On being (truly) honest about our feelings

By Caitlin Kelly


Here’s a recent post from Freshly Pressed, about the social dance of “How are you?” — and its expected, safe, reassuring antiphonal response of “Fine!”:

But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.

It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.

And here’s an honest blog post about how messy real life really is:

I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.

Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Except about whether or not we loved each other.

And from A Transformed Faith blog:

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.

For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.

For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.

I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.

Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.

The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.

Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.

They'll never tell!
They’ll never tell!

Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.

And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)

A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied  in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.

But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.

I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…

No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!

Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)

But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.

Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.

Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:

“You can’t be a normal human being.”

By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.

Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.

But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.

Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.

Or not…

I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.

How about you?

Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?

Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?

35 thoughts on “On being (truly) honest about our feelings

  1. I am honest with those who actually want to know, and who have the capacity to cope with it. I’m not ashamed of my bout with anxiety and depression. It’s taken me as long to grasp it myself as it took to go through it. And I would talk about my experience with anyone. I am not ashamed, and I am not afraid. But for the most part, I think other people really don’t want to know. “Oh, hey, how’s that mental illness of yours going?” No, people don’t ask. I’ve said to several people, if you ever have questions or want to know more, just ask. No one has.

  2. I’m from a reticent society and have had some problems of which family and friends are aware. It’s odd but I avoid telling them how I’m actually feeling as much as possible even though they do ask. I think people do that as a form of greeting rather than a desire to know the truth and yet I can be more honest in my blog which they might read. I’m still careful not to reveal too much but do admit if I’m feeling down.
    My wife died just 12 months ago which has been a cruel time and people following the blog have been amazing in their support though I suspect that would start to wear thin if the blog was all doom and gloom. It therefore becomes necessary to mask feelings on occasion and make out that life has returned to normal.
    xxx Multi Hugs xxx

    1. It is a delicate dance, esp. with blogs as we’re talking to a lot of people we really don’t know at all and with whom we are not emotionally intimate.

      I’m really sorry for your loss. Jose is my best friend and I would be lost without him.

  3. Reblogged this on makaedelee and commented:
    Yes, being confident and competent can make you a target for bullies, even from the most unlikely of sources. The more we talk about that and ‘oust’ the bully, the sooner we can put a stop to it. As with the other points you have made, we need to stop seeing emotions and their resulting reactions as a sign of weakness 🙂

      1. That is so true, and part of the reason we have started Change of Mind, we are looking at tackling bullying by developing Emotional Intelligence, fingers crossed we are on the right track!

  4. Interesting questions, Caitlin. I tend to be very open, both in person and in my writing. Having been through so much, I don’t find a need to conceal much. It’s too much work. But having been through a lot, I also find I am one who *will* step in to stop abuse. I saw my mother abused and that became my “Scarlett O’Hara” moment… never again.
    Oddly there’s not the anger one would expect- my younger sister took that route and it isn’t pleasant. Big chip on her shoulder toward the world.

    Your quote about being a “normal Human being ” -that’s what drives me- to be a compassionate problem solver, making a difference (maybe that’s somehow a way of atoning for the sins of the father?) 😉
    Very thought provoking post, as always. Thanks for that!

    1. Thanks for weighing in. I’m always interested in how much people are comfortable revealing — I come from a family that refuses to discuss feelings and there are plenty to discuss.

  5. I’m an Asian who migrated to Australia, and is now a nomad.

    All my life I’ve been negotiating how much of what to share with whom, and how this sharing is done. Mum is Chinese, Dad was Indian, both families come from different socio-economic rungs, and most of the population is distinctly one ethnic group or the other, with associated communication styles. I am a child of both cultures and have never participated in either, so I don’t know much about being Indian or Chinese. Family gatherings, at my age, are STILL a challenge, and can be very distressing. Too many conflicting cues. My father’s funeral and everything that followed in the days after were a nightmare. I managed to get EVERYTHING wrong in that time. I still wonder where my siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews went to take the “getting it right” class. How did I miss the sign up call?

