Friday, January 12, 2018

Have you ever opened your heart to someone and felt worse? Read this.

It was an experiment I never forgot.

The psych professor gave us the simplest instructions, then he split our tiny class into two halves, lined each student directly across from the room from another classmate and blew his whistle. With each whistle we took a step toward the person directly across from us. We were instructed to keep stepping forward until we got close enough to this classmate to ‘feel’ like our physical space was being invaded.

It was a visceral lesson about recognizing our physical boundaries. Those invisible lines around our bodies that help us define 'where I end, and you begin.' 

And for most of us, our physical boundaries are no brainers. We instantly feel the discomfort when someone invades our physical space, when a stranger suddenly moves nose-to-nose with us to ask an innocuous question. Unless we’ve been the victim of sexual abuse, our bodies will naturally react to these kinds of bodily intrusions.

But recognizing our emotional boundaries is much more complicated; there is no solid body to brush up against and delineate clear lines when it comes to defining our healthy emotional space.

Instead, we do this with our senses. Like a blind traveler we must turn our awareness inward and with astute ears, detect the rumblings within that warn us when we’re bumping into those emotional boundaries, the ones that give us that confident clarity of, "This-is-Me."

What makes this dynamic process tougher is that we live in a world that has been permanently altered by the values of social media. Whatever platform we’re on—whether we blog, engage on Instagram, or Facebook, the emphasis on fresh content with the incessant drumbeat to share- share- share is powerful.

It’s always in the air, this urgent momentum to offer up the most intimate details of our lives--even while it’s happening— or risk missing the chance to keep our followers interested.
Coupled with the values of a reality TV culture, our natural instincts get blurred.

We feel unsure.

  • How much to share?
  • How will I feel if I share?
  • What kind of personal details are off-limits to the world?
Lately it’s a topic that’s on my mind because of my current writing project. 

For those of you who read about it-- yes, I am still writing daily. However, I’ve changed my original plans to publish everything on my post. (You probably noticed)


Well, I’ve discovered that not everything I write should necessarily be propelled into cyberspace as a forever snapshot of my life, at least not without the necessary pause to consider how it aligns with my comfort zone. Especially since I’m writing memoir that’s littered with personal details, emotional angst and people’s names, it falls into that questionable zone between private and public.
Suddenly as I grapple with these questions... my old classroom experiment seems more relevant than ever.

Let me explain it with a story. 

When our boundaries get blurry

I once had a neighbor that I knew in a cursory, “kids-on-the-same-team” kind of way. One sunny afternoon I ran into her on the bike trail with her newborn baby in the stroller. And before I could finish my “Hi, how are you,” she was off and running, unloading the most achingly private details that were happening in her life at that moment.

Clearly, she was in so much distress it didn’t matter that we were mere acquaintances. And in the short time we spoke I ended up knowing about her possible bi-polar diagnosis, her lack of interest in sex, and her worries about her marriage. As I listened to the raw emotions pour from her— and my heart went out to her— I could feel my old professional identity come alive.
So this is what I did.

Instead of nodding and encouraging more intimate information, I turned my attention on slowing her down. At that moment I didn’t know if she was suffering from postpartum depression (highly likely) or some variation of bi-polar diagnosis, but my over-riding concern was how she would feel long after our meeting on the street; and the last thing I wanted was for her to be overcome with regret and shame later.

I’m telling you this story because it’s a clear example of how fluid our emotional boundaries can be, especially when we’re in crisis.

Before you share your own intimate details with someone—whether it’s face-to-face or in your online world, you should have an awareness of the following:

Two kinds of sharing
Vertical & Horizontal

When I used to lead small therapy groups, Irvin D. Yalom was my rock star. In the nerd world of group psychotherapy, this Stanford clinician made me feel like a starry-eyed groupie at a rock concert.
His clinical work felt alive and relevant even outside the session room, so I'm going to share something right now. Stay with me, I promise it's not psych0-mumbo-jumbo.

According to Yalom, there two ways we can share ourselves with someone and each way can have a powerful effect on how we feel afterwards.

1. First, there is the kind of sharing that he refers to as, vertical sharing.

This is what my distressed neighbor was in the process of doing, sharing one intimate detail that unleashed another one and another one and so on, hence the visual image of going deeper into that Pandora’s box of distress, in other words, vertical sharing.

In the right setting and with the right person and with enough time, this can be one pathway for deep, authentic healing.
But vertical sharing is also characteristic of those with poor emotional boundaries. If someone has sexual abuse in their background, or if they are the midst of a crisis, or if they have self-esteem struggles, they can have problems recognizing those emotional boundaries that keep them feeling whole and intake; I’m talking about psychological boundaries that separate you from others and unlike our solid, clear body boundaries, these can feel fluid and muddled, depending on our emotional state.

