how to trust?
March 2, 2012 10:31 PM   Subscribe

why do people say to you "you can tell me anything" when they don't really mean it?

This has happened to me in a number of relationships where I've initially been really slow to trust/guarded and my boyfriend will reassure me that I can tell him anything.

I have some insecurities and I'm always really really wary of sharing those with a new partner at the beginning. As I start to allude to them, my SO will say, "no, you really can tell me anything. I won't be turned off."

But then inevitably once I start to trust them and share those insecurities they are turned off.

This has happened to me a number of times, and I don't know how to get around it. On the one hand, I feel like I should maybe not share those insecurities since it always backfires but on the other I want to feel like I can be vulnerable with someone I'm with without feeling judged. I also end up feeling resentful after they reassure me they won't judge me and then do, and that further damages my trust.

What's the best approach?
posted by timsneezed to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Can you share what those insecurities are? I feel like the appropriate approach depends on both the relationship / your level of trust and what the insecurities are. And, there are different ways to frame insecurities that might let you have more success in talking about them with your boyfriends.
posted by insectosaurus at 10:40 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not one of the "therapy therapy therapy" mefites, but this screams for it. I'm thinking that you need to get down and dirty with a non-partial explaining these insecurities so that the next time they come up in a relationship its not so scary for you... but here is a truth in the meantime: GUYS ARE ONLY AS FREAKED OUT ABOUT YOUR ISSUES AS YOU ARE YOURSELF!
posted by misspony at 11:06 PM on March 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Their imagination is probably not so good; or, the way you are sharing it is scary to them in a way that the raw information would not be.

I can come up with examples for imagination not being so good but they're all very triggering... basically, it's possible to say "You can tell me anything" thinking that the person you're talking to is being really over-sensitive about nothing... and then you're wrong.

For an example of sharing style, "I grew up in an abusive household and it makes me uncomfortable with anger" is very different from a detailed description that includes going deeper and deeper into exactly how you felt watching your mother cower, and becoming visibly emotionally overwhelmed. That should also be possible and safe with someone you're close to in time, but can be scary early on. Everyone has weaknesses but it's good to feel like they're basically under control and going to be OK.

misspony puts it well when saying that guys will only be as freaked out as you are; if you're super freaked out about it, and that comes out in your discussion of what happened, that can definitely make him worry that you won't be able to recover and handle it. Even if "telling him" about it wouldn't scare him off.
posted by Lady Li at 11:14 PM on March 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

I have told people things that I am not at all freaked out about in response to that kind of statement, with similar effects. Also, "you can tell me anything" logically includes however you personally frame it to yourself - if you have to frame it differently for them, then obviously you are not able to say anything.

My advice is that how someone handles hearing relatively personal stuff like that tells you a lot about what kind of person they are. Frankly, that kind of question sounds like they learned about relationships from movies.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:33 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to clarify by early I usually will talk about this stuff about six months into a relationship.
posted by timsneezed at 11:44 PM on March 2, 2012

Well, I dunno if this will actually fit with your experiences or if I'm doing the all-too-common AskMe projecting thing ((I will note that in particular, I and the folks in my life I'm talking about here are all pretty introverted, very extroverted people need not apply), but:

I've said this to people I was friends with or wanted to be close to because I find being on your guard around people to be mentally exhausting. If someone's a close friend (or closer than a friend) I want to be able to completely drop the mask around them, and I want them to feel comfortable doing that around me; it's a reciprocity thing, where I won't feel comfortable just relaxing and being me un-self-consciously unless I feel like they are, too. Being cautious and on your guard around people is like wearing a tux, or high heels - makes you look better but it's uncomfortable - while being able to drop your guard around people is like wearing pajamas: way more comfortable but you're probably not going to do it around people you don't know that well. And you're probably not going to be comfortable changing into your pajamas while someone else is still in their tux and/or high heels. So the whole "You can tell me anything" is sort of like a "Hey, you know we can change into pajamas anytime." plea. It doesn't necessarily mean Please Infodump All Your Horrible Secrets On Me Right Now, more like, hey, I want to relax around you and I want you to relax around me.

