Can’t I just be honest?
June 4, 2019 5:38 PM   Subscribe

Working on boundaries with family still and certain friends. I’ve been conditioned to this “Can’t I just be honest with you?” Phrase in response to me saying what they said is hurtful/offensive/just don’t want to hear it. Am I drawing boundaries in the wrong place then?

Once I hit teenage years, I remember hearing my mom talk negatively about her friends or our estranged family members. She was usually venting about them and I played devil’s advocate because at that age, I realized my mom ran into this habit where everyone was wrong but her, so I was just trying to give a different perspective. I realize now that playing devil’s advocate was unnecessary and not helpful, so I do feel bad about that. But mom is old school, and she battled between wanting to be close to her children and thinking children should be seen not heard. So it was either agree with what she was saying or shut up.

As I got older, she would vent to me about my father and how much she hated him (they’re still married), usually after a fight. Or she would say something about someone being ugly. Or someone being too fat. Or too gay. Or etc. eventually, I would say “Mom. That’s really mean and hurtful! I know they’re not here but I don’t really want to hear it.”

My mom would then yell at me and cry too. “Can’t I be honest with my own daughter?? What kind of relationship is this? I have to censor myself? I can’t have a conversation with you. This is why I can’t have a good relationship with you.” (I now realize that my mom has some untreated issues and she is a wonderful mom whom I love very much, but these things really stuck with me.) This same pattern extended to my older sister who would say the same thing if I disagreed or objected to what they said.

Soon, I found myself either walking on eggshells or just sitting silently in passive agreement. And that’s the pattern I still find myself in when I hear something I disagree with. I’m not looking to change their minds, but I also don’t want to hear it. It’s just the reaction afterwards that make me feel like I’m hurting our relationship. I can’t help but wonder if I am censoring them, which I don’t want to since they’re family, but I also really don’t agree with some of the hurtful things they say about others. I have a couple of childhood friends (who I am thinking of not continuing the friendship since it has always mimicked my relationship with my older sister and mom) who will say something offensive and hurtful, I’ll say “Please don’t say that. I don’t want to hear it or continue the conversation about that.” With a reply of “Jeez, why are you so sensitive? We’re friends, friends tell each other everything. If we can’t be honest with each other then what??” And then I go into a spiral of self doubt wondering if I’m actually the one in the wrong.

I’m having trouble figuring out what’s the right way to go here. Am I not giving space for honesty in my family and friend relationships?
posted by buttonedup to Human Relations (29 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This is a tactic called DARVO - Deny, Attack, then Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s particularly awful when used in sexual abuse cases, but it totally happens in normal conversations too.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:52 PM on June 4 [37 favorites]

"When a person says he’s ‘just being honest’, this is a good time to start looking for the exits. Especially a potential romantic partner, people who put great priority on just being honest. That means they’re about to harm you in some very essential way. Not just that they’re going to screw you over or cheat on you. They’re really going to find the vulnerable spot and get to it, because it gives them pleasure. That’s how they get their pleasure. And so they say to you, 'Hey, you know, I just try to be an honest person.’ Oh, my friends, locate all the places to run in a fire." --John Darnielle
posted by praemunire at 5:55 PM on June 4 [43 favorites]

You don't owe them quarter for their hateful speech, any more than universities ought to invite Nazis for panel talks.
posted by aw jeez at 5:58 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

I think you are entitled to be sensitive and to have and enforce your boundaries. When they call you out for not allowing them to “be honest” they are engaging in manipulative behaviour which makes you feel bad for trying to enforce a boundary. I’m sorry people in your life are like this, but I think you are right to stand your ground.
posted by EatMyHat at 6:07 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]

“You can be honest with me, of course, but that doesn’t mean what you say won’t impact how I think about you, and it doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with you. I’m just being honest too.”

I have had very similar discussions with family and friends about this. People will make awful comments to me that make me think “wtf!!” and I’ve stopped just ignoring it. (I was at a baby shower the other day and someone whispered to me about how much weight the pregnant woman had gained! I just responded “that’s a terrible thing to say or think”).
posted by sallybrown at 6:40 PM on June 4 [46 favorites]

If we can’t be honest with each other then what??

well... yeah, I mean, if there isn't enough common ground to have other things to discuss, things that aren't distressing; and there isn't enough interest on both sides to have conversations that aren't distressing, then... yeah, that's when people generally decide not to hang out anymore.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:41 PM on June 4 [5 favorites]