    Migrating to Perth when I was 18, was an introduction to that place where people are sunny, extroverted, social (yes i generalize), but hard to really get to know. Then I took off around the world, and found that none of that is really unique. No one is really honest until you know them, and it’s difficult to get to know people. Some cultures are more specific about cues than others, but in the end I think most of us have gotten enough knocks through life to learn to be reserved until we sense/judge that someone is OK to be honest with.

    I’m able to be more honest on the blog about some things, because I am more articulate in writing than speech, but not about the really personal stuff, because most of it involves other people. But I have to say, all of that is a great teacher in general communication. Yet another great learning journey 🙂

    PS You being intimidating in your self confidence is aspirational!

    1. Thanks for this…

      It’s really interesting/challenging when/how/if to share our feelings, and of course there are cultural overlays and cues. I was always (!) mistaken (not a compliment!) in my native Canada as an American: too brash, too direct, too confrontational (i.e. not Canadian at all.) So I moved to the States where I was too Canadian (self-deprecating, modest, teasing)! After 25 years living here, I’ve decided I’m actually more European: I prefer formality and manners and I REALLY like long vacations.

      It’s been interesting to me that some of my best convo’s have been in French or Spanish with people of quite different backgrounds.

      The whole “you’re intimidating” thing is bogus. If someone feels intimidated, why is that OUR problem?

      1. Hehehe, I was accused the other day by some guy of not being a “real” Singaporean. Like you, in my “home town” I am too brash, too opinionated, too straightforward, too confident. I don’t keep my place as a woman because I think I’m good enough to play with the boys (and I am, goddammit!).

        That’s one of the nice things about being a foreigner – for the most part, people don’t hold it against me when they’re confused by what they think I’m supposed to be. In the land of my birth, it’s a problem almost every day.

        But like you said, that’s not our problem. Sisters are doing it for themselves these days, and a damn good thing it is.

  6. I struggle constantly with what to reveal and what to keep private, online and in real life. I’ve made a decision to be more forthright about it and in my writing…and then faced some backlash for (my family isn’t thrilled about personal matters of conscience I’m working through, they don’t like some of the topics I want to write about, etc.). I find that when I open myself up more, emotionally or otherwise, I often need to defend myself more. Becoming aware of that has been useful at the very least because it allows me to evaluate what I want to share and why. If I’m not ready or able to defend a thought or topic or experience ably, sharing is probably a bad idea. If I am, share away.

    On the other hand, I also find that opening up encourages others to do the same and I’m often surprised at what I lean – as you wrote. Ultimately it’s hard to be vulnerable, but it’s the only way we learn.

    1. I wondered if this piece would resonate for you, as I know this from your blog, and our friendship. I see that struggle and I suspect I know why.

      It’s taken me decades (!) to start to open up more; coming from a family that values secrecy and/or never discusses feelings and has no wish to will certainly do that to a girl! It’s too ironic that you and I hate chosen a field that allows US access to others’ feelings (when interviewing), and it’s one of the ironies of my life that total strangers have revealed more to me than my own family members.

  7. Part of why I’m writing now is to be more open and to share more of what I really think. But then again, I hesitate in a big way about the issues near and dear to me because I’m pretty sure some of what I have to say isn’t going to be well-received and I have to see these people at the school, grocery store, events, etc…small town. It is tough as a parent to have to teach how-to-be-fake, for social sake. I don’t like it, but it’s necessary in our society. I identify very much with your disclosure about strong women being misunderstood and intimidating to others. Although my upbringing included verbal abuse from my mom, somehow I managed to ignore it and find a level of high confidence, and somehow wonder if that’s why it has taken me a while to get close to some other women, because they tend to resent it in other women. I have found the best support for things that truly matter to me in my husband of course, but with some online groups who are more open, more supportive, and more reciprocal….wish it wasn’t so but I’m glad we have an opportunity to connect. Thanks as always for your thought-provoking post.

    1. Thanks for this…lots to think about! I live in a small town (10K people) but I don’t have kids and that has effectively shut us out of almost all social life here, even in 25 years. It’s lonely, so I tend to be very selective about who I talk to. No time for acquaintances!

      Verbal abuse? Oh, yes indeed. I had a shitload of that growing up, even recently. It certainly hasn’t shut me up. And, yes, it can annoy and scare some women, but not the right ones. I think many are eager to speak up/out as well, but too scared and when they see someone who isn’t, they’re envious of that freedom. It’s freedom with a price, of course.

