This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “When Having ‘No Filter’ Hurts a Relationship.” To listen to this episode, click here.
Welcome back, Brave Love Warriors! Over the course of the next two articles, I am going to be talking about the topic of sharing feedback in our intimate relationships. I will be unpacking whether, when, and how we turn our thinking bubbles into speaking bubbles. How do we decide what remains as thoughts between our ears and what becomes words that come out of our mouths? How do we figure out what is in bounds and out of bounds to share out loud with our partner? I’m not talking in these two episodes about honesty versus deceit per se because it’s a safe rule of thumb that lies and deception are antithetical to trust and intimacy. We’re gonna hang out in the shades of gray that make up the vast majority of our relational dilemmas and conflicts. These articles are for you if you’ve struggled with any or all of the following:
- My partner is really blunt, and I often feel hurt.
- My partner says I’m too brutally honest, and I think I need to work on that.
- I never share how I really feel. I don’t know how to speak up.
These two articles are inspired by a post I wrote and shared on Instagram a while back that read, “Brutal honesty and emotional safety cannot coexist in a relationship.” The post received a lot of traction, so I wanted to explore this topic more deeply with you here. It’s also a theme that comes up ALL of the time in my work with couples and in conversations with students. Is my partner too blunt or am I too sensitive? Do I tell my partner that I think they didn’t handle a problem they had at work very well or do I keep it to myself? Do I tell my partner that I don’t like their new glasses or do I keep it to myself? Do I tell my partner that I think my new colleague at work is attractive or do I keep it to myself? Where is the line between being honest and oversharing?
So here’s what we’re going to do. This article is called “When Having ‘No Filter’ Hurts a Relationship.” The next article is called “People-Pleasing vs. Brutal Honesty: When & How to Share Feedback with Your Partner.” I am going to bring the tools of Relational Self-Awareness to the question: How do you decide what stays inside our heads and what gets shared out loud? Rather than learning a list of absolutes or hard and fast rules, you will come away from these articles with a more nuanced understanding of these dilemmas and tools for how YOU can make decisions that honor you and the health and wellbeing of your relationship. Note that I’ll be talking about intimate relationships in these articles, but you’ll see that many of the principles can be applied to friendships and relationships with family members and coworkers.
These two articles are really about discernment. Discernment is about our internal filter, our internal felt-sense of what needs to be said out loud, when and how. Discernment is not a word that was used much when I was training as a clinical psychologist. In fact, as I was doing some research for this article, it seems like discernment is a word that seems to be used more in religious contexts. However, it’s the word that makes sense here when we’re talking about feeling our way into these micro-forks in the road that couples face. Discernment is about the whether—whether or not I let you know about the thing that is rattling around inside of my head. But then there is also the how. How I bring something up to you—my timing, my tone, and my words.
In today’s article, I am going to talk about the individual factors, such as what makes some of us blunt and what makes some of us people-pleasing. Then I am going to discuss why we need to move away from thinking about bluntness and people-pleasing as solely individual personality traits or tendencies and toward thinking about bluntness and people-pleasing as relational dynamics. Which will set us up for next week’s article.
Next week, I am going to tease apart the relationship dynamics. We will dig into those “ouch” experiences that happen so often in intimate partnerships– when you feel like your partner expressed something that felt hurtful or critical to you, or when you feel like your benign comment is taken as a personal attack by your partner. I will offer a process for making choices guided by Relational Self-Awareness about what and how you share with your partner. Additionally, I will offer guidance for the blunt partner, guidance for loving a blunt partner, guidance for the people-pleasing partner, and guidance for loving a people-pleasing partner. I’ve created a companion worksheet for these articles. If you’d like to grab your copy, you can head to www.dralexandrasolomon.com/nofilter and download it there!
The Filter Spectrum
I want to start us off by talking about what I am calling the filter spectrum. I want you to imagine a spectrum. One end of the spectrum is bluntness. The other end of the spectrum is people-pleasing. Let’s operationalize these two ends of the spectrum.
Mirriam Webster dictionary defines bluntness as the “free expression of one’s true feelings and opinions.” What is inside the thinking bubble comes out of the speaking bubble with little to no refinement. All of the thoughts, musings, observations, criticisms.