If you get the feeling that these guys are like my description above, and it doesn't literally mean "tell me something horrible about yourself right now" so much as it means "I want you to be comfortable telling me horrible stuff about yourself" then it becomes possible to reassure them that you do feel comfortable and relaxed around them without actually needing to tell them anything horrible, or really anything at all, until you're really ready.

So try this: They say "You can tell me anything, you know," and you say, "Yeah, I know. I will, when I'm ready." with a cute and slightly apologetic smile, and then whenever you're really ready or when it actually is a thing they need to know, then you tell them.

Granted this won't let you completely put off opening up to them forever. Feeling like you trust somebody enough to change into Emotional Pajamas around them while they're still on the not-ready-to-ditch-the-Emotional-Formalwear page is, like any other mismatch in affection in a relationship, one of those things - it can hurt to find out that the person who you are absolutely ready to trust with the info about where all the bodies are buried isn't ready to tell you their middle name. Don't feel pressured or rushed into telling them stuff before you're ready, but if after a while you're feeling like there's too big a trust and/or comfort mismatch there it's probably worth evaluating where it's coming from, why, and whether it's a dealbreaker or something you can work around.

To me I think the maybe more pertinent question, if different guys keep asking you this, is what vibe you're giving off, six months into a relationship, that makes guys really clearly pick up a sense that you are holding back or that you're clearly not relaxed around them. I don't have nearly enough info to even begin to speculate about that, but it's something you might want to think about. (Not trying to make you feel bad or that you are doing anything wrong here, because I don't think you are, just saying.)
posted by mstokes650 at 11:54 PM on March 2, 2012 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: More clarifications.

I guess I've noticed this happens when I've been in a very stressful situation, let's say the kind that maybe only happens once every couple years, and I'll tell my SO at the time how anxious I'm feeling in that momentt. It doesn't seem to matter whether I handle the situation well in terms of my actions. If I talk about my anxiety a lot with them at that time they always seem to freak out. It's not as much when I've abstractly talked about some insecurities I have. But, often during their freak out they'll bring up vulnerabilities I've shared with them at other times (usually non emotionally) that they always said they were cool with.

I end up feeling betrayed as a result, because a couple of these boyfriends have pestered me to tell them dark stuff because they felt I was being too guarded.
posted by timsneezed at 11:59 PM on March 2, 2012

Response by poster: Matokes:

I had one boyfriend who literally said "tell me dark things" a number of times because he felt that he was opening up to me and telling me a lot of his darkest secrets more than I was to him. He kept pushing it and finally I did, and then later he told me I was too pessimistic or negative.
posted by timsneezed at 12:03 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel like past a certain age or level of experience, most people realize that you can never really be completely, 100%, totally, brutally honest and open with someone all the time. That strikes me as a fantasy that a lot of younger people or especially romantic or idealistic people buy into- especially the part about being “unfiltered and uncensored.” Please don’t misunderstand- I am NOT advocating that people must lie to each other, must play games, that it’s just natural for people to do that in romantic relationships, or any of that bullshit. I’m just saying that people have to self-censor to some degree in life, pretty consistently, and pick their moments to totally spill every thought. Impulse control is key, yo.

The model of romantic relationships whereby two damaged people are supposed to get close, spill their dark secrets about their traumatic pasts, and then redeem and heal each other is another somewhat juvenile fantasy.

Why do so many people say “you can tell me anything?” Well, first off, it can be a trick used by manipulators to get you to let your guard down. People who press you to share everything so they can be there for you may also be fantasizing about being powerful and needed and being the fixer-guy hero, or whatever. They may be insecure themselves and trying to get you to open up and be vulnerable so they feel more secure. If your problems are out of their league, this can make them feel worse. Or maybe they just say it as a romantic line in the moment, feeling compelled without thinking about it. Maybe they just don’t like that you’re being obviously prickly about trust. Maybe they truly believe they can handle anything, and are just exceptionally naïve and un-self-aware. They can have all sorts of motivations except genuine altruism.

