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Adulting 101: I am unlearning and relearning how to express my feelings after a lifetime of anxiety

SINGAPORE — Once, teatime with a close friend turned into an argument, because she took offence at a remark I made.

This TODAY reporter said that he finds it difficult to express his honest opinions so vulnerably due to a fear of offending people, which stems from having to cater to temperamental people close to him since early childhood.

This TODAY reporter said that he finds it difficult to express his honest opinions so vulnerably due to a fear of offending people, which stems from having to cater to temperamental people close to him since early childhood.

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SINGAPORE — Once, teatime with a close friend turned into an argument, because she took offence at a remark I made.

The offensive statement?  

"I am okay. Just relaxing myself."

I said this while teary-eyed and clearly affected by woes relating to family and personal life, believing that by putting on a brave front, I was being a responsible friend.

When she took offence, I explained: "If I told you clearly and exactly what I felt, I would be burdening you with my issues."

Far from being convinced, she replied that if I were more direct and honest to my friends about how I really felt, I would be more respected.

I was not entirely taken aback hearing her words. It was not the first time I had had people remarking that they didn't think they were getting the "real" me.

I used to wonder what they were making a fuss about, but this week, I decided to tackle the issue head on by speaking to therapists about why I find it so difficult to express my honest feelings so vulnerably, even to the people I love most.

HOW IT BEGAN

Truth be told, this difficulty comes from a fear of offending people, which stems from having to accommodate to temperamental people close to me since early childhood.

Feeling rattled and anxious most of the time, I grew up believing that people constantly need to hear calming, soothing words and that I should never rock the boat with harsh truths.

So even as I got older, whenever I was asked a question about anything, from what food I would like to what movie I would like to watch, I would demur and say things like, “You choose”, thinking that it would make the person happier.

At times, I tried to cover up my inadequate actions with words. For example, when I forgot to do my homework, I would tell teachers that I had done it but did not take it to school, thinking that this would make them less angry. In the end, it made no difference. 

Another manifestation of my people-pleasing ways was that I would over-extend myself. I would, for example, agree to help out in co-curricular activities at school but then fall short of my promises.

In university, I could not manage all my commitments and failed to allocate enough time to project work, earning the ire of my teammates.

Throughout the years, my communication style turned roundabout and awkward. I even found myself resorting to lies in order to avoid causing further offence to people I had angered. 

And conversely, I also found myself seeking validation and comfort from other people’s words.

This meant that I ended up giving more priority to people who said what I loved to hear, but who did not truly understand me and my values. I allowed myself to be cajoled by these people into several unpleasant situations.

Over time, I realised that this was unhealthy and as I started correcting several of these habits, I grew to treasure direct and straightforward communication from friends and loved ones.

Yet, I still could not bring myself to deliver the same in return.

BUILDING INDIVIDUAL SAFETY AND COMFORT

Ms Theresa Pong, counselling director of The Relationship Room, said that generally, how comfortable an individual is with being open to another depends on a concept called “Differentiation of Self (DoS)”.  

It is important for individuals to have a strong sense of DoS because it helps them maintain their own thoughts and emotions even in the face of pressure from people around them, she said.

“In other words, if we are able to develop a strong DoS, it means that we are able to recognise our needs and wants and maintain our individuality (personal identity) and not lose ourselves in the process of protecting the relationship with the other party," Ms Pong explained.

Individuals with a higher level of DoS are less likely to conform to the needs and wants of others if it goes against their own interest, and they are more likely to stand up for themselves.

So how does one develop a solid DoS?

“First, you may wish to take time to reflect on who you are and how you want to live your life," Ms Pong said. "Having an understanding of these areas is the first step to developing a healthy self." 

Second, she said, be aware of who you are and do not change according to whose company you keep.

Third, she added, think long-term.

“For instance, ask yourself, 'If I continue to stay this way, holding my emotions and not sharing my frustration, what will happen to me and this relationship?'"

She added that for people who find it difficult to develop a strong sense of DoS on their own, they could seek professional help, perhaps from a counsellor or therapist.

On opening up to others, psychotherapist Narasimman Tivasiha Mani said that individuals who are more passive in their communication style usually fail to express their feelings or needs, allowing others to express themselves.

"They might behave indifferently or yield to others to avoid confrontation or conflict," he added.

People also adopt a more passive communication style when they feel threatened or do not feel psychologically safe, he noted. 

This means that they might withhold information, which can then lead to misunderstandings or an inaccurate representation of the situation, he said.

To break this pattern, he advised taking ownership of one's thoughts and feelings by using “I” statements, such as “I feel frustrated when you speak to me in that tone”.

This communicates ownership of feelings and behaviours without blaming the other individual, he explained.

He also noted the importance of communicating one's boundaries safely, and learning to simply say "no".

A person also has to be mindful of their own emotional state when faced with a difficult conversation, he added, because it is important to be calm while communicating assertively.

Ms Stephanie Tak, a counsellor with Mind What Matters, a psychological consultancy, said that self-love is ultimately the foundation to making the change.

"Remind yourself that you are enough just as you are! Your truth should be enough for those who love you," she said.

"Even though what you say may not immediately please the other person, being dishonest about what you really think or want is denying yourself of what you think matters."

While I find it relatively easy to practise these changes in ordinary, low-pressure situations, I think that the true test will lie in high-pressure situations.

Will I be able to hold on to these newly acquired values during periods of heightened anxiety or will I crumble? Only time will tell. 

I have to admit I find it embarrassing that even though I am in my 30s, I am still figuring out how to communicate like an adult. 

Yet, I have also found that the pain of growing can itself be profoundly calming.

Janarthanan Krishnasamy is a TODAY journalist who writes about health, sports, community and social issues and the arts.

Related topics

Adulting 101 anxiety communication relationships friends family

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