Quoterday – Love, Trust, and Suffering

If you don’t tell the person you love of your suffering, it means you don’t love this person enough to trust her.

-Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love

This is my defining struggle today.  I struggle to love because I struggle to trust people with vulnerability.

Expressions of vulnerability (doled out gradually with gently rising intensity) are the key ingredients when cooking up emotional intimacy.  If we never reveal glimpses of our softer sides to others, then to them we are not people. We are robots.

For years I have trapped myself with toxic thinking.

“Put on a fun face.  No one cares about your worries or concerns.”

“Don’t bring the room down.  No one likes a negative person.”

“What if friends think you’re weird?  What if you scare them away?

I know I am not alone in these thoughts.  Why do we think this way? 

For one, a zero-tolerance negativity policy has a grain of truth.  A significant body of evidence suggests that optimistic people have more robust social networks than their pessimistic counterparts.

However, this thinking errs in two major ways.  

First, it is easy to equate optimism with positivity and pessimism with negativity.  But true optimism may have a more nuanced definition.  Optimism does not imply delusional positivity in the face of adverse circumstances.

“My girlfriend dumped me, I’m behind on my bills, and I’m this {} close to losing my job.  How wonderful!”

Authentic optimism does mandate that we deny the gravity of situations.  It doesn’t even demand that we feel good at all times.

“My girlfriend dumped me, I’m behind on my bills, and I’m this {} close to losing my job.  But complaining won’t make things better. What can I do tomorrow to improve my quality of life?”

Sharing our suffering with others does not have to be a mood-dampening experience.  We can approach our problems with maturity and grace, accepting our circumstances while shifting attention towards a potential positive interpretation.  This kind of vulnerability and emotional maturity can endear ourselves to others.

My second error is assuming that just because some equanimity and strength can engender friendship, then all tranquility all the time is optimal.  Sometimes, relationships benefit from opening up when we are “not okay.”  Granted, this is a payoff that must be earned.  If we open our emotional floodgates full-bore, we may overwhelm others.

John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, studies married couples and how they deal with conflict.  He writes of a “golden ratio” in which happy couples tend to report 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative response.  Surprisingly, he says a ratio that is too positivity-heavy may also bode poorly for a relationship.

Any couple who reports having “zero concerns or spats” likely conceals at least some unexpressed conflicts.  While letting negatively flow like a faucet endangers a relationship, building resentment from unexamined conflicts may prove equally toxic.

To be vulnerable is to be human.  While emotionally bulletproof individuals may be interesting for a moment, infallible heroes become tiresome.  Invulnerability is not relatable.

So if we want to truly love other people, we need to trust that those people will love us for the entirety of our being.  This does not mean that other people will see us as perfect – flaws and all.  In fact, unashamedly admitting imperfection is a crucial component of love.  

“I’m not perfect.” 

“You’re not perfect.” 

“But it’s okay.  I like you anyway.”

I went to Naejangsan with friends.  Even though it rained, I loved that day – flaws and all.

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