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Don’t Clam Up When Life Brings You Down

This article by Colin Fleming was in the Wall Street Journal on August 10, 2018. I'm posting it verbatim. I hope you find the article valuable.

Photo credit: Photo: iStock/Getty Images

"Why do we often feel the need to pretend our lives are better than they really are? When you’re fighting to keep yourself going, sometimes what can help is a proper, out-loud accounting of what you’re going through. Admitting that your life is not exactly the Country Fair Jamboree may be the first step to getting it there.

At a low point in my life, when it was a chore just trying to keep out of bed, I ventured into a bar that I knew wasn’t very popular. There I sat down in front of a bartender who turned out to be exactly my age.

I assumed he was doing better than I was, so when we started talking, I scarcely went into my troubles. But he, too, was in a trough of one of life’s waves. Without hesitation, he told me that he was collecting unemployment, his hours at the bar were few, and he couldn’t find work in his actual profession.

That bartender became my friend. I respected his candor, which made it easier for me to share my own problems. When he first told me that he was pushing 40 and unable to find work, he didn’t come across as fragile. Instead my thought was: “This guy is impressive. He’s solid in his belief about himself. He has a problem to deal with, and he knows there’s no point in trying to save face by pretending it’s not there.”

Such honesty can be disarming. You have this moment where you take a step or two back and can see the other person in a new light. Then you think: “Wait, why can’t I do that? I’d feel better.” And hearing that bartender openly talk about what he was going through, I did.

Yet now more than ever, as people put on smiles for their followers on Facebook or Instagram, we expend a lot of effort playing a part. Although we are more “connected,” we close ourselves off to others. We fear looking weak, so we flash out an emotional Morse code: “All is well, all is well.”

The result is that many people go on playacting. They never take a seat at life’s bar, look over the wood to an honest peer, and make the type of connection humans always need to remain tethered to the truth. Without the perspective that the counsel of friends can provide, or even just the contrast of our lives against theirs, we end up going down our private rabbit holes alone.

Opening up about your problems can be scary, but you need give only the gist. Remember that when you share what you are grappling with, you command respect, rather than lose it. You foster hope in yourself and in someone else. Living this way is easier, too, since you don’t have to invent any stories or go through the effort of maintaining a pose.

Just open your mouth and say the thing you’ve been thinking for the past three hours. You can see it as daring to take a risk, but it’s really good-natured, honest conversation. I call it connection: the only chance in this world each of us has to be a real person."

Mr. Fleming is the author of “Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls,” forthcoming this year from Tailwinds Press.

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