How not to turn away others just for being myself?
December 20, 2009 9:06 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with coming into my own without alienating those I love?

I've been depressed for many years and only now am coming to terms with it, planning on seeking therapy in the coming year, and trying to express my own personality, in small doses at first, with others. However, some people, most notably my family, seem to be taking my newly expressed personality badly. I don't consider myself a a particularly bad person, but even showing that I'm anything other than perfectly content seems to cause conflict.

I've always been the good son. The unassuming obedient child of the family that did what was expected of me and my family loves this happy perfect persona I've kept up for many years. But it's just not me. My whole life I've felt trapped into being this person and am trying to slowly bring my real personality out into the open among those I trust. But I've found that as I start to open up to more of my real self to others, the people that know "me" seem further away than ever. How do I become more of than the false idea of myself I used to project without driving others away? And how do I deal with a family that knows me only for what I've represented myself as, but not as a person with any real human emotions?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
What are the characteristics of the "newly expressed personality"? How and when are you revealing these characteristics, and to whom?

I suspect that you're radically changing what your family has come to expect from you, and depending upon what you're asking them to accept, may be either doing so inappropriately or too suddenly. That doesn't invalidate who you are, but you don't need to (a) reveal everything, or (b) reveal everything all at once. We all adopt certain personae within certain contexts; my family might know that I have a liberal perspective, for example, but I might choose to not engage in political arguments in front of my mother for the sake of family harmony.

Like many relationships, compromise and discretion usually result in family harmony, and your personality won't be forever changed by either.
posted by ellF at 9:22 AM on December 20, 2009

You can only control your own behaviour. You cannot control the behaviour of others. Always remember this.

People don't always like change. Sometimes it's good, but sometimes they have to deal with something being different to how it's been for many long years. This takes time and exposure. Your family is still expecting you to be the "unassuming obedient child of the family that did what was expected of you". They haven't yet adapted to the new you.

Right now it's like a birthing process, for both parties. There's blood and tears, metaphorically speaking, but soon it will all be over.

Just keep being you, the you you want to be. In time, they'll come round and accept it. Don't base your actions on what they say and do and expect of you. Also don't base them on how they react to the newer ones. Just keep being you. And if they love you, they'll accept you for who you are.
posted by Solomon at 9:33 AM on December 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree with ellF that the way in which and the degree to which you're changing the way you relate to them matters. They may simply be startled and need more time to get used to the change. However, you may also need to accept that some people won't like the real you as much as they liked the fake you. Some people may value you because you've always been pliable and easy to get along with, and they're not going to like anything that makes you less agreeable or less passive. Those people aren't really looking out for your best interests, and part of learning to stand on your own and be yourself is going to have to be learning not to care so much what other people, including people you love, think of you. So yes, be considerate of their feelings and try not to spring this on them all at once, but also be confident that you're doing the best thing for you and that the people who really care about your well-being will eventually come around.

I'm not sure whether you've done this, but it may help to talk explicitly with those closest to you about what's going on. It's possible that they're concerned about the sudden personality changes just because they're sudden and unexpected. The changes may be easier for them if you're able to sit them down and say, "I know that I've always been quiet and easygoing, but I've also been really unhappy with my life for a long time. I'm trying now to stand up for myself a little more in an effort to improve my life. I love you all, and I hope that you'll all be there to help and support me as I try to figure out who I am and what I really want in life."
posted by decathecting at 9:38 AM on December 20, 2009

First: congratulations on acknowledging that you're depressed and starting the healing process. I hope that you find a good therapist.

YMMV, but I turned the corner on my own depression / family issues after I read a book called "The Drama of the Gifted Child" and from what you've written you might get some benefit from that book, too.

What I took from that book is that the reason they put their burdens on me is because: they were weak, and hurting, and I knew how to seem strong enough to take it. Underlying this was a bargain: my being strong and letting them treat me like a little grown-up instead of a child in return for their acceptance and praise. Their love, on the condition of my unconditional love.

The thing to realize is that even though you have started to see this, they may not have. They might still be weak and hurting, and conditioning their love on yours. Now, they don't know they're doing this, and you really can't tell them, any more than you can show all that water to a fish. You can't very well say, "you're only doing this because you're weak and codependent."

What I tried to do was to find ways of caring for them on my own terms instead of theirs. For instance, I stopped letting my mother rely on me to cover for her a lot of her shortcomings, but I make sure to split and stack firewood every time I visit her. (She only heats with wood and we are in a cold climate.)

In order for that to work, you've got to get into a headspace that you're confident you can show them love while breaking the bargain that's cost you your mental health. It was important for me to know that I could point to things I'd done because I loved them -- on my own terms, things I was glad to do -- to help me against the guilt of breaking the bargain.

I found it also helped to talk to other family members who had been in therapy, even just to reassure myself that it's okay to seek help.

Again, good luck.
posted by gauche at 9:54 AM on December 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

Don't be who you don't want to be. It's as simple as that. You don't want to give people a false impression of who you are, so don't. Also, why would you want to be someone you aren't happy with on the inside anyway?

One of the things you could do is have a candid, heart-to-heart talk with the people you love, especially your family. Inform them that you are trying to escape depression and in the process of doing so, you are making an effort to become the person you see yourself wanting to be. Let them know who you want to be; explain to them the kind of characteristics you seek to embody. Who knows? Maybe they can even help you.

