emotional openness

originally published September 12, 2019

No matter the shape of your life I’m sure we can agree that the best moments you’ve experienced come from emotional connection. Yes, much of our joy comes from things we personally experience, but sharing those experiences with others elevates them to another level of significance. This is fairly well accepted wisdom, most of us know how important relationships are for happiness. Unfortunately, not all of us are especially good at opening ourselves up for emotional connection. There are many angles on this: insecurity, uptightness, coldness and even stoicism (not in the philosophical sense, though).

So, why do we have trouble opening up? Well uh, hold up, it’s probably best to start by defining our terms.

What is emotional openness?

Let’s be clear, when I talk about emotional openness I’m referring to something very specific. I am not describing obnoxious oversharing of the current state of your life via a torrent of your unrefined thoughts. I am also not describing the faux positivity some people attempt to radiate, even if those same people describe themselves as “~an open book~”. No, instead, what I am talking about is the ability to, without fear and without hesitation, gently share your true feelings on even the most personal subjects.

Openness does not mean extraversion, it implies a lack of shame and of self-condemnation. It means you are not afraid of feeling other people’s emotions, even if they are deeply negative ones. You are not rigid or protective of your emotional state, you understand it cannot be controlled. In turn you are not controlled by it, you are not overwhelmed by your emotions. It’s as if logic and emotion regard one another as equals and have learned to collaborate.

Why bother?

There are quite a few divergent paths I could use to make this point. Emotional openness fuels artistic passion, enables authentic communication and facilitates effective collaboration. However, the angle I will choose is one dear to our hearts, relationships. Once again, I’m going to define my terms. A relationship is a multi-purpose label that we use to identify the various emotional connections we’re maintaining in our lives.

This definition alone highlights a problem (well I think it’s a problem) with many people’s approaches, relationships are more than business transactions or mutually beneficial entertainment schemes.

To get the most out of a relationship you must share who you are, authentically. But, to do this you must first accept who you are. Relationships between people who are unable to openly share their emotions generally fail spectacularly, and if they don’t they will remain second-rate.

Circling back to some of my original claims, I would argue that relationships are the primary source of happiness in our lives. Following that I would continue to argue that being knowingly emotionally closed off is intentionally making the choice to be unhappy. I am not condemning those of us who have trouble doing this, as we will see I am among them. In fact, quite the opposite is true, if you are like me and have always had trouble opening up then read on.

Why aren’t we more open?

In one form or another I think the answer can be summed up as:

“I wasn’t taught to do this”

In fact, almost none of us were. Only the most emotionally mature parents out there manage to impart these lessons to their kids and it seems we cannot expect traditional schooling to tackle this type of education.

There’s an important touchpoint here regarding toxic masculinity, I identify as male and feel I have some personal experience with this topic as a not-so-archetypal man. The toxic aspect I’m referring to is how young men are generally encouraged to actively suppress their emotions, leading many of us to grow up angry at and confused by the way we feel.

While the landscape is shifting in this area (and has been for some time) there are many men, young and old, who were raised in this style. Thinking back I cannot recall a single educational template for how I should talk about my emotions. And so, I didn’t. Up until I was 18 I’m not sure I had a truly sincere conversation about my emotions. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy “deep and meaningful” conversations, but those tend to focus more on a shared fantasy and dreaming of the future.

I had encountered openness however. I had been introduced to people who could easily talk about aspects of themselves I that found cripplingly embarrassing in myself. How could they be so secure in themselves?

So, what did I do?

I’ve talked about how I approach changing myself before, but this topic is an excellent opportunity to give a specific example. The first step is always the same, I had to admit I truly wanted to be more open. Not that I wanted to seem open or feel open but that I want to make it easier to share how I feel with other people. If you cannot earnestly say this then you are probably still unconvinced of the value of openness, in which case I sincerely hope life throws an unexpected, but benign, encounter your way to enhance your perspective. Or maybe just an LSD trip. I had seen too many happy, relaxed and successful people who seemed to have something that I did not.

To be open and honest with others, without fearing judgement, we must first be open and honest with ourselves without judgement.

This is crazy hard. It also sounds crazy corny.