Some general advice- If you’re talking in depth about your romantic past, just don’t. Find a therapist. Almost no new partner really wants to hear the intimate details of how you loved someone else and they betrayed you, or whatever. I mean, maybe the broad strokes, but not in excess. Exceptions for if you, like, have a stalker who may actually infringe on your SOs life in some way, or have a child with your ex-husband, or something.
This also goes for your sexual past. Don’t give them a really clear idea of where you picked up a particular fetish or experience, or whatever, IME. It’s just too much information.
And if it’s just generalized negative self-talk, make sure you’re not fishing for compliments so much that you become a bottomless hole of need. You should take your partner’s presence and normal compliments/communication as proof of your desirability, IMO, unless you’re just feeling like you really need a hug one day. But no endless whining and self-diagnosing- that stuff is for therapy.
Other stuff? Well, if it’s problems with friends or your job that may have actual concrete solutions, that’s fair game.

I don’t know, I hope this helps. It’s a pretty broad topic.
On preview; just read your update: Yeah, these guys are just immature. They’re pressuring you out of insecurity. It’s a very common manipulation tactic- they want to feel like they’re your hero. Unfortunately, with guys so insecure that they press you for more info that makes them feel like you rely on them, anything except something they can solve immediately is likely to make them feel worse.
posted by stockpuppet at 12:29 AM on March 3, 2012 [45 favorites]

I think it's a romanticized notion of getting close without any actual real understanding of just how shitty life can be. Then when the reality is actually really rather serious, they can't deal with it. They want to be the hero but up to a manageable point and anything they know they couldn't deal with they freak out about.
posted by mleigh at 12:31 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Honestly... I think it's that you're dating the wrong guys. I have an ex who just tore me to shreds (along with my ability to trust) and he focused on my known insecurities. If someone's trying to make you feel bad, they will use the ammo you give them. You need a guy who won't be using your trust in him as ammo. My current bf is like that, and by allowing myself to trust him a little at a time, my ability to trust in general is so much higher, and I can confide things in him that my last bf would have torn me to pieces about. Especially that you say the guys you date push you to confide in them, share their own dark thoughts... It sounds like they get a thrill off of getting you to trust them and then breaking you down. Find a guy who's not an asshole - he won't react the same way.

That said, I agree that there are ways to present things that can produce a different response with the same info, and that's something you might need to improve.
posted by DoubleLune at 12:36 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

This may be just a very different style of interaction from what I am used to, so take my words with a pinch of salt. Here are my thoughts, in now particular order (numbered for some clarity):

1. A lot of people seem to equate openness with "let the skeletons dance". And sure, the more you get to know someone, the more comfortable and relaxed you get around them, which also means you will be less guarded about whatever negativity preys on your mind at any given moment, or more generally. But to see trading darkness as some kind of milestone in a relationship - this seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse a bit. It is not by sharing insecurities with each other that you build trust, but rather by building trust that you feel free and safe to allow your insecurities to come out (see point 4). Well, in reality there is a feedback loop going on, but I would say the start has to be more modest than going to the very bottom of your vulnerabilities.

2. The transactional aspect of this is a bit worrying. This:

he felt that he was opening up to me and telling me a lot of his darkest secrets more than I was to him

is no reason to pressure you into confessing your insecurities. It is important for you to honour the trust he placed in you in every way you can (guard his secret, make sure that you take into account the potential triggers revealed by his story, if possible, provide support if necessary, don't be callous, dismissive or rude, etc). However, the fact of him opening up does not oblige you to reciprocate, or to reciprocate within a certain time-frame, or by using the same format (for example, his confession may have involved a conversation during which he told you his story in detail from A to Z, whilst you might be much more comfortable with a gradual sprinkling of details over many days/weeks/months and conversations).

Saying this, there is a sense in which we all need a certain degree of symmetry in our relationships, so, if your boyfriends tend to be the secret-sharer type, they may end up feeling too vulnerable in the face of your different pacing. In this case, keep in mind that you can be vulnerable without digging up your darkest fears/traumatic experiences/insecurities. Maybe even by acknowledging your very different approach to such disclosures, something along the lines of: "I feel really honoured and/or humbled/something else that you told me this, and will do my best to tread gently around this issue. I also really admire you for being so thoughtful and articulate about your problems/difficult experiences. I find it quite difficult to formulate my own insecurities/problems/etc. and present them as one coherent story - when I talk about them, they tend to come out in dribs and drabs, mostly prompted by current situations".

