I have this counterproductive dance I do with my long-distance loved ones.
Here’s how it goes: when I don’t expect to see faraway friends and family anytime soon, I’m pretty good at keeping in touch. I make calls, write cards, and send care packages.
But when I do expect to see people soon – say, in the weeks just before a family vacation – I slack off. I don’t call, and I hold back from sharing. My justification for this is that I’m saving up the best discussion topics for in-person interaction.
My sweet family, Thanksgiving 2015 – we’ve been taking group-shot selfies since way before they were cool.
Alas, this saving up mentality doesn’t deliver on its promises.
I don’t feel close to my loved ones when I’m hoarding information. Rather, I feel close to beloved people when I’m sharing my stories, trusting that there will always be more to tell.
Likewise, I’ve found that there’s a paradox inherent in the writing life: if you as a writer try to ‘save up’ your best work, then you set yourself up for frustration. When you decide – consciously or unconsciously – to hold back, your work isn’t satisfying and resonant as a result.
If you want to be filled, you need to be emptied. And when you become willing to spend, to pour out what you have, then you are given more.
But pouring out means letting go, and the loss of control seems daunting. Attempting to manage my experiences feels safer. So I channel my inner puppeteer, pulling strings rather than allowing situations to unfold naturally.
In my heart of hearts, I know that I do this because I’m scared. For some reason, I lack faith that my writing will continue to grow and resonate, that my loved ones and I will have plenty to share for years to come.
I’m learning, though. I’m beginning to relax and trust that my work and relationships are evolving organically.
And recently, a friend gave me a great gift: a glimpse of what it’s like to love someone who’s always trying to choreograph their interactions. My friend told me about how she’d felt when she’d heard some big news about a loved one secondhand.
“I know that he’s not trying to hide the news from me,” my friend said, “because he’s done this before. It’s just how his mind works.
When he can’t tell me all about a given change in his life – for example, if we don’t have time or he doesn’t want to go into it right then or whatever – then he doesn’t tell me anything.
But I’d rather he’d just told me something, you know? I’d prefer the Reader’s Digest version to nothing at all. But that’s not how he thinks. So even though he and I have been talking regularly, I heard his big news from someone else, and I feel hurt.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I said, “because I have behaved just like that. So thank you for sharing this with me, because now I can understand just how frustrating it can be from the other side!
In fact, close friends have told me that it’s actually hard for them when I hand over my life stories all tidily wrapped up: ‘Everything was really tough for a long time, and I didn’t tell you anything about it … but look, I’m better now!'”
I used to think that I was doing people a favor by allowing them to skip over the difficult parts of my life. But what my true friends really want is simply this: a chance to go through real life with me.
They don’t want me to try and protect them from difficulty. Instead, they want us to be part of one another’s lives in a Fatboy Slim kind of way, ‘through the hard times and the good’. They want us to journey together, not just celebrate destinations.
After that conversation with my friend, I realized anew that my imperfect stories are better than the ones I never share, just as my messy, tearful calls are better than the ones I never make.
For too long, I’ve trusted solely in the beauty of self-containment. And it’s true, there is a time and a place to hold back and save up, certainly. But there’s also a beauty in vulnerability, and a time to pour out and let go.
So I’m practicing letting trusted friends and family into the hard parts of my life, and I’m pressing publish even when I feel insecure about whether a given post is ‘good enough’.
And so it’s oddly fitting that I don’t have a pretty-bow ending for this post, because the work has only just begun. So I’ll simply say: join me.
Tell me about your experience in the comments below.
And let’s set down the puppet strings.
Because when we do, we’ll be left with open hands.*
This post was inspired in part by the “How She Really Does It” podcast, hosted by Koren Motekaitis and featuring Jen Louden, Friendships + Belonging + Loneliness.
Other current favorites (these are not affiliate links, just personal recommendations):
- Gretchen Rubin’s new book, Better Than Before (I’m only two chapters in, but it’s so enlightening. Also, I am such an Upholder, it’s ridiculous… )
- Brigid Schulte’s latest book, Overwhelmed (A powerful analysis of why American women in particular feel so stressed, offering practical guidance on letting go of the ‘crazy-busy’.)
- Laura of the new blog In Others’ Words (I just love her writing voice; specifically, this recent post spoke out to me.)
*Okay, I grant you, it’s a little bit of a pretty-bow ending. Couldn’t resist.