When dealing with relatives, I find it makes sense to pick your battles wisely. Unless it's something really important to me, I basically just agree with everything they say -- or if I can't bring myself to explicitly agree, I don't argue with them. Life is easier this way.
posted by alex1965 at 6:45 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

to something really awful: "I'm not asking you to be dishonest, I'm asking you to be quiet."

you have the right lines already and you know how to say them. the only thing you're missing is that you don't have to come up with new counterarguments every time they push back with non sequiturs. you don't have to let them shift the argument to some made-up thing they're pretending you're saying. it's ok to say a true thing more than once.

you can leave, to show that you meant what you said, or quietly wait out the dramatic rhetoric and not engage with it. or you can respond to their reframing by reframing right back:

"I have to censor myself?" Yes, please do be considerate when you chose your words. It would mean a lot to me. Thanks for understanding.
"I can’t have a conversation with you." I'm sorry you don't feel capable of that. I hope you feel up to it eventually.
"This is why I can’t have a good relationship with you." I hope someday you decide that it's worth the effort to try.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:17 PM on June 4 [55 favorites]

Yes, to me, this falls squarely in "they are being manipulative to get what they want, which is being an asshole without consequences"

Also any time someone says they walk on eggshells, I immediately think that person needs to cut out the toxic people in their lives.

Yes your behavior is good and civil and correct, no their behavior is not ok. People will claim boundaries are limits on them, and they just can't deal with that...

But having and enforcing boundaries protects you. Enforcing them may have consequences, like you never talk to these people again. That's somewhat extreme, but it's often necessary to protect yourself
posted by Jacen at 7:28 PM on June 4 [6 favorites]

“I am being honest, too. I don’t want to hear this and it’s harmful to my emotional health. I expect to have the kind of relationship where that matters to you.”

I think you are in a situation where your mother is treating you inappropriately. Look into parentification and notice how much inappropriate detail about your father she is giving you! She is expecting you to be the caretaker of her emotions, instead of the other way around.

It’s ok for people not to like your boundaries. That doesn’t mean they’re in the wrong place! It means you are drawing them for a reason and of course people are going to push back when you start standing up for yourself. They’re used to treating you as an emotional sponge, and you don’t want that anymore. They’re going to whine. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
posted by stoneweaver at 7:38 PM on June 4 [14 favorites]

“What kind of relationship is this?”
“A healthy one!”

“I shouldn’t have to censor myself!”
“That’s what manners are. Please treat me with the same consideration you would give a coworker/stranger.”
posted by stoneweaver at 7:40 PM on June 4 [9 favorites]

One tactic I use with success around people like this is to own my sensitivity. “Oh I’m sorry, I’m just really sensitive to that kind of speech, I’m kind of an oddball I know, I’m sorry.” People get disarmed when you apologize and lay the blame on your shoulders, since now they have nothing to be defensive about. If they whine about being censored just say “it’s not you, it’s me!” In a believable tone and smile apologetically. This tends to work with strangers more than people who know me well, since usually I can’t hold my tongue as well around my close friends/relatives, but it’s worth it to try!
posted by katypickle at 8:24 PM on June 4 [5 favorites]

My mom went to her grave thinking I was "the sensitive one" and I always felt she was an untreated N-Mom. And, well, we had a decent but not great relationship where she gave me a lot of the same sort of shit as you're getting. And I am sorry, it sucks.

Basically in healthy relationships the two of you work on ways to treat each other decently within each of your abilities, with give/take for when your desires don't line up. In dysfunctional relationships you basically have to create boundaries because other people either don't or can't have a reciprocal relationship and aren't engaging honestly with what you are saying about your own experiences. At some level despite whatever your mother is saying, she doesn't or can't care about your feelings as much as her own. And so you have to.

This just means that you can understand and empathize with her pain but you do not need to feel responsible for it. And you can basically give her simple choices. This is what I did with my mother. Yelling and name calling end the interaction. Oversharing (especially about other people's private information) ends the conversation. You do not engage talking about "your relationship" because she's not having one with you. You can talk about other things. You can basically, as stoneweaver suggests, expect basic manners from her like a stranger could expect. Her demanding that you get treated worse than a stranger "Why can't I be honest?!" is basically the same way terrible internet people get away with saying terrible internet person shit. Society is all about trying to get along with other people, you don't get a free pass just because someone is related to you.