3. Going to the heart of darkness so early in relationships can, I think, be quite limiting to the relationship (and six months is still relatively early), mainly because it might end up contributing too much to your perception of each other. Even if your disclosures are received well, there might be the danger that you end up with a slightly co-dependent dynamics, where you relate to each other more via tough times/catastrophes and emergency support then in a more varied fashion. Also, time allows you to form a coherent image of a person which is not easily assailable by unusual scenarios or behaviours from the past, or by the odd untypical behaviour in the present.

4. It is also quite risky, baring all, as it were, BEFORE your partner has shown resilience and support under more mundane circumstances. This:

I guess I've noticed this happens when I've been in a very stressful situation, let's say the kind that maybe only happens once every couple years, and I'll tell my SO at the time how anxious I'm feeling in that momentt.

makes me think that you have opened up to your boyfriend before he had the opportunity to show himself supportive/trustworthy in a day-to-day situation. It is very easy to be, or seem, supportive/trustworthy vis-a-vis something which is not current, the cost is actually really low. But frequently, people who make grand declarations re. missed opportunities for past support will suddenly become unavailable as soon as they are in a situation where they feel required to step up. And then, they make this your problem! This:

If I talk about my anxiety a lot with them at that time they always seem to freak out... But, often during their freak out they'll bring up vulnerabilities I've shared with them at other times (usually non emotionally) that they always said they were cool with

is not OK. Best allow yourself to be vulnerable with them about the little things that are current (let them see your upset at x thing happening, or your sadness about so-and-so saying such-and-such etc), and learn together how to deal with this within your relationship (of course, with his day-to-day problems, too). Offer each other support in this way, learn what the other one responds to best, how you can overcome difficulties in this type of communication etc. This way, you will build up genuine, positive trust in each other, rather than the kind of automatic trust you have when you start a new relationship, or when the relationship is still relatively new and not yet tried and tested. It is likely that the darker stuff emerges then organically and with no need for pressure (also not OK!) or tit-for-tat confessions or for your partners to feel lonely because they opened up and you didn't.
posted by miorita at 1:07 AM on March 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

They say it because they don't know themselves and want to think of themselves as accepting. (literal answer to your question)

You share things with such people, not because you want to give them information, but because you want to feel known and accepted by them with no requirements by you to protect them from how they might react. Many people who imagine otherwise find they are not as capable of taking on that role as they might have hoped. What's more, in my experience, people who think they want this from someone else, also find the prospect of actually getting it a bit overwhelming and unconsciously "test" the other in ways that make it more difficult for them to succeed. It can get very complicated in that they provoke the other so that they get their rejection over with in a controlled way rather than sit there being vulnerable knowing the can be hurt at any moment. There can also at times be a wish to be proven right that others can't be trusted. Which, if any of these or similar subtleties might apply to you can take much therapy to discover. (It's not unusual for people like to see themselves as innocent rather than unconsciously colluding in their misfortune, just as their counterparts wish to see themselves as perfectly accepting.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:38 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think anyone I trust enough to share (just about) everything with has ever said "you can tell me anything." I think if people have to say it, it means they're protesting too much—like Obscure Reference says, they want to think they're accepting, but they may not be.

Also, a situation in which "you can tell me anything" comes up is necessarily fraught with some kind of expectation about how terrible/dramatic/salacious the "anything" will be. It may be easier to share insecurities more organically as they come up, when there's not a context of "this is going to be bad."
posted by mlle valentine at 6:50 AM on March 3, 2012

I think it's a combination of "they want to think of themselves as being accepting, but may not be," there's something off about the guys you are dating (as above, the transactional/gossipy/almost competitive nature of the question of sharing), and it may also it may depend on what you are sharing/how you are sharing.

I think I'm an open and accepting person but there are limits on what I am willing to take on with a partner and how it is conveyed to me (tone, urgency, is this a pile-on, etc?) has something to do with that, as well as how I feel about the person/relationship in general.

