Or not private enough?

“Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.” It’s an old and wise saying. When there are problems at home, at work, at school, in a friendship, whatever – it’s not usually a good idea to just share those problems willy-nilly with anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. While that’s true, the lesson is all too often misapplied.  It doesn’t mean you should NEVER talk to anyone about those things; it means you should be selective. Here’s what I mean.

In today’s society there seem to be two extremes at play when it comes to communication and sharing your feelings. The first extreme is that people share everything, no matter how trivial, odd or indicative of any weakness they may have. The movements toward creating safe spaces, prohibiting “hurtful” words and such all stem from folks who spend their every waking moment (outside the bathroom at least) talking about how challenged they are in dealing with life. This word hurts them. This image is painful. They didn’t get a good enough grade on such and such test because the teacher made it too hard and now the students need a stress-recovery session that the college should pay for. Little Johnny’s baseball team didn’t win the championship but they all got awards anyway and are invited to the victory banquet because we can’t have them “feeling like losers.” The end result is people who have zero skill at managing loss, challenge, difficulty, hurt feelings, etc.

The second extreme is the group of people who share next to nothing. They keep every challenge, every hurt, every doubt, every… anything, to themselves. They don’t talk about problems; they make it a point to do their best to never make a negative statement about their life or their circumstances. The challenge then becomes that their friends and family often don’t really know what’s going on in their lives. Part of good stress management skills is knowing what you can talk about with whom and hopefully those people you trust with the information can give you feedback on how to deal with whatever challenge(s) you’re facing. Interestingly, while people in this category often don’t share because “they don’t want to burden others with their bullshit,” the friends and family members end up feeling like they don’t even truly know the person.

So what’s the happy middle ground? As a general rule, if there’s a challenge in a relationship – whether it’s a romantic relationship or a close friendship – that’s not something you air publicly. Those kinds of challenges should only be discussed with others who you have equally close relationships with and a high respect for, as well as the trust they can keep such information confidential. Few things are worse than thinking you can trust someone to keep your private issues private only to find out that they’ve aired them for you… on a billboard, newspaper front page, your favorite website, etc. Carefully select those you trust but once you’ve identified them, don’t hesitate to communicate with them. If you trust them, then you have a sufficiently close friendship that you can share your challenges and they’ll give you valuable feedback, guidance, advice, etc.

If, instead, what you have a challenge with is work, school, your car, whatever… those challenges can be discussed but your approach depends on who you’re talking to. If it’s a trusted friend or family member then see the paragraph above. If it’s someone who doesn’t fall into that trusted friend/family member category, then your approach has to be tempered. Rather than couching it as a complaint or challenge, you present it as an interest in educating yourself; learning a new approach; fine tuning your understanding. The approach is: “I’ve experienced this recently and I’m not sure I know or have experience with the best option in managing it or dealing with it. What do you think? Am I missing something? Can you offer any insight?”

The second approach is tempered so that you neither come across as complaining needlessly nor “airing your dirty laundry in public.” What you’re doing is discussing a topic and looking for input. This is something any intelligent person does if they are open minded and humble enough to do so.



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