Why should you care about this?
We’ve all had an experience like the one I had on the street. Maybe with someone in crisis like my neighbor. Or possibly it was with someone you cared deeply about. And you might have been confused about what to do, maybe even overwhelmed by their neediness and so it ended poorly. For you and for them.

But chances are it's you who can relate to my neighbor; maybe you remember a time when you were emotionally raw from prolonged stress or grief and you felt your typical ‘privacy’ boundaries crumbling, so you surprised yourself by opening up to a friend and it resulted in a great memory, cathartic and positive.

Or worse yet, maybe you felt bad afterwards and now you're afraid to open up again.

2. This is where the idea of horizontal sharing is important to understand.

Kardashian style vs Oprah style

Let's pretend you're the listener. Instead of viewing one’s fragile feelings like a broken water sprout and allowing intimate details to flow freely, it can be more compassionate to help that person contain their spillage. Instead of nodding and encouraging new details it's helpful to guide someone overwhelmed by their emotions, to what Irvin Yalom refers to as a “horizontal” kind of sharing.
Horizontal sharing is focused on process rather than the content. It’s focused on you, the WHOLE person—and specifically on how you’re feeling after your private words are out in the open.

It's as simple as, "Wow, you've just shared something really painful, how are you doing right now?" or a truthful, "I really want to support you right now and I'm not quite sure how to do that."

Horizontal sharing like its visual image, is about staying right where you are emotionally, and becoming aware of the effects on the sharer-- and the listener, before you tread any deeper.

Think of it this way. If vertical sharing is characterized by a Kardashian-style conversation with its focus on titillating details, horizontal sharing resembles an Oprah-style conversation, with slower dialogue, eye-contact, and a warm touch of the hand. And more importantly, the concern about the entire person rather than just 'the juicy details.' 

 Have you ever poured out your heart to someone and felt worse later?

If you’ve ever shared vulnerable details with someone and later felt red-faced regret, most likely this kind of horizontal sharing was the vital piece missing. Leaving you feeling raw and exposed.
And that can feel worse than opening up.

The take-away

The bottom line for you to take away from this post is that like me with my memoir writing, there are times in our daily life when we need to pause and listen to our instincts.

Know yourself.

In a world that has normalized voyeurism with a booming reality show industry, and saturates us daily with the most lurid, sensational headlines of a 24-hour news cycle—it’s not hard to see how our definition of ‘healthy boundaries” can get blurred.
As you navigate your way through your relationships—whether face-to-face or in the online world-- remember that your innermost feelings and private struggles deserve to be acknowledged in a way that makes you feel valued and understood. Especially when you're feeling vulnerable. 

But don’t confuse mere “vertical sharing”—pouring out your deepest feelings—to be the end-all. Yes, it can be cathartic. And a worthy risk.

But here’s the game-changer: the key to making it an uplifting experience is the response on the other end.
Value yourself enough to keep healthy emotional boundaries. And realize it's these clear boundaries that will help you choose the ‘right’ setting and listener--who will give you the kind of support you truly deserve.

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Feathered Nest Friday

* Dear Friends, I apologize for the weird fonts and spaces you see, I'm having real issues with Blogger.


Linda @ Itsy Bits And Pieces said...

This is such a helpful post, Leslie. Sometimes you just don't know how to respond...this makes me look at things in a new way. A mindshift...thank you for sharing with us!

Susan Nowell @ My Place to Yours said...

Leslie, I’m glad you’re still writing every day — and equally glad you’ve made the choice to not publish everything. That gives you the freedom to write “unguarded”—a therapy in and of itself. I’ve experienced the vertical and horizontal communications you’ve described so well here both as speaker and listener. Some of those experiences brought the dreaded awkwardness; others were times of healing. Your professional explanation brought insight into “what happened” during those times. It also encourages me to be more observant when in conversation with people: Is there a particular response they need from me? How can I respond in a way that results in comfort rather than regret? Lots to think about here ...

Art and Sand said...

Steve just shared an article in the Times with me as I was reading your post. I had just read the Kardashian vs Oprah part and it amazed me how your words fit exactly with what he had just read.

You are amazing my friend and I love how you make me think!

And, your neighbor shared with you because you are a listener. I too am a listener. People frequently share things with me that I am shocked to be hearing. Later I realize that the person knew I would listen, not necessarily have anything to say, but be there for them.

La Contessa said...

GREAT POINTERS............
I will try and do what you suggest HERE.

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