gecnawað þaet soð is

“Recognize what the truth is,” Old English. From a sermon in 1014 by Archbishop Wulfstan.

Clichés usually annoy me, but an exception to this is when I see an oft-repeated phrase in a new light. Today that phrase was “the truth will set you free.” I’ve always interpreted it as talking about finding out the Truth. Living in illusion makes your vision of reality cloudy, of course. Realizing the Truth sets you free of the chains that have been holding you back. There’s of course the original Biblical context, said by Jesus, and then there’s the modern twist, “The truth will set  you free, but first it will piss you off.” Both of these to me clearly are talking about a general Truth.

What I realized today is how meaningful this phrase can be to me as someone who has a lifetime of practice of repressing my emotions and hiding my feelings. A main thing that makes me suffer is my habit of holding my tongue when someone hurts me. Often their offense is unintentional, so I don’t feel justified speaking up—it’s me who’s being overly sensitive, after all. I’ve lived my life by the idea that it’s better to mitigate pain by staying silently hurt instead of holding the offender accountable: after all, if I don’t speak up, only one person is hurt, while if I do, then two people might be.

I’ve held myself back so much by neglecting to recognize choices that I have. I haven’t acknowledged my options. I fallaciously think that there is only one (negative) outcome for a hypothetical action; I assume it will turn out badly, so I don’t even think about doing it. Instead, I should use my creativity and imagination to think about how it could actually turn out well. To use a specific example: Someone might hurt my feelings unintentionally. When I get the inclination to speak up and express that, I assume that they will not understand and will lash out at me for being too sensitive, then stay mad at me for an extended period of time. Then we will both be in a bad mood. Really, they could actually be receptive. There are also multiple ways for me to speak up; for example, usually focusing on my feelings is more effective and well received than focusing on the other person’s actions.

Anyway, back to the phrase. For so long, I haven’t even considered that speaking the truth of how I feel could turn out well. Part of it is selectively remembering times when I actually dared to be honest about my feelings and it didn’t turn out well, and a huge part of it is my people pleasing habits. I have always derived my idea of self worth from other people’s approval of me. I have made myself generically “nice” and often bland so as to fit in and be liked by most people. I have blamed myself always if someone was upset with what I said, no matter how well meaning or seemingly innocuous. Recently, I’ve been able to start to shed this harmful paradigm and realize that I have so much less control over others’ emotions than I had previously thought. I have begun to acknowledge that often no matter what I do, I cannot satisfy certain people. One saying regarding this that I like: “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there will still be somebody who hates peaches.”

Due to being a people pleaser, I have always avoided conflict. The minute I realize something I say could lead to a disagreement, I shut down and dismiss the idea of saying that thing. Only now have I begun to say, “OK, so the other person disagrees. Then what can we do? What can I say next?” This coincides with realizing I can speak the truth of how I feel. It’s an option! It’s not the end of the world if the other person doesn’t understand!

I’ve been reading a very helpful book about people pleasing that pointed out that the habit of blaming ourselves for others’ reactions every time comes from an erroneous view that life is fair. (There are a lot of things I see are illogical, and I can accept that mentally, but emotionally I reject it. This is one of those things.) If someone overreacts to what we say even though we were as reasonable and diplomatic as possible, that can be distressing because it shows that life isn’t fair. To protect ourselves from this harsh truth, some of us blame ourselves for the outcome. We cling to the idea that somehow there was something we could have done better. If we just do it better next time, they won’t react unfairly. This preserves the idea that life is fair; it just means we who screwed up.

Anyway (again), I had this thought today that seeing the option of being honest about my feelings is so freeing to me. I can speak the truth, and it can set me free, no matter how the other person reacts! This is honestly a startling revelation to me. For the longest time I’ve always blamed myself if someone else didn’t understand a point I was trying to make. If I couldn’t convince them, it was my fault. Now I’m finally seeing that maybe they’re just narrow minded or stubborn! Thanks to the internet, I see this all the time: people just naturally avoid information that contradicts their deeply-held beliefs, and they will squirm and wriggle around any point you make, no matter how well crafted, in order to avoid being wrong. It’s unfair to me to always judge myself based on someone else’s willingness to listen and understand! That is out of my control.