Owning Up: Emotional Honesty

This is a two-part series on owning up, honesty, and emotional transparency. In the first part, I discuss my confessional-box heritage growing up as a Roman Catholic. I then go on to cover the contrasting role of therapy in helping me to be more honest about myself.

In the second part of this two-part series, I will discuss the significance of recovery meetings in opening me up to my daily emotions and behaviors and my on going relationships in sobriety. As they say in the rooms, “it ain’t over until it’s really over.”

Governments will often hide its dirty little secrets behind the mantel of “national security.” Corporations and large institutions (including churches) seem to like silence because they fear a customer backlash, a class-action suit, or media exposure. Or they often cover up a questionable ethical policy with public relations departments which have mastered the art of linguistic subterfuge.

And, in the world of advertising, truth is often enhanced with glowing images of a product or service in order to dull the minds and senses of a potential customer.

Closer to home, families often hold on to their own white-elephant-in-the-living-room secrets to protect a family member or to defend their we’re-just-a-happy-little-family public image.

So, when do we learn to “own up” to our own truths? I’m not talking about a factual transcription of a mortgage transaction or a detailed “and-then-we-did-this-and-then-we-did-that” description of a cruise to the Caribbean. Or a lengthy machine-gun rant about how a husband “ripped me off of my alimony.”

I grew up in a Roman Catholic confessional-box culture. I was taught, as a child, to “own up” to my sins, to tell on myself in a dark box of a room with only a punctured out plastic window divider between me and the priest. And I was always in the kneeling position, my hands held in prayer resting on a small shelf as I weekly went through the “bless-me-father-for-I-have-sinned” Saturday afternoon ritual.

Confession became nothing more than a repeated drive-through experience of quantifying my generic indiscretions, bundling them into mathematically accepted mantras (“I swore five times”; “I had impure thoughts a couple times a day”; “I talked back to my parents six times”).

That I was at least telling someone else my faults could not redeem the confessional tradition from a ritual that had atrophied into a meaningless weekly habit. What had begun as a method for revealing my human frailties had become nothing more than a manufactured deference to a religious institution that was more interested in retaining its dogmatic hold over a docile group of followers than in any pursuit of genuine spiritual growth.

The confessional box also became symptomatic of a religion steeped in the “wretch-like-me” psychology of man’s essential depravity and human weakness. Since we “sinned all, in Adam’s Fall,” as the old saying goes, there was not much possibility for any of us to get out of the miasma of the “seven deadly sins” aside from cleansing our sins in a weekly ritual.

Sin had literally dominated my entire self-knowledge world when I was growing up. Everything in my spiritual life was measured by what sin I had committed or avoided. My religion had reduced me to a tainted being more inclined to the back alleyways of imperfection than the open beaches of innocence.

Over time, I began to realize that my life was much bigger than the daily Armageddon battles of good and evil, that some anthropomorphic devil wasn’t patting me on the shoulder trying to seduce me into another one-night stand, or that a sky-god had outsourced a good angel to gently guide me on some Biblical path of righteousness.

As an adult, I also began to realize that telling a clerical father-figure about my sins did little to make me really honest about myself. Revealing all those trite violations of a few selected commandments, I discovered, was a very narrow-window of psychological transparency. Confession was never about getting to know the real me; it was all about the restless sinner-in-me always struggling to wrench its soul from the clutches of evil.

In the end, confession could never deal with the hard-core, existential and immediate questions that continue to plague me: Why am I pissed off so much today? Why am I refusing to admit I’m lonely? Why am I afraid of getting old? Why do I set up a scene that will disengage me from a friendship or a relationship? Why am I complaining more this week? Why am I obsessed with being perfect? Why do I want to run out the door when a friend in a restaurant admits they’re feeling depressed? Why am I screaming at the television this morning?

A year into my retirement, I went to a therapist. This was nothing new. Therapy has always had a kind of allure for me. I suspect that it added to the narrative I created about myself that I was different, that my perspectives about the world were unique, that I had some kind of inner self that no one could possibly understand, and, of course, that I was too deep for anyone to figure out. (I think many men of my generation loved to think of themselves as deep and secretive. After all, “still waters run deep,” don’tcha know.)

During the first year of my retirement, I began to realize that something about my life was different. It was a new rite of passage that I had no preparation for. In retrospect, I had no clue that I was more afraid than I thought I was at the time.

