Emotional Honesty for Families
Getting beyond our defenses, vulnerabilities, and insecurities
Emotional Honesty: A critical skill for healthy relationships
How often are you honest–and I mean honest at the deepest level–about your emotions, with yourself, your partner, and your children? Even if you consider yourself to be an “honest person,” the act of bypassing your most essential truths for something that you assume is more palatable to your people is commonplace.
Emotional Honesty is a foundational skill to healthy relating. I’m always working on this topic with all my couples, and in every couples therapy session. Once you learn this skill, you might notice that when you name the thing that’s truest for you, it feels like you’re speaking to something previously unnamed. It hits so close to the bone.
My clients often want to know more about it, but Emotional Honesty is a pretty straightforward term. It means exactly what it sounds like. You’re being forthcoming about how you are feeling in real time. However, this simple expression of truth is often extremely hard to bring forward because our defenses, vulnerabilities, and insecurities are so often in the way. When we’re emotionally honest we’re not defended or defensive, we are not trying to prove our rightness or win any point. We are sharing from our heart in order to be most precisely understood.
Inherent inside of emotional honesty is safety. We must feel safe in ourselves and safe within the company with which we are sharing to share so vulnerably. The conditions and container for Emotional Honesty need to be co-created and fostered. Because we simply cannot share in this deep, honest way inside of a hostile environment.
Usually when we’re emotionally honest, it comes with a high degree of feeling. These feelings can lead to the clean-burning albeit “ugly crying” tears of speaking deep truth.
Ever found yourself feeling and behaving like your 8-year-old self? I have.
Early on in my relationship with my husband, before we were married, we were standing in the kitchen on a Sunday morning, chatting. At one point, he let me know something I had just said felt really shitty to him. What I had said and my tone had hurt him.
I became immediately and completely defensive. Instead of apologizing for my tone, I doubled down on the content I had said that hurt him. This time from a place of offensive defensiveness. Naturally, the negative dynamic escalated. Soon we were both yelling, and ended up needing to take space to regroup. A lovely Sunday morning… ruined.
When I coached myself in the bedroom, I noticed I was having all sorts of self-hating thoughts and feelings. I felt furious with myself and frustrated, but righteousness was my top feeling. It took a long time for me to calm my own defensive righteousness down, enough to see that an apology was in order and that of course it needed to come from me.
When I was finally able to apologize, what came out of my mouth surprised even me. In an unplanned act of emotional honesty, I looked my partner directly in the eyes and started to speak… but my words turned into sobs. Somehow I sobbed out the words, “I felt so bad that I hurt you, that I tried to turn it around on you to make it not true. I hated myself so much for hurting you, and was self attacking so thoroughly that I started attacking you just as viciously. I hate myself so much for how I treated you and I have no idea why I did it.”
At this point my partner softened. Not only had I inadvertently taken responsibility (accountability) for my behavior but I had validated his experience. He came closer to me and said, “What you said was hurtful but it wasn’t that big of a deal. Please don’t hurt yourself this much.” And of course, I sobbed more. He was consoling me for hurting him. I was confused but felt free and we were making real headway.
This was a major transition point in our relationship and in my world. Never before had I spoken to the core of what was happening for me in real time. I was always so adept at righteousness. And nimbly defensive to cover up my own pain. While my ugly cries felt incredibly vulnerable and raw, I simultaneously felt so whole, loved, loving, and in the right relationship. And hallelujah, we were healing in relationship.
The first few times we share in this way can feel epic or earth shattering. But it can become our go-to way of communicating, which is good, because it expedites interpersonal processes, drama-free. It cuts directly to the point without a lot of extra fallout.
How to cultivate this level of truth
We can live for decades without sharing in any Emotionally Honest way. There are so many work arounds! To get real with one another, we first have to be able to identify our feelings and emotions. For some people this could take years of therapeutic work. Cultivating Goleman’s skills of emotional intelligence underpins this effort, as you must be able to perceive, access and understand your own emotions in order to be honest about them.