I am sorry your mom sucks at this. She will either learn, through gentle boundaries, to get better at interacting with you, or she will have to learn to manage more distance from you. Your truth is as legit and important as hers is. Anyone who uses the excuse of family or friendship to say hurtful things is not being friendly or familial.
posted by jessamyn at 8:40 PM on June 4 [28 favorites]

What Jessamyn said.

There are some useful techniques. One is to always have some distractions available. When Mom is venting I know you get frustrated about X but it's a bit overwhelming/too much. Tell me about your knitting/ cat/ bingo. Very gentle humor Ok Mom, my ears are burning. Time to talk about baseball/ my new bike. "Can’t I be honest with my own daughter??" I need a break, let's go watch the Baking Show/ make pie.

And if she just won't stop/ yells/is abusive or disrespectful to you, walk away. Leave the conversation, the room, the house, the state. When you enforce boundaries people will push the boundaries hard especially at first. So you have to be toughest at 1st. I developed an okay relationship with my Mom but it took time, esp. because I have a bunch of siblings who took longer to stop accepting manipulation and drama.

Recognize that mental illness, alcoholism (an illness), and/or her own upbringing are real baggage that she may be carrying. Look for and encourage the good in her Mom, you make the best jam let's go pick strawberries. Give her a hug I know, Mom it's hard. There is a fine balance around not accepting crap, but also having compassion. Good luck. It's not easy. Take care of yourself.
posted by theora55 at 9:43 PM on June 4 [7 favorites]

If you feel brave enough:

"I said I don't want to hear it. If you can't stop, I'll be leaving."

If she continues: "okay, I'm leaving. I'll see you soon".

Don't fall into the trap of believing that you have to justify your legitimate boundaries. You don't. You can just defend them.

(Note: this is scary and hard, especially if you have been conditioned to believe that your boundaries are negotiable. I say these kinds of things in a very soft and gentle voice, while looking down, rather than a big assertive voice. Somehow that feels less risky to me, maybe because it seems less like I am challenging them).

People push back to see if they can push you, not because they legitimately want to have a conversation about whatever they are browbeating you about.
posted by windykites at 9:59 PM on June 4 [8 favorites]

“Can’t I just be honest with you?”
"Can you be honest without being hurtful? If you can't, then I'm not interested."
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:11 AM on June 5 [7 favorites]

"Can't I just be honest?"


That's your boundary, right there.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:08 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]

^^ That. You definitely don’t need to let someone else decide the appropriate borders of “honesty”, especially when a person is being openly offensive and calling it “honesty”.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:13 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]

Some people are under the impression that "love" means "no boundaries" -- and it sounds like you're dealing with some of them. Trying to set a boundary with someone like this often gets you a response like, "But don't you love me? Aren't we close? Isn't our relationship special enough to be boundary-less?" It's an unhealthy, dysfunctional, and ultimately self-serving version of "love" -- it's all about entangling their identity with someone else's so they can get their needs met at the expense of other people. Although they may couch it in the language of love, their actions speak loudly: "You're not entitled to have a self separate from me! My needs come first!" In my book, that's not really "love" or "family" or "relationship" or "friendship" -- that's abusive.

You're trying for a healthier version of "love" that involves respectful boundaries and mutual care -- two separate people, choosing to care for each other while not letting go of their own needs -- and that's a very different thing. Love absolutely can exist with boundaries; in fact, love that's built on a foundation of healthy boundaries tends to be more safe, caring, and nurturing for everyone involved. Your family and (current) friends may never understand or like the boundaries you're trying to set; however, you can still stick to them. Eventually, they may adapt, even if they don't like it or agree with it -- and you can always refuse to participate (aka, leave) when they refuse to stop violating your boundaries. You can also find other folks in the world who also want to try for this healthier kind of love, without the constant boundary-crossing.

Are you familiar with Captain Awkward? If you like advice columns, you may like this one -- the Cap'n gives very good advice about holding boundaries with folks who don't recognize your right to have them. Here's one that might be relevant; here's another. There are many more in the archives (try the tags "parents" and "boundaries").

I also highly recommend the book All About Love, by bell hooks. Here are some of her words:
The word "love" is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb. ... Echoing the work of Erich Fromm, he defines love as 'the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."
When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another's spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abusive cannot coexist. Abuse and neglect are, by definition, the opposites of nurturance and care.... An overwhelming majority of us come from dysfunctional families in which we were taught that we were not okay, where we were shamed, verbally and/or physically abused, and emotionally neglected even as we were also taught to believe that we were loved. For most folks it is just too threatening to embrace a definition of love that would no longer enable us to see love as present in our families. Too many of us need to cling to a notion of love that either makes abuse acceptable or at least makes it seem that whatever happened was not that bad.

posted by ourobouros at 6:14 AM on June 5 [8 favorites]

"Can’t I be honest with my own daughter??"