      I agree about online groups. I find more thoughtful convo’s here (sad, in a way but true) than I do in most of my “real” life. After 25 years living in NY, I have very few close friends here. It’s wearying and weird.

  8. My practice over several decades has been learning to be more mindful about who I share what with. In the past I sometimes over-disclosed too quickly and made unwise decisions about the person with whom I was sharing personal vulnerabilities — which in turn added to my sense of vulnerability. I’m not a shy person or unwilling to share; I’m just more discerning now. For example, I had two abortions in the 70s. I’m amazed (and appalled) at the number of people I’ve met who have moral judgments about abortions (and they may even be pro-choice). I don’t feel like subjecting myself to that stuff. But writing and publishing are different. There’s nothing I haven’t shared. I can expose myself on the written page and even if there is reaction, I feel a step removed. I’m not writing a blog right now so the issue hasn’t come up.

    1. True. I told a few people things in my 20s that were used against me, widely, as professionally useful and damaging gossip. It’s one reason I left Toronto and never returned. It also taught me to keep it buttoned.

      Interesting distinction between speaking and writing. I met someone at a conference here a few yrs ago who was reading this blog who seemed shocked by how much I reveal. It’s edited and chosen. But it’s my choice, not commercially produced.

  9. i find that i have become very honest with those who i am close to, and i am honest in my blog posts as well. i really am not good at being deceptive, and would not make a good actress of any sort. at times, i’ve held back on things that my hurt other people if there really is no benefit to saying it. i teach the kinders to use 3 rules when they’re not sure to say something or not. 1) is it true? 2) is it kind? 3) does it need to be said?
    if all 3 are not yes, then they should choose not to say it. i’ve offered to help if they’re not sure –

    1. The third question is a toughie. Depends on how you define “need”…Some people are HUGELY offended by anything vaguely critical, even if it is true and even if said kindly.

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  11. Such a central question. I’ve been off the blogging space for a while, first for paid work, and now to finish writing a book that asks this same question about being honest about our feelings and well-being. I think there is a fundamental contradiction in our society. Honesty is really the only way to sanity, and yet in so many ways we ask people to not express their mental duress. How can we create a place of health in which the word “fine” is an honest answer if we are unable to tolerate all the other possible answers such questions can invoke?

    Lovely and thought-provoking post, and so glad to have back today to read it. Take care!

  12. The thing is, everyone is vulnerable. That is what makes us human, right? You can call it a back story, baggage, whatever. We all have it and carry it with us. You can see it in people’s eyes when you talk to them. Often the most (seemingly) confident people are the ones who are the most vulnerable. I don’t have a problem with people saying they are fine when they are not, because I know that they are probably not ‘fine’, and I know there might come an appropriate time for me to get to know that person better and get beyond the ‘fine’, or then again there might not, and that’s ok too. You have to judge the moment though, right? You use your social-emotional instinct, I think.

  13. Oh, I want to get in on this!

    I noticed that for about a year now, there’s a trend on the Internet of people claiming they have all sorts of disorders, the most observed by me being depression, anxiety, OCD and recently, ADD.

    Now, I’m not going to say I have one of those, because I don’t know. I never share my deep feelings with anyone, nor do I usually describe the lighter ones also. Not because of society, but because I simply don’t want to spill everything to someone who doesn’t care. If they do care, I don’t want to burden them further. From my point of view, everything can be tucked away somewhere in the back of your mind and simply put something else in front, like surrounding yourself with the people you like and doing the things you like.

    And yes, my childhood was messed up in some ways, but heck, it was back then. This is now and I control how I feel!

    Great post, as always 🙂

    1. 🙂

      Good to hear from you again. I hadn’t noticed this trend but…how depressing. On one hand, sad if no one else cares (?) about their feelings but also too attention-seeking for my taste.

      You sound as I do, reluctant to burden others with your heavier stuff. The challenge being, though, the perpetually perky are boring and opaque. I have one friend like that and I would like to get to know him better, but he never shows anything below that surface. It tells me he doesn’t trust me (which hurts) and it keeps us at arm’s length. Intimacy does require some self-revelation.

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