process of really getting to know each other. And one of the things I learned about John is that, unlike me, he isn’t an open book. He tends to keep a lot of things to himself and only shares when he is ready. In the past, this would have been a huge trigger for my anxiety. I would have worried endlessly about what he was keeping from me and why. But one of my biggest takeaways from my graduate program is fully accepting that other people operate differently than you—and that’s okay.
If that seems like a pretty obvious takeaway not worth thousands of dollars in classes and textbooks, I (partially) agree. Except there is a big difference between understanding something intellectually and actually internalizing the new knowledge and having it shape how you interact with the world. I have long understood that people operate differently than me, but I still thought that was wrong. They were going about life in an incorrect way and I needed them to change to be more like me. For example, instead of seeing my mom’s reluctance to share parts of herself and her life with me as a morally neutral aspect of her personality, I thought it was a clear negative. So I would pry and pry and when she wouldn’t tell me something I would get angry. Now, I have a better understanding that for her and for John, sharing parts of themselves they don’t want to isn’t something they have to do to strengthen their relationship with me. It’s something they can choose to do, when they want to, on their own timeline.
This revelation also exposed how much I centered myself and my personal preference in my relationships. If a friend didn’t want to talk about something, I would still try my best to finagle the information out of them. I think I did this partly because sharing things has always helped me process and I wanted to help. But I also did it to serve my own ego and feed my nosiness. They trusted me with this information. I got to help them through it. And it would gnaw at me if there was information out there I didn’t have. The one way to dispel that discomfort was to force the information out of people who weren’t ready to share.
Knowing these things about myself wasn’t enough for me to change. There is a big difference between insight and application. And I think that’s why this change has snuck up on me. Over the course of the last year, I was slowly adjusting to dating someone who was good at keeping things to himself. There were multiple instances when I knew he wasn’t telling me everything—most often in an attempt to protect my feelings—and as a result my tolerance for not knowing slowly increased. I also saw evidence for the first time that intimacy is still possible without all the facts. Despite my previous fears, I was able to feel confident that I knew him without knowing everything about him or his experiences. I made the active choice to trust that he would tell me what I needed to know and gave myself the grace to be “duped” again. At first this choice was uncomfortable. Now it feels natural. If he chooses to not tell me something I deserve to know, that is on him, not on me. I have made myself available and given him the space to be in control of his disclosures (for the most part!). And I am grateful for the times he shields me from content I don’t need to know--which is something I never thought I would feel.
Another unexpected bonus of giving other people more freedom with sharing their thoughts and experiences is that I’ve been able to extend the same courtesy to myself. For most of my life, I was a compulsive sharer. I thought I had to tell people what had just happened to me or how I was feeling. Now, I let myself share when I want to. I can keep things inside of me without worrying I am being dishonest or withholding. I think part of what has allowed me this evolution is letting go of the idea that you can ever fully know another person. When I viewed this goal as something attainable, it made sense that I went after it. I was on a mission with a clear finish line. I no longer think it’s possible to know everything about someone else. And this has released me from the pressure to try. So instead of going for quantity, I strive for quality. I cherish what people choose to share with me and don’t hyper fixate on what they don’t. I remain fundamentally nosey by nature, but I don’t let it affect my feelings toward others in the same way if they don’t feed my appetite. And I give myself and my loved ones the gift of time. Some stories come out in a burst. Others unfold over years. People are the same way and that’s perfectly okay.