"Honesty isn't the same thing as spitting out every mean thought that pops into your head."

"What kind of relationship is this?"

"An adult one, with any luck."

"I have to censor myself?"

"Of course you do, just like every other adult."

"I can’t have a conversation with you."

"You can if you try."

"This is why I can’t have a good relationship with you."

"You can if you try."
posted by flabdablet at 6:24 AM on June 5 [10 favorites]

I'll add Don't Engage. Rhetorical BS like "Can’t I be honest with my own daughter??" is an invitation to argue. You don't have to accept the invitation. In behavioral terms, ignoring a behavior is called extinguishing. Your Mom gets something from arguing - attention, control, someone to share her angst for a while. Any participation in her unhealthy behavior reinforces the behavior. Inside her, buried who knows how deep, there is a person who has good stuff to share. Make that your goal.

What gets rewarded gets repeated. She wants the argument. Don't give it to her.
posted by theora55 at 6:56 AM on June 5 [6 favorites]

"No. No, you can't be honest with me. It's too destructive to our relationship. If you vent your anger like that around me, I feel too sad and distressed to spend time with you."
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:22 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]

I have a few thoughts here...

The first is that you're not going to change your mother. She is who she has been all these years, and there is really nothing you can do to convince her that saying these things is inherently inappropriate. Even if you have some success in reducing the extent to which she says these things in your company, there are likely to be "slip-ups" on her part and she will trend back in that direction. This is because she doesn't think there's anything wrong with saying the things to which you object.

The second is that the only person who can change here is you. I'm not saying that you have to grin and bear it. Not at all. What I'm saying is that the only real way you can reduce your exposure to these remarks by your mother is to withhold your presence. You can make it clear a few times in a gentle but firm way that these remarks make you unhappy and that if they continue you will simply not spend time in conversation or company of your mother. And then if it happens, you have to be willing to follow through by leaving the table, canceling or cutting short a visit, getting off the telephone, whatever. Don't threaten, don't argue, don't criticize, don't debate or discuss. Just do. "I said I wasn't going to spend time with you when you said crappy stuff about other people, so I'm going now." This will at least get you away from the remarks that you find intolerable. It will likely have some effect on reducing the extent of these remarks by your mother -- leaving the dinner table and not returning can be a pretty emphatic gesture -- but as I said above it's not likely to eliminate them entirely. It's up to you to decide where the balance lies.

Another thing I'll suggest is giving some consideration of your mother's own limitations. You allude to this in saying that your mother "has some untreated issues." My mother had a tendency to say critical things to and about people without much regard for propriety or feelings, and for much of my life I managed this with a combination of not sharing many details with her about my professional life as a performer and withholding my presence if she criticized me in areas which I had gently but firmly told her were out of bounds. But here's the thing . . . despite the fact that I have a degree in psychology and my sister works in the mental health field, it was only in mom's latter years that we came to the understanding that she was probably somewhere on the spectrum. Viewed through the lens of that understanding, we were able to see why processing and acknowledging her own emotions presented a challenge, and why she had a difficult time identifying and understanding emotions in others. This explained a lot. And while it didn't make some of her foibles less annoying, it did encourage us to take a more sympathetic view of them. I'm not suggesting that your mother has the same issues as mine. But I am suggesting that her "untreated issues" may give rise to the unwanted behaviors you have described, as well as her refusal to accept and acknowledge that they can legitimately be viewed as inappropriate.
posted by slkinsey at 8:09 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]

I have learned to set boundaries with a couple of relatives like your mom after many years of going to Al-Anon meetings. I do this by saying things like, “I’m sorry but you need to find someone else to discuss that with. It’s not a topic I want to hear about. It’s too uncomfortable.” If you are persistent, people do learn that you mean it and will eventually shut up. When my elderly dad tries to complain about my sisters to me, I can look at him and say “dad” and he immediately says, “I’m sorry I forgot.”

One of the keys to this is not to engage with nor to be distracted by the bullshit excuses and emotional pleas of the person who is being annoying. It took me years to learn to stop arguing with those closest to me and to simply state my limit, state it a second time, and then go into a different room or to leave the house.