How I deal with this (being guarded) is just not to share beyond what I'm comfortable with - easier said than done, and actually working on the issues that I think are too much for other people to have to deal with.
posted by sm1tten at 8:10 AM on March 3, 2012

"You can tell me anything," belongs in the same linguistic dump as "no offense," "trust me," and other phrases that at best mean nothing and at worst mean the opposite of what they are trying to convey.
posted by kettleoffish at 11:34 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience, people who are genuinely accepting, non-judgmental, good listeners, and capable of providing solid support in difficult situations also understand that you may not want to talk about your insecurities, and that sharing should take place on your schedule, not theirs. They would tend to say things more like "I'm here if you want to talk" than "you can tell me anything".

People who push you to share want that information for their own reasons. Maybe those reasons are manipulative, as alluded to above, maybe they're wary of committing themselves without understanding what the skeletons are, maybe they want to feel helpful, or maybe they're just curious. It doesn't mean they are bad people, but it does mean that at that moment, your interests aren't driving them.

A good way to deflect someone pushing you to share something you'd prefer to not to yet would be something like "I'd prefer not to talk about it now, but it would help if you gave me a big hug/distracted me with something cheerful/some other helpful thing they could do." Telling them how they can help makes it clear you're not shutting them out, you just don't want to talk at that moment.

Finally, it may also be helpful to say thing that avoid building curiosity and suspense around your insecurity. Better than "I have an insecurity about this I don't want to share" would be "talking about this makes me feel insecure. Do you mind if we change the subject?" and better than "I don't want to tell you, because you'll be turned off" is "I don't like talking about that."
posted by psycheslamp at 1:00 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I suspect that people who encourage you to tell hem things you don't really want to tell them are, ironically, not the best people to trust with certain information.


In my experience, people who are genuinely accepting, non-judgmental, good listeners, and capable of providing solid support in difficult situations also understand that you may not want to talk about your insecurities, and that sharing should take place on your schedule, not theirs. They would tend to say things more like "I'm here if you want to talk" than "you can tell me anything".

feel very spot-on.

Self-disclosure in healthy relationships occurs incrementally, and is part of a natural process of learning to open up and be vulnerable to each other. The sensitive stories you tell tend to be long-term and evolving: a single incident or insecurity could (and probably should) be discussed in multiple stages over multiple months (and years!), with a little bit more information about (or, even, just another perspective of) the story being brought out each time. Anyone who cares about you and knows that there is An Insecurity, or A Dark Time, or A Family Secret, or a Jarring Death in your past will be considerate of your need for privacy and space, and won't pressure you for information. They'll be more aware of the ongoing nature of that information, and how it will unfold according to its relevance to the relationship, or according to your own comfort level.
posted by vivid postcard at 6:36 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've had this problem with guys too; they encourage me to be myself and to open up, but I guess they were expecting sunshine and bubbles to burst out of me or something, because I've been told I am too negative. I am quite negative at times, and if I spend a lot of time with someone, it's almost like bloodletting the poison out of myself by talking about it. I think with guys, they are very often in "problem solving mode" and think that if I express my anxiety or doubt about something, I am expecting them to immediately fix it or make me feel suddenly better. Oftentimes, that is not the case at all. My problems are my problems, and it makes me feel better just to talk about them. So, what I've decided to do is just fake it til I make it in terms of superficial/new relationships (friends or romantic interests) and begin seeing a therapist again. That way, I can spew all my negative thoughts and feelings out to someone once a week and hopefully I will be more able to filter out more negative comments or opinions around the general public.

I mean, there are truly compassionate people out there who really want to hear about your problems, but I think most people, at least in the beginning, just want to have fun and feel good and it's difficult to impossible to do that with someone who's openly insecure, anxious, etc. I think it's a harsh but true reality of social interactions that I am still trying to get a grasp on.

For someone who already has insecurities, the worst thing is to express those insecurities to someone else and be shunned for it, or worse--have those used against you down the line. But it's also not good to hold it all in, so I recommend a therapist or journaling. If your boyfriend insists on something, start with the most innocuous little tidbits and then -slowly- go from there. Or don't share anything at all, if you don't feel like it.

I don't know if any of that has helped, but it's my feeling on the topic; I will keep tabs on this thread, because this subject is of great interest to me as well.
posted by shipsthatburn at 8:57 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

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