The pandemic — despite its horror and injustice — has had a few silver linings, one of them being that it’s forced us to have more uncomfortable conversations.
About whom to allow into our homes unmasked or — now — unvaccinated. About expectations. About personal boundaries.
I met my girlfriend on a dating app in the heart of the pandemic winter. When we talked about masks and social distancing for our first date, it felt like we were talking about condoms and STDs.
My shoulders tensed and my breath shortened. I was self-conscious about not appearing too careful but also not too careless.
I really think those early conversations helped us get real with each other faster than we would have otherwise.
We were able to practice setting boundaries and advocating for our needs right off the bat. We’re now more prepared for higher stakes conversations like when to move in together and whether to get a dog when we do. (My vote is “yes,” and it should be the best kind of dog, a standard poodle!)
That’s why what Tim Ferriss wrote in his book The 4-Hour Workweek is so true:
A person’s success in life can be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.
I’m not a fan of the notion of “success” — especially in our hyper-individualist capitalist society. But Ferriss’s point is that we grow substantially from the conversations we’d rather avoid.
Why we avoid uncomfortable conversations
Asking for a raise. Telling your partner what you want in bed. Being with someone who just lost their loved one. Confronting someone about their alcohol or drug use. Discussing STDs on a date. These types of conversations are going to bring up discomfort.
They’re going to trigger emotions like fear and anger. They’re going to put your body into fight-flight-freeze mode, pumping your nervous system with stress hormones, like you’re a prehistoric human facing down a saber-toothed tiger.
No wonder we duck and dodge them at all costs.
We people-please, trying to make someone give us what we want without us having to ask. We repress how we really feel until our resentment leaks out in little, petty, passive-aggressive ways. We blame and shame others for how we feel.
The common denominator is manipulation. We want people to feel a certain way about us. But we’d feel too much discomfort if we just said how we feel and named our needs outright.
We feel discomfort revealing our emotions because growing up we were told things like, “Man up. Boys don’t cry.” Or, “Don’t be too assertive, they’ll think you’re a bitch.” Or, “Don’t be too loud, you might get hurt.” Or, “Just keep quiet and work hard, you’ll eventually get everything you ever wanted.”
What if you just said how you feel and that’s it?
That’s why the antidote to the discomfort is honesty. Radical honesty. Clear, simple, vulnerable honesty.
Just say how you feel. That’s it. “I feel lonely.” “I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” Leave it at that.
No “you always do this” or “you always do that.” No blaming. No manipulation. Just say how you feel and let the other person take it in.
Better yet, borrow a tactic from the conflict resolution strategy nonviolent communication. Point to something the person did: “When you did X, I felt X.”
Don’t say, “When you do X…” or “You’re always doing X…” That will trigger them into not hearing you. Name a particular thing they did and how it made you feel. “When you changed the topic of our conversation, I felt like I wasn’t being seen and heard.” “When you stayed out late with your friends, I felt jealous.”
That way, you’re owning your feelings. You’re not blaming the other person for how you feel. But you’re also naming a boundary. “When you did X…” You’re giving the other person the opportunity to change their behavior rather than assuming they won’t without your manipulation.
If that person really values their relationship with you, they will get the message. If they don’t, it might hurt, but at least you know how they really feel.
Becoming more honest in your relationships will feel uncomfortable. But that discomfort is nothing compared to the chronic tension of trying to manipulate others into giving you what you really want — which never actually works.
As the poet Yung Pueblo writes:
Your relationships improve drastically and the tension in your mind decreases significantly when you can simply accept people for who they are instead of fixating on how they should change or be more like you.
Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and when it comes to politics here.