On the other hand, Mirriam Webster defines people pleasing as “a person who has an emotional need to please others often at the expense of his or her own needs or desires.” Much of what is inside of the thinking bubble remains inside of the thinking bubble. And those thoughts, musings, observations, and criticisms that do move from the thinking bubble to the speaking bubble are tempered, well-reasoned, presented ever-so-carefully. Additionally, they may say things that they know other people want to hear to make them feel good or to avoid friction, even if that’s not what the people-pleaser is actually thinking.
Imagine a filter—think about a coffee filter, or a colander that you’d use in the kitchen for pasta, or a sieve that you’d take with you to play at the beach. The size of the spaces between the material dictates how much gets through the filter. When the material has a very tight weave, very little gets through the filter. When the material has a looser weave, more gets through the filter. At the blunt end of the spectrum, the holes or gaps are bigger. A lot of stuff gets through the filter. Thoughts become words. At the people-pleasing end of the spectrum, the holes or gaps are much smaller. A lot less stuff gets through. Fewer thoughts become words. This is the filter spectrum. Take a moment and ask yourself these questions:
- Where would I put myself, generally speaking, on that spectrum?
- Where would I put my partner, generally speaking, on that spectrum?
- Does my place on The Filter Spectrum change depending on who I’m with?
So, you’re imagining this Filter Spectrum. Now, let’s look at why and how each of us might end up with a tendency or a valence or a predilection to live where we live on that Filter Spectrum.
Let’s talk first about High Context versus Low Context Cultures. This is a construct originally introduced in 1959 by an anthropologist named Edward T. Hall. He posited that the cultures of low context cultures are more straightforward and explicit in communication. The value here is on being concise, straightforward, explicit, clear. These are cultures that are more individualistic, with somewhat looser social networks.
High context cultures have a communication style based on body language, tone, and overall context. The value here is on being indirect, implicit, and subtle. These are cultures that are more collectivistic, with somewhat tighter social networks. Although we cannot plop entire nations into one bucket or the other, there are certainly linguistic and communication differences between cultures. Not just countries or ethnic groups either. Workplaces can have a sort of hidden curriculum about how directly versus indirectly you address problems or give feedback.
We can also look at Family Culture. Family culture can obviously be a reflection of the capital C cultures I just talked about. And family culture can be lower case c, like a family micro-culture. Family systems can be lined up on a spectrum from direct communicators (not much of a filter) to indirect communicators (a very tight filter). Family culture also shapes what you define as in bounds versus out of bounds with your intimate partner. How much do you raise concerns/observations/opinions versus sweep them under the rug?
Takeaways so far:
- You can locate yourself on a spectrum from bluntness to people-pleasing. How tight versus loose is your filter. You can also locate your partner on that Filter Spectrum.
- Your cultural identity dictates, in part, where you “live” on The Filter Spectrum.
- Especially if there is a cultural difference between you and your partner, that difference likely shapes your beliefs about what should get said out loud and what should get held inside. Remember to factor that in when the two of you experience a misunderstanding in which one of you feels stung or hurt by what the other one said.
- Misunderstandings and hurt feelings about what is appropriate to share with each other in terms of observation and opinions might also be informed by what you are used to given the families you grew up in.
- Context matters.
OK, now let’s move our lens of Relational Self-Awareness in another direction. Let’s talk about personality differences. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines personality as “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving” (2017). There is this whole branch of psychology called Personality Psychology that is devoted to understanding a person—what makes us who we are, and exploring different approaches to classifying personality. The dominant model of personality today is called The Big 5. The Big 5 theory of personality was created and refined over many decades starting in the 1940s by psychologists like Goldberg and Costa and MacCrae. The Big 5 personality traits spell out the word, OCEAN. They are:
- Openness to experience
You can be plotted on a spectrum for each of these traits:
- From openness to experience to not so interested in novelty and adventure
- From conscientiousness to not so well organized, thoughtful, or planful
- Extraversion to introversion
- Agreeableness (having lots of interest in other people and what they think) to caring less about what others think
- Neuroticism (tendency toward moodiness and worry) to emotional stability, relaxation
And plotting you along these 5 traits paints a pretty solid picture of who you are as a person. Those of us who identify as blunt (or who are seen as blunt) likely score on the lower end of the agreeableness dimension of personality. Those of us who identify as people-pleasers (or who are seen that way) likely score on the higher end of the agreeable dimension of personality. Research has found that these 5 personality traits fall along a bell shaