3 minute read
How close are you really to the people in your life? How much do they know about you? How open are you with your feelings?
These aren’t academic questions. The closer you are to other people, the more likely you are to be content, to avoid depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger, jealousy and other psychological issues. Being close to other people is protective for our physical health too: studies show that people with close friends and family live longer. Isolation is deadly.
But what does it mean to be ‘close’ to other people? Clients often tell me about their best friends, or their romantic partners and claim that they’re extremely close. But when I delve more deeply I often find that those friends and partners are completely unaware of very important parts of my clients.
Here’s a framework for thinking about how close you are to the people in your life. It consists of four levels of intimacy: Facts, Feelings, Immediacy and Relationship.
The first level of intimacy is sharing what things have happened to us that have shaped our life. Perhaps our parents were divorced, or we were fired from a job, or we were caught shoplifting as a teenager. It might be things that feel more shameful, like having been sexually abused, or abandoned by a parent, or having stalked an ex. The more shame we feel about something, the fewer people we will trust with our secret. And that’s entirely natural and appropriate — there are people who, for their own reasons, will use our secret to make themselves feel better, so it’s best not to share it with them. Having said that, it’s very hard to feel close to someone when they don’t know a key fact of our life, something we think about every day but never tell anyone.
Most of us manage to share some or most of what has happened to us. However, some people feel the world is so dangerous that even facts can be used against them, and so they ensure that all their relationships are superficial and light to avoid having to answer any probing questions.
It’s one thing to tell other people what happened to us. It’s quite another to tell them how it made us feel. Admitting to bad feelings can make us feel weak and vulnerable. We may worry that others will pity us, and since pity feels like the first cousin to contempt, we hold back and deny that we were affected emotionally. Or we admit to the emotion, but ensure that it’s in the past tense: we tell others that our parents’ divorce was tough on us, but it’s history now and we’re fine. We might talk about the emotion but neither feel it nor show it.
This is a very common strategy many of us use to manage our feelings. We don’t want to get emotional in front of other people, so we stay away from friends and partners until we have ourselves under control, and then tell them “Last week I was really sad, but I’m fine now.”
There is an enormous gap between telling someone about our feelings past and present, and showing them how we feel right now. Showing our sadness, worry, loneliness, shame or fear makes us vulnerable to the reaction of the person we are telling. What if they criticize us? Or show pity/contempt? Or completely fail to understand us? We’re already feeling terrible, and if the other person reacts badly, that will cause us to feel even worse.
It takes courage, and trust, to be able to show how we’re feeling. But when we do so, and we get a warm and supportive response from the other person, we feel much closer to them. They’re also more likely to show us how they feel, which further deepens the trust and connection.
Telling someone how they make us feel may be the hardest thing to share. Imagine saying to a friend “When you cancelled our lunch I felt unimportant.” Or “When you told me to quit my job I felt misunderstood and very alone.” How about saying to a romantic partner “When I heard you’d spoken to your ex at a party I got scared that you don’t love me and that you’re going to leave me.” Most people don’t talk this way, and for a very good reason: it makes us extremely vulnerable. It’s all too easy for the other person to get defensive and tell us we’re being too sensitive and insecure. So instead we cover up our feelings and pretend that everything is fine. That keeps us safe, but it’s hard to feel close to someone when they have no clue as to how they’re affecting us. Besides, without knowing how they affect us, they have no chance to change their behavior and are likely to continue upsetting us.
One of the first things I check for when clients come to me with unexplained sadness, anxiety or other psychological distress is how connected they are to other people. Often, (although not always given how complex human emotions are), isolation plays a big role in their problems. Reducing that isolation, both through a connection to me, and through connecting to friends, family and romantic partners, almost always makes an enormous difference.