The next step to happiness is honesty with others. Yes we’ve all heard this story before, but let us stop and think about it for a moment. It’s common to hide things from other people. As we grow, we learn to present a certain face to show the world and keep our real thoughts to ourselves. Why? It’s because we want to be more easily accepted. By appearing friendly and meeting people’s expectations, we are seen in a positive light and more easily able to get what we want from others, whether it’s for attention or favors. For example what child hasn’t acted like an angel to get something from their parents? This kind of manipulation further develops as we mature, and it extends to our everyday interactions as well.
So we put on this mask because it’s more likely to get what we desire and because other people do it too. Whether this pressure is due to society’s expectations and/or our hesitance to reveal cracks in the old armor, this creates a wall between us and other people. This barrier may protect our identities from being exposed to other people’s judgments and negative reactions, but it also prevents us from empathizing and connecting with people. Obviously, you do not have to understand everyone to be happy, and you can get by simply being friendly with most people. However, everyone needs at least a few people who they can be themselves with and who truly understands them. Perhaps it is because of our social nature, but we all long for that deep connection in our lives, a role that is filled with family and loved ones. Without it, I fear what’s precious inside of us dries up and withers away. If we push others away and never let anybody get close, we may be able to protect ourselves for the time being, but it comes at the cost of forming close bonds with other people.
So then should we open ourselves to every stranger that we come across? If you decide to, you are braver than I, for we have developed these self-defense mechanisms for a very real reason. We seek to protect ourselves because in today’s society because people do judge us, sometimes with negative results. Even if we are completely honest and have good intentions, people may still misunderstand what we mean because their experiences will interpret that same action a different way. Whether we want to or not, our past experiences frame our current perspective through which we view the world, and since we all have unique experiences, everyone views the same reality a little differently (to be later expanded more in the “Empathy” section). Additionally, we are naturally self-centered through the way we view the world, so it’s easy to misinterpret someone else’s actions if we don’t first consider the possibility of them imparting a meaning different from our original interpretation. And so, people hide their thoughts from us and vice versa in an effort to conform to ‘normal’ expectations, to climb the social ladder, and to avoid being judged. In an ideal world, we may one day not have to worry about such things, but this is the reality we currently live in. So what should we do?
I can’t say this is the ultimate solution for everybody, but I know what’s truly important for myself is to form deeply connected relationships with at least a few people. So while I also wear a face at work and at unfamiliar social situations, I try as much as possible to be open to forming those honest relationships. As I mentioned before, it is typical to be on friendly terms with most people but try to at least have one or two people who you can talk with honestly and deeply, who know you and who you can rely on. And support them in return—because those are the kinds of people worth having in your life.
I know it’s much easier said than done. Even if we feel confident in our identities and abilities one moment, it can all evaporate in the next, and the hardest part of all this is staying true to your beliefs when you are feeling emotionally and physically drained or, worse, apathetic. It takes constant effort and commitment to your goals. But even then, we all face our moments of doubt. We’ve all experienced periods of loneliness one way or another, moving away from friends and family, physically or emotionally. The isolation alone in our minds can be a dangerous environment where self-doubt can grow without restraint, a place where our mind starts to deteriorate. That’s why it’s so important to connect with others and have people who have your back, and people who understand you and help you reach your potential. And you start by forming those friendships with honesty.
Now we have explored why it’s important to be honest with others due to ‘self-centered’ reasons, but I also want to explore the other side of the spectrum—those who may not open up due to ‘selfless’ reasons. I don’t expect as many to have this issue, but for those who are inherent givers, this may be helpful.
A dear friend has trouble saying “no”. Growing up, she was always taught to put others first and herself last. She was taught helping others was important, and it became a source of pride for her–pride in how humble and helpful one can be. Over the years, this had become cemented in her personality, and she couldn’t refuse requests for help even when she was struggling to take care of herself. It got to the point where she had to constantly be productive or else she would feel guilty for wasting time that could be spent helping others. I believe she also derived part of her self-worth from her perceived ‘usefulness’ to others. She knew it wasn’t the healthiest, but it had been ingrained in her mind for so long things were hard to change. Since then, she’s been trying to find out what is best for her and the best way to set up boundaries with other people. I’m proud that she is striving to carve out her own path to be happier. Also, you can’t take care of others if you don’t first take care of yourself.
Generally speaking, helping others is a positive thing, but there are always two things to keep in mind: (1) does offering help make sense and (2) does helping them bring any unreasonable negative consequences to you. The former is about pursuing the best outcome. I personally believe in helping other people when I can because I would want others to do the same for me. However, it’s not uncommon for selfless people to be taken advantage of when they have a difficult time in denying requests. Whether it is done intentionally or not, there will always be people who take advantage of other people’s generosity, and then the situation becomes unproductive and detrimental for both parties involved. An old Chinese adage comes to mind: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” So rather than providing someone help temporarily, act in a way to bring about the best results from the situation. If someone consistently relies on others, they will only become more dependent and more demanding. Isn’t it better to have them learn for themselves and grow from the experience? Even if it’s painful—especially if it’s painful—it is better to get it over with now rather than let the issue become more unmanageable in the future. For the latter, what was the generosity of a favor turns into entitlement, and the pressure from and resentment for the other person will only grow.
How do we determine these boundaries then? It can be tough to determine the right move because we do not always understand the whole situation. But from my experience, communicating with the other party ends up working out the best. Talking upfront and honestly can save a lot of frustration, and by understanding the other person’s situation, you can in turn be honest about your own and whether you can and want to help them. It’s important to be honest with how you are doing too. After all, you can’t take care of others if you don’t first take care of yourself.