(Important side note for safety: So many people are so emotionally wounded, and so emotionally immature, that they “other” their feelings altogether and try to live their lives from a place of “logic”. They may approach the topic of feelings with a smug superiority or even contempt for any emotion — their own and other people’s. To be clear, this approach must be rinsed out and healed before any attempts for Emotional Honesty can be made. Interfacing between yourself and someone who is emotionally illiterate is not a safe environment to practice this skill, and should be avoided because it only is damaging.)
Practice sharing Emotional Honesty in a safe therapeutic session first.
The most expeditious way to learn Emotional Honesty is with a facilitator — someone who can help track your nonverbal cues, your internal and external goings on, and who can skillfully point you toward parts of your deeper truth. SO that you can bring them into verbal expression and share them in real time.
With couples working through a rupture, I will often ask the more injured party to share inarguably what they feel in their body. After peeling back the layers, we find this typically includes shame, badness, not belonging, and a deep belief in being unloved or deeply flawed. There may be major insecurities about the partner or the situation. There are messy, complicated feelings that don’t always feel very “adult.”
If that person can identify and name their own feelings, naturally the partner can start to experience empathy and care toward the other’s suffering. Even if they themselves are the cause of that suffering. As the injured party feels the attuned empathy of the partner, they feel more solid in what they’ve shared and start to naturally feel more settled. Hey can then start to relate to their partner from a more resourced place will full access to the neocortex- their rational, relational thinking part of the brain.
Once you’ve mastered your own Emotional Honesty, practice with a skilled partner.
With practice and a deep sense of safety, more sharing of cognitive thoughts and feelings can lead to a meeting of the minds and hearts. The partner can offer solid validation now, with the embodied data of what is occurring for their partner and perhaps even offer an apology, explanation, or opportunity to repair.
As a newly Emotionally Honest person receives the great relational benefit of having shared something so core and vulnerable, they feel more whole, more satisfied. They grow empowered to be emotionally honest the next time and with less complication.
Emotional Honesty serves us well as parents
When you have a solid practice or skill set of emotional honesty, you’ll find so much freedom as a couple and as parents. If we’re leading from an Emotionally Honest place, it makes giving feedback to our children so much easier.
Rather than going into a lengthy explanation, becoming critical, or doling out harsh punishments or consequences for “poor behavior,” we can simply tell our kids how we are impacted by their words or actions. This is generally enough — because at heart, our kids want to do good. They have natural empathy, especially when they are young, before their own personal wounding makes them more defensive and strategic.
Getting real is our path to healing ourselves, our partners, and our world
Healing by sharing what is deeply true for us is the #1 benefit of conscious relationships as explained by author and couples therapist Harville Hendrix. It’s the healing of childhood wounds through our most intimate partnerships.
The close proximity to historic wounds is another reason why a trained facilitator can be of benefit in this area. Often our Emotionally Honest shares have roots in the past and come with a really high emotional charge related to our historic unhealed “stuff.” The injuries that keep us from being honest pertain to the “now” and to the “then” of our lives.
Being Emotionally Honest may take concerted effort, but ultimately it can help to heal you and your family’s future generations, too. Want to practice the skills of Emotional Honesty? Join the Fulfilled Family Fellowship.
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Lesley’s virtual private therapy practice is centered on conscious, attuned parenting.
The greatest dedication in my life is to my children, Jude and Gold. Raising emotionally intelligent boys is my contribution to this planet. Additionally, after 10 years in private practice seeing both couples and individuals struggle with wounds from their own parenting and issues around raising their own children, I’ve found that helping clients to parent in a more attuned and securely attached manner absolutely lights me up. Following the thread of what is most alive in my personal and professional lives helped me crystalize the idea to introduce conscious parenting as the focus of my practice. ~ Lesley Glenner