“Any relationship that could be ‘ruined’ by having a conversation about feelings, standards, or expectations wasn’t really firm enough anyway, so there isn’t much to ruin.” ~Unknown
So many of us believe that not expressing ourselves is a noble thing to do. We get to feel stoic and in control. Others get emotional and overwhelmed while we can keep it together. The idea that we are strong because we don’t express our feelings is also socially reinforced, so we keep doing it because it’s the right thing to do, right?
In my previous article “The Negative Impact of Not Feeling Your Feelings,” I explained how feelings are not problems or evidence that we are broken but merely there to guide us toward greater well-being. They are a reflection of our state of mind, and they try to alert us when we engage in unhelpful or even harmful thinking. We then have the opportunity to realign with what’s good, healthy, and nurturing for us.
Based on the many questions and messages I received following that article, I now want to explore what happens to our relationships when we withhold our truth and inhibit our feelings.
So, first of all we need to look at what is required to create a healthy and loving relationship.
Relationships thrive in an environment of emotional safety, openness, and authenticity. This means that both people involved need to feel safe with each other, be safe for each other, and be willing to express themselves openly and authentically.
Many of us did not grow up in households where this was allowed or possible. We learned that expressing ourselves can lead to humiliation, shaming, and rejection. This kind of distress can be unbearable for a child, so we learned to inhibit ourselves.
But what keeps us safe as children usually negatively impacts our lives as adults. Inhibition now stops us from creating healthy relationships and developing true intimacy, something most of us value more than anything else.
We inhibit ourselves every time we do not speak up or stand up for ourselves. In relationships, we often inhibit ourselves by hiding our feelings and therefore withholding what is true for us. We go along with what the other person wants whether we really want to or not.
This is a direct block to intimacy. When we are not open or honest with what we are feeling and what is going on for us, we deprive others of the opportunity to really get to know us.
However, we only do this because we believe that this is the way to be in relationships. It’s part of our relationship blueprint, the model of relationship we’ve inherited and internalized. In our eyes, we do what is right and what is required to maintain a connection. It is, after all, the very thing that allowed us to maintain our attachment bond during childhood.
We learned that in order to have a relationship, we must not express ourselves or share our feelings. We believe that our feelings are problems for others and expressing them would threaten the relationship, and that’s the thing we don’t want to lose. So, by that logic, inhibition is the way to go.
And that is true for unhealthy, superficial, or unfulfilling relationships. It just doesn’t work if you want to have healthy, intimate, fun, and overall life-enhancing relationships.
I learned this the hard way …
All my life I struggled to express myself in relationships. I struggled to ask for what I wanted and express how I felt. I didn’t communicate or set boundaries but felt betrayed if they were disrespected or violated. I had lots of different expectations that I never shared but felt absolutely heartbroken if they weren’t met.
In my eyes, I was easy to be with because I didn’t ask for anything. I didn’t complain and I wasn’t demanding. I didn’t nag. I kept my feelings to myself and avoiding confrontation and conflict. But I could only believe that because I was not aware of the consequences of my behavior, which in the end would lead to the breakdown of my relationships.
Not expressing myself in my relationships meant that I did not consider myself. This in itself is a disastrous starting point because a relationship requires two healthy participating individuals. There simply is no relationship if one person is pretty much non-existent.
But not considering myself also put pressure on my partner to consider me in a way that was highly unrealistic. Knowing what I know now, this was never his sole responsibility. It was always mine. It is my job in a relationship to stand in my truth and express it so that my partner and I can co-create a relationship that works for both of us.
It is also pretty impossible to consider someone well enough when you don’t know what they want or how they feel because they simply don’t share that with you. So this was a strategy that was never going to work. However, at that time in my life, I believed that my partner should know what I wanted or how I felt without me having to express it. A fatal lie of the mind.
In healthy relationships, we teach each other about ourselves. We teach each other as we continuously grow and change by expressing what is going on for us. We tell each other what we like and what we don’t like. We share our feelings and how we impact upon each other. We are open to each other’s feedback so we can adjust if we choose to do so.
This is how we create an environment for ourselves and each other that is nurturing, respectful, and loving. It is a perfect environment for well-being and growth, but it is one we must create ourselves by expressing what is true for us. There simply is no other way.
We often stop ourselves from expressing what is true for us to keep the peace and maintain the relationship, but a relationship that cannot handle your truth is not a relationship you should be in.
As adults, we are not dependent on any one person the way we were dependent as children. Our survival is no longer dependent on a caregiver. We now depend on ourselves. Our well-being depends on us making wise choices for ourselves, and that includes the people we choose to have in our lives. Those people should be people who are safe for us and who love the full version of us.
I used to believe that withholding my truth by inhibiting my feelings and desires meant that I was a good partner and easy to be with. I felt good about the role I was playing. I thought I did the right thing. It also allowed me to keep relationships going.
But I kept relationships going that weren’t meant for me (and quite possibly not for my partners either). I presented a version of myself that was inauthentic. I did not contribute myself—not fully, not authentically. I withheld my truth and in doing so, I deprived my partners of truly choosing me. They got the superficial version of me. A Stepford Wife version that was a lie. It was dishonest.
I didn’t understand that a healthy relationship requires openness, authenticity and honest self-expression. That was something that has never been part of my relationship blueprint. It was not something that had ever been allowed or encouraged in the past.
And so, I followed my pattern. I desperately wanted a healthy relationship, but it looked like it just wasn’t going to happen for me.
I couldn’t have what I wanted because I didn’t ask for it, and others didn’t consider me because I didn’t provide them with anything to consider. I relied on their guesses, which were usually wrong. I put my responsibility for my own well-being onto my partners and made myself dependent on their best guesses, which was never going to work out well for anyone.
I am now a fierce advocate for self-expression. Self-expression as a way to well-being and healthy connections. Self-expression as an expression of self-care, self-respect, and self-love. Self-expression as the gateway to real, raw, and deep intimacy.
Maybe, like ‘old me’, you believe that censoring yourself and inhibiting your feelings is good for your partner or your relationship. Maybe you feel stronger or tougher for doing so. Maybe you’ve never given it any thought before, and that’s okay.
But please know that you are worthy of expressing yourself. You need to take up space. Your feelings and desires matter. They can’t matter to anyone if they don’t matter to you first.
A healthy relationship requires you to be in it. All of you. You cannot experience deep connection and intimacy if you are not there for it. You cannot make good partner choices if you’re not honest with yourself or consider yourself.
It is time to free yourself from old patterns that stop you from getting the love you want. It’s time to finally let yourself be heard and be seen. And all of that starts with you. Say yes to self-expression! Get honest with yourself about how you feel and what you want and don’t want.
That is how you become safe for yourself and safe to be in a healthy relationship with.
About Marlena Tillhon-Haslam
Marlena loves people and life and is passionate about finding ways to make our human experience as fulfilling as possible. She works as a psychotherapist, relationship coach, and Clinical Director. She loves to connect on Instagram or via her Love with Clarity and Codependency Today Facebook groups and pages. She is an expert in human relationships and sees them as the lifeblood of a meaningful existence.
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