If you want to change who you are without distancing others from you, then it may help to let them know that you are going through some sort of personal transformation. Think about it. You've been a certain kind of person for a good part of your life; you say so yourself that you've "always been the good son." How would you expect your loved ones to respond if you changed your behavior and attitude so suddenly? I would imagine it would be a shock. If you let them know that you are planning to become "X, Y, and Z" ahead of time, then they can at least know what to expect and mentally prepare themselves for this change.

It also sounds like you want to be more assertive. If anything, telling your loved ones about your intention to change yourself would be one big step in the right direction.

I don't consider myself a a particularly bad person, but even showing that I'm anything other than perfectly content seems to cause conflict.

Something I have learned over the past few years is to speak your mind, regardless of what you think others might say. If people have a problem with it, then you'll deal with it then. If they don't, well, they might even be grateful you brought something to their attention. Don't be afraid of conflict. It's so much better to say what you think, for everyone's sake.

I was the kind of person who used to have trouble showing I was upset because I didn't want to start problems with people. I wouldn't openly express my displeasure immediately after someone irked me; instead, I would "let things slide," erroneously thinking that I was being a tolerant person when I was really just being way too passive. Over time, I went through phases of surliness, where I would just feel intensely upset at myself and others because I felt I was being such a nice guy and extremely unappreciated. I was upset at myself for being such a doormat (because that was not who I wanted to be), and I was upset at others for taking advantage of me. Even worse, my "tolerant" nature backfired in the end; not only would I be super stressed by bottling everything up inside, but I also had much less say when I actually did tell someone I was upset at them. I basically put myself in a position where people would feel like I had no right to be upset. It was a lose-lose situation, which I could have avoided if I had spoken up sooner and more frequently.

Don't be afraid of what others might think or say. Just say what you think.

Moral of the story:

Focus on who you want to be. You seem to know already that happiness comes from within. Change for your sake, not anyone else's. Don't worry about how others will respond; that's their concern, not yours. If you let people/loved ones know that you're going through personal change, that alone testifies to your commitment to becoming a better person, as well as mollifies some of the tension they might have.
posted by matticulate at 10:40 AM on December 20, 2009 [7 favorites]

How to deal with coming into my own without alienating those I love?

You can't. They have to deal. If they don't, move on.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:07 AM on December 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

matticulate (and the others) make a good point. But I'd just add to that advice and wisdom that you should try to figure out whether this real you that you speak of really is the real you, or whether it is an effect of depression.

If I'm wrong, please don't take this the wrong way, I'm just guessing. You are sick of the person you end up being. You want to do right by the family, and being the good son and passive to their various demands and expectations was the easiest way to navigate. But, as you grow, you realize that you are sick of it and feel stifled by it, and want to change.

The question is, how are you going about that change, and when you communicate with them, how are you doing it? Are you unburdoning yourself from years of stifled [whatever] and sort of extracting a price from them? Are you sharing your true feelings at the moment, or are you just less inhibited about blowing off steam? For example, instead of just sucking it up and blowing it off when someone takes advantage of you, are you telling them right at that moment "hey, that sucks", or are you just unable to blow it off completely anymore and venting when it becomes too much? Like "wtf, you did this last week and the week before and now you are doing it again??"

The reason I say that is because it is much easier for others to take changes when they happen "in real time".

Also, without denying the right you have to be whoever you want to be and share whatever feelings you want to share, you don't have the right to expect others to like it or not express their feelings right back at you. Unfortunately that's just one of the burdons of being more vocal about our feelings. It becomes a tradeoff- what is more preferable, getting it all out in the open and dealing with what comes, or letting things slide. Either way, you have to accept the consequences, even if they aren't of your choosing.
posted by gjc at 11:08 AM on December 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would try to balance this new persona with PinkSuperhero's advice on how to be cool. I am guessing that your new (depressed) persona often manifests itself by complaining or expressing dissatisfaction. Good, you have finally strength to say when something displeases you, but still it doesn't mean that you should say it that way. Instead of criticizing bad things in your life and your family, try to concentrate on building and encouraging new good things.
posted by Free word order! at 1:54 PM on December 20, 2009

Read No More Mr Nice Guy, by Robert Glover, and see if any of the scenarios within resonate with you.

The book outlines behavioural patterns that some people exhibit when they suppress who they are for fear of rocking the boat with other people. Although the book is aimed at men's relationships with women, the underlying principles are still valid.

As others have said, you need to live your own life, not the life that other people think you should live. If other people cannot accept that (and assuming you haven't gone all evil!) then their lack of acceptance is their OWN problem.

One of the consequences, and this is also mentioned in the book, is that some people will not accept who you really are, and that you are OK just as you are, and those people will then leave your life.
posted by flutable at 1:58 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, families tend to work as a group to keep the same dynamics going, and react badly to people who threaten the dynamic by changing. Family therapy can really help with this but arranging that is probably beyond your capacity right now.

I would find some people who you trust who aren't invested in the family status quo, and seek support from them.
posted by kathrineg at 4:49 PM on December 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

You can only be yourself and hope that your family loves you enough to adjust to the change. The only thing that's not an option is to keep pretending to be something you're not just so they don't have to feel uncomfortable. You are worth much more than that, and you deserve to be happy.

Since you can't decide how they'll react, it's best not to worry about it too much. Just do your thing and love them as well as you can, unless it becomes evident that they won't accept the new you. If that happens, well...sometimes it's better to just cut your losses and walk away. But give them some time to come around first. Even healthy, functional families can get weirded out when you change "the dance".
posted by balls at 5:43 AM on December 21, 2009

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