Have you ever had the experience of someone deciding that the best way to have a relationship with you is to “be honest?” Usually this means the person wants to tell you how they “really feel.” This most often involves telling you what is wrong with you. If you protest that they are upsetting you, they usually tell you that you can’t have a relationship that is “really real” unless people can be honest with each other instead of being “fake.”
The problem is, most inner states are complex and multi-determined, and a person needs a certain amount of self-reflection to see where he or she is trying to feel better by criticizing another person. In other words, if someone says, “You made me mad,” it might take some time to unpack all the meanings in that person’s mind that led to him or her feeling angry. Sometimes another person’s perspective is helpful, but sometimes it is not. Relationships provide a way for us to grow and to know ourselves better, but they can also be distorting and destructive. Ultimately we have the responsibility for working to understand our own minds, for deciding what reflections we will accept about ourselves that come from another person, and for choosing how, when, and with whom we want to engage in that difficult growth process.
Caregiving relationships–those with our parents or therapists–exist for the purpose of facilitating our growth. All other relationships are not primarily for that purpose. They are for the purpose of enjoying the relationship. So the activity within the relationship should be directed in ways that will increase the enjoyment of both people in being together.
Sharing our inner experience is one way of building intimacy and enjoying knowing another person and being known by that person. But it can be difficult to recognize when we are sharing our inner experience and when we are manipulating that experience to make ourselves feel better. The ultimate question is: what is our intention in telling someone what we are perceiving.
At this point, an example may help. Suppose that I have agreed to meet with someone at a coffee shop at 10. This person arrives at 10:25 saying traffic was terrible. I might be angry or I might be hurt or I might be unfazed. I could be sensitive to being kept waiting and I could assume that this person does not take me seriously. I could feel wronged and disrespected. My experience of this loss is a result of my own history. While it is true that there is a genuine loss, my response should ideally be proportional to the actual loss and not exaggerated. In other words, directing a lot of anger or hurt at the person who gave me the loss might be at some superficial level “honest” since that is how I am really feeling, but it is not honest because it is not reflectively considering how much of my reaction is created not by the loss that person gave me but by the meanings I attach to it.