As a therapist, I meet all sorts of people. Some need a slight nudge to open up about the issues they’re facing, some have so much to share that they don’t know when to stop. With the former, the first breakthrough is achieved when they’ve finally expressed their hidden emotions. More often than not, they cry during the session — not because they are sad but because they have not known what it’s like to open up to someone who wouldn’t judge them and who would be there to help them. It is for the same bracket of individuals that I am writing this post. If you’re one of them I hope you find it useful, and if you know someone who’s one of them, I hope you understand their struggle.
It was a regular Saturday afternoon at work. Ray was at his desk with earphones plugged in and typing away furiously on his laptop. He could’ve chosen to stay at home like the rest of his colleagues, but he didn’t. He wanted to immerse himself in his work so that he could distract his mind from dwelling on all the stressors in his life. That’s not the only reason why he came into his office that day. He also wanted to stay away from home because he knew he would break down if he stayed and the same would happen if he met someone close to himself — friends and family alike. Being at the office would provide him with the solitude he needed to recenter his emotions, or so he believed. Being at the office would also mean minimal interactions with any other humans.
Always the most trusted employee and a consistent top performer, Ray’s employers knew they could bank on him. Always the best listener and a keeper of secrets, his friends knew they could always talk to him to feel better. Always the most cheerful, his family members saw him as a ray of sunshine and a pillar of strength. But within himself, he was struggling to cope with self-doubt and grief, and he couldn’t open up to anyone — at least he thought so.
Ray had always felt that it was important to be brave and strongwilled to survive in this world, at least that was what he had been told. What he was never told was that being vulnerable and confronting his emotions would make him stronger on the inside. So, he appeared to sail through his life’s struggles with a strong exterior so that nobody could ever learn what was going on within him.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, Ray found himself at the edge. His mind was overburdened with thoughts he couldn’t control — thoughts the music couldn’t drown, thoughts his work couldn’t distract him from. He felt his fingers trembling and his eyes welling up. He stopped typing and got up to go to the restroom to wash his face and keep himself together. But when he saw himself in the mirror, he couldn’t hold back. He started to cry. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t contain his tears. After a few minutes when the tears started to subside, he said to himself, “It’s all okay now. I’ll be fine now.” He washed his face and got back to work. But the thoughts didn’t stop. He found himself ruminating about how badly he missed his deceased father, how badly he wanted to get out of this job, how badly he wanted to try a new venture, how much he wanted to have a holiday, how he couldn’t be sure if his mother was proud of him, how he couldn’t talk to her about his problems, how he couldn’t talk to anybody about his problems. That’s when he decided he needed help from someone who didn’t know him.
“What stops you from sharing your troubles with other people?” I asked.
Ray stared at me for a moment and shook his head with a smile, “I don’t know.”
“You told me about how you felt you couldn’t talk to anybody. How does that make you feel?” I asked.
“I feel miserable!” He said with the kind of look in his eyes as if the world had disappointed him on one occasion too many.
“When you find yourself in such situations, who do you think of first?” I asked.
“My Mom… Sometimes my best friend”, he replied and I could still see him trying desperately to hold himself together.
“What stops you?”
“With my mom, it’s the fact that she has struggled so much herself and that it is my responsibility to support her and take care of her, not to add to her burden. I mean… She deserves all the happiness in the world, and I want to make sure she gets it. But you know how mothers are, right? The moment they see you in distress, they automatically feel stressed themselves. And I don’t want to put her through that. I want to be a good, responsible son.”
“I understand. What about your best friend?”
“With her, I am pretty comfortable talking about just anything. I do share my troubles sometimes. But it’s the same thing, all of us have our own struggles. So many issues that we try to cope with day in and day out. If I start opening up to her about everything, she’ll start thinking that I have too many problems and might distance herself. Or she might not understand my situation, after all, it’s not her life it’s mine.”
“Has she ever said that to you explicitly?”
“No. But I know her well.”
“What makes her your best friend?”
“The fact that I can talk to her about anything under the sun without being judged. We’ve known each other for seven years. She has stood by my side through thick and thin and has never flinched. She gives me unbiased advice, points out my insecurities and mistakes, knows my secrets.”
“Does she share her problems with you?”
“Yeah, all the time!”
“How do you respond to her at that moment?”
“I listen to her. Comfort her if need be. And help her find solutions if she asks.”
“Do you judge her for sharing her problems?”
“No. She’s my best friend. I would never judge her. I know her too much to judge her.”
“How did she react when you were struggling emotionally at the time of your father’s demise?”
“She was silent most of the time. I prefer silence. But she was there with me. Made sure I was eating on time and taking care of my health. She wiped my tears.”
“Is there any evidence that may tell us she won’t understand your troubles?”
“Umm… I’m not sure. But what if she doesn’t?”
“She cared for you when you went through most of your major life-changing events, didn’t she?”
“Do you trust her?”
“Then, I hope you know you have someone to open up to?”
He nodded in affirmation.
While Ray’s case is just one example, plenty of people out there need a little nudge, a little clarity to feel comfortable to open up. Ray wasn’t going through any major issues when he came to me. He was in need of a vent and was unsure if he’d be heard. Always being responsible, always being an achiever — all of that had put him under the pressure of his own emotions.
He felt that strong people cope with their problems themselves, they need not seek help. When in fact, true strength lies in knowing our vulnerabilities and accepting them and asking for help when we fall short.
Picture it this way — we’re all like a bottle of soda. All the external events (everything that happens outside of us — like someone said something, did something, something we saw/heard, etc) of our lives constantly shake the soda bottle until the fizz is too much to contain. Some people let that fizz out as anger, frustration, irritability, and violence; while others talk it out. For people like Ray, they let that fizz eat them up inside. The problem is not too big, but thinking about how others would perceive it, makes it Gargantuan. Ray’s case was similar. All that mind-reading and fortune-telling led him to believe that there’s nobody to help him out, that people would either not understand his problems, or belittle them, or judge him for having them.
For those of you who are going through a similar situation or know someone who is, the most important step is to handpick one person close to you who you feel the most comfortable with, sit them down and tell them everything. Let them know that you want them to hear you out till the end. Let them know that there are pent up emotions you need to release and you just need them to listen. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be shy. Give yourself the chance to open up. It is absolutely fine. In case you feel there’s nobody you can talk to then write it all down on a piece of paper (yes, write it. Don’t type it) and then discard it if you feel like it; or record whatever it is that you have to talk about and listen to your own recording — be your own listener. If nothing else works, go see a therapist.
But remember, it is important to let that fizz out, don’t let it eat you up inside.
For the rest of us, it is important to remember to be compassionate with each other. There was this post I wrote about how we can be better listeners. Check that out for some helpful pointers.
I’d love to hear from you — about your own story of opening up, or lending a listening ear, so type away in the comments below!
Let’s all be more compassionate — to ourselves and to others.
All names have been changed.