I have successfully used this technique on three separate people I love. Naturally, I did not use it perfectly at first. It also took time. Please note: all three of these individuals are neural atypical. Also note: I did not change these people. That was not actually my goal. My goal was to train them to understand that if they wanted my company for any length of time, they had to stop being assholes about other people I also loved.

Al-Anon is super clear that gossip is unhealthy. It is a struggle for me not to gossip about other people but I work hard not to gossip and I work hard not to listen to other people’s gossip. Also, it was very helpful for me to frame this as a critically important form of self-care. I am the only one of my dad‘s kids who still speaks to him. That’s partly because I have created and maintain boundaries that protect the relationship I have with my dad. Putting up with shit that is unhealthy is not just bad for me, it is also bad for my relationship with my dad. So he may not appreciate that my boundaries with him actually serve him as well as me but it is true.

I consider my boundaries a good thing for both of us and I would say that’s true for the boundaries I have set up with the other two people who tend to want to use me as a dumping ground for their complaints. I love giving support to people I care about. I do not love mean attacks on others. So if somebody wants to share that stuff with me, I let them know in a hurry, in a polite but firm way, that they are going to have to find another shoulder to cry on. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 8:28 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]

PS: As suggested above elsewhere, after setting the boundary I immediately change the topic to something I know the other person is genuinely interested in. That’s to show that I care about the other person but am simply not interested in any gossip (or whatever).
posted by Bella Donna at 8:37 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]

I wonder if it would help to reframe ‘boundaries’ as something you keep for yourself, instead of a request that someone change their behavior. Instead of “please don’t say that,” try, “I don’t want to discuss _______. If you bring up that sort of thing, I will change the subject or leave the room/end the conversation.” The BS about being honest is just an attempt to make you the bad guy. Ignore it if you can, or respond with something like, “I can chose whether to participate or not.” The less explaining you do, the better. Just calmly restate your boundary and follow through with it as many times as you have to.
posted by wryly at 9:37 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]

A lot of people make the mistake of presenting their boundaries to other people in the form of requests, as in "please don't say mean things about other people when I'm around because you know I find that upsetting".

I think stopping there makes boundaries way too squishy and permeable. I present mine in the form of a statement of consequences: "If you say mean things about other people when I'm around, I will remind you that I don't want to hear them. If you keep doing it, I will simply leave."

The most important thing is to specify consequences that you are in sole control of implementing, and be fully committed to following through on them when required.

Any pushback can be met with a boundary of its own: "This is a hard boundary for me. I've told you what it is, I'm not going to discuss it, and if you try to argue with me about it then once again I will simply leave."

All of the above to be delivered in the most neutral and matter-of-fact tone that you can manage. You're not starting a discussion, all you're doing is politely informing somebody where a boundary is.

Having done that, then as soon as a boundary is breached, you don't need to say another word; you just get straight up and walk away without a backward glance, or hang up the phone without saying goodbye, or do exactly and only whatever else it is you've said you would. Which is also not rude: you've said what would happen, and now it just is. Nobody is left in any doubt about why.
posted by flabdablet at 9:52 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]

Yeah, the problem here clearly isn't that they can't be honest with you, it's that you can't be honest with them. You're not forcing them to praise the people they complain about. The problem starts when they're trying to force you to share their opinion.

Frankly, I think that honesty can be a bit overrated sometimes, but if someone really wants to make that their top priority in a relationship, they have to accept that it's a two way street. They get to express their opinion and you get to disagree and once that's established there's really no point in wasting another word on the subject. You're perfectly in your right to tell them to drop it. I'm sure you can find tons of people who would agree with this take on things, so I see no reason why you should change your approach to boundaries. To me it looks like you're doing fine.

Sadly, I think there's probably no point in trying to explain that to your mom/sister/mom-sister-type friends. Does that mean you have to cut them off? Not necessarily, if you still enjoy their company in other regards. (Of course mileages vary). If they decide they can't have a relationship with someone who won't validate everything they say, that's their choice. (But if you ask me, I'd bet good money they're bluffing. It's an expectation that's unlikely to be met, so they should be used to disappointment). Personally, I've made good experiences with the sentence "I'm sorry to hear that, but I really can't help you with that."
posted by sohalt at 10:11 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]

Them: Can't I be honest with you?

You: Nope, not if it involves those kind of mean comments. I won't have those kinds of discussions with you anymore.

And then stick to it. If she keeps talking, change the subject. Don't get into a meta-discussion about it. If she persists, end the conversation.
posted by rpfields at 8:07 PM on June 8

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