I simply told myself I needed a therapist to guide me through it. Nothing new there; I had always gone to a therapist when I was in a crisis. And, in the back of my mind, I thought that a therapist would confirm some vague notion I had at the time that I could be a writer. I was looking, of course, for validation or some way that my therapist would help me to discover what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

Seven years later, I discovered sides of me that no confessor would have ever revealed. I actually began to internalize just how deep my fears and insecurities were. And, for the first time in my life, I could finally accept the fact that my battle with intimacy would be an ongoing one. And that was okay.

I also learned to accept that I could be obsessed with many people and still move on. My life could exist very bountifully without any of the persons I had imagined could be potential partners. I even began to acknowledge and accept that living without a partner can have its own legitimacy, that being alone doesn’t have to mean social isolation.

There is no commandment, and there is no list of “seven deadly sins” that addresses intimacy issues on any deep level. One Old Testament line, “it is not good for man to be alone” is just too fraught with all the other reproduction mandates that have come from so many pulpits over the centuries.

There is also no Bible or institutional church that could possibly have any relevance to many of us who will continue to avoid partnerships because the fear of abandonment is just too powerful in our lives. Could a clergyman actually find a religious solution for those of us who would always find reasons for ending a relationship by sabotaging it? And what category of sin would that come under?

Talking about commandments and deadly sins to those who believe that intimate partnered relationships may just be too fraught with our own unresolved issues just doesn’t hack it.

In the end, therapy has helped me to accept the fact that a life without a partner can be fulfilling, that I don’t need a significant other to fill out John’s rough edges.

I have also discovered that there are many other venues for intimacy that don’t need to be limited to a partnered relationship—honest friends, support-group meetings, counselors, in particular. Those same venues have made it possible for me to “open up” on levels I never thought were possible.

Over the years I have been in partnered-relationships, I began to find out that partners are often the last persons I opened up intimate secrets with; the partnership either lived on a kind of domestic, don’t-share-anything-really-personal energy or descended into same-old, same old practical actions—going to the store, taking out the garbage, looking for sales, getting a mortgage, buying a car, picking out furniture.

In looking around at the relationships I see many of my friends in, I see the same pattern of silent domesticity, except on the practical, day-to-day tasks. Therapy taught me, if anything, that I have the right to make the decision to stay out of the world of partnered relationships but, at the same time, keep connected to others and not to isolate

In the seven years of therapy, I also learned that I have been the great escape artist from real, primal, down-to-earth feelings which, over time, I have learned to actually feel.

I vividly remember my therapist often slipping into the conversation a simple question, “John, what are you feeling right now?” I had two reactions. I rationalized that the therapy room was an artificial setting and was no place to reveal hard-core emotions. I also believed that feelings were supposed to be the effects of therapy, that they had no place in what I continued to feel was a “professional” setting, not a real one.

It took me a long time to understand that a therapy session was real, that my therapist wasn’t just a hired professional, that the weekly sessions weren’t just practice conferences, intellectual têtes-à-têtes, or coffee-house klotches.

Over time, my therapist made it very clear to me that she knew I was good at analyzing. I could dissect my motives. I could deconstruct someone else’s agendas. I could capture all the subtleties of a fictional character’s behavior. I could spot inauthenticity. I could prove someone wrong with the speed of an Olympic sprinter.

What I couldn’t do, initially, was to actually have a feeling in my therapist’s office. I had reduced my meetings with her to analysis sessions where I would clinically dissect my behavior or give her a blow-by-blow description of a conflict I was having with my daughter, a contractor, a music director.

In the initial sessions, when she asked me to tell her what I was feeling, I would pull back into another intellectual-analytical mode and try to figure out exactly what I was feeling. And then I would often be reduced to simply telling her, “I don’t know.”

It took me many years to be open with my therapist about what I was actually feeling: that I was afraid of retirement, that I had fallen hopelessly in love with another illusion, that I was angry with a contractor, that I was resentful of happy couples, that I still hung on to an anger I had with my deceased father when he testified at my marriage annulment proceedings on behalf of my ex-wife.

This was all new emotional-transparency territory for me, the topography that, over the years, has become more and more familiar and comfortable. And it continues to be reality-based.




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