The L Word

Yep, I’m literally telling you to love yourself. I’m going to keep saying it too because I want you to realise that it shouldn’t be cringey to say you love yourself. I hated the idea of saying this, in fact until I was 24 I had never told myself I loved myself. I shuddered at the thought and froze in the middle of even thinking it to myself. As I’ve talked about before, a lot of my motivation comes from self-criticism bordering on self-hatred… You can see the incompatibility. The thing is…

You deserve love, and so do I. We are not entitled to it, but we are deeply deserving. Our lives feel like they are just one problem after another. Often we make mortifyingly embarrassing mistakes. We know these things about us, we know them about other people too. We feel sympathy for other people’s struggles, most of the time we even want to help them. If in that moment we feel that those people are deserving of our support then how can you possibly justify the idea that you are not equally deserving in your times of weakness?

Yes, I understand admitting weakness can feel like defeat, it is not. I will grant that admitting weakness can be akin to losing a battle, but we are fighting the proverbial war. If we admit that there are difficult moments in our lives and that we find them hard to handle, it allows us to release the pressure. You might think you need to stay locked down to bear the difficulty of your life, because a single moment of weakness could lead to it all falling apart. That’s certainly where I was.

Practice makes perfect

And it was a difficult place to be, I knew I would get hurt if I let my guard down. The only solution I found was to get better at handling the pain. When I felt the sting of insecurity I would forcefully remind myself that someone else’s opinion, or even my own, does not accurately reflect my value as a person. I will repeat this for my own benefit:

People have value outside of what they think of themselves, what others think of them and what they contribute to the world. There is implicit value within our capabilities of love, despair, fear and joy and we are all equally entitled to experience them.

This felt a little silly at first. I’m not an optimistic person by nature and I’d be lying if I said these words don’t feel a little saccharine as I write them. However, I have come to realise that the urge to dismiss something because it’s too wholesome serves to do nothing but distance me from happiness. It feels as if it stems from a fear of happiness or a difficulty in relating to it. And, as with all fears, the only way to conquer it is through butting heads with it repeatedly.

It’s difficult to catch yourself in the critical moments and redirect this behaviour. With much practice I did eventually build a tolerance to the fear of opening up. I began to treat being open as an active goal. I would challenge myself to, when given the appropriate conversational opportunity, speak on deeply personal matters I had never shared before.

Each time I did this I grew more confident. At first it was as unimpressive as being able to admit that I was in a bad mood. This grew through to admitting embarrassment, when I was wrong, feeling ugly and even sharing the gnarly details of my inner monologue. Giving these feelings an external life blocks us from denying them. We want to squash our negative emotions, banish them from our lives, but this is a fool’s errand. Once we admit to our feelings we are forced to accept them.

This is starting to sound a lot like what some would refer as radical acceptance, I don’t use the term myself but felt I should mention it.

It turns out that the embarrassment and insecurity I felt about even the most specific parts of my life was not unique. Almost everyone around us also wishes they could be more open and secure. When I shared my most personal emotions I found that judgement was far from the most common response. People admire people who can open up comfortably, they know how hard it is and they wish they could do the same.

I tend to avoid speaking negatively about other people when possible, but here I will make an mild exception. The few who do attempt to mock you after you share your feelings do so out of deep insecurity. They are still sitting on the other side of the line, denying that they even desire emotional connection. Sometimes they are intentionally keeping themselves there. As I’ve said before, we should feel sympathy for assholes, even the most pathetic amongst them.

The other side

Internalising these ideas lead me to a remarkable place, an overall feeling of safety and semi-constant reassurance emerged. I now feel safe from emotional injury without expending any effort, I am relaxed and free. Well, in my best moments at least 😅.

The very welcome upside of all these efforts is that my positive emotional experiences feel far deeper. I can connect on a new level with my family, friends and romantic partners. As I treated myself more and more kindly I could in turn treat those around me more kindly, and it came for free.

People can sense when you are truly there for them, ready to receive whatever emotional burdens they are carrying. You can see the fear on their faces as they begin to share with you and you can watch it morph into surprise and a striking sense of connection when you warmly accept their words. They may not understand, but you will. You will know that their insecurities are no truer than your own and that their struggles are deserving of your compassion simply by virtue of being struggles in the first place.

It was Socrates himself that taught us of the importance of an examined life and of mastery over ourselves. This can seem like an inherently selfish pursuit but when you understand that self-acceptance and self-love are subsumed within self-mastery it becomes obvious to me that focusing your efforts internally is the first step on the path to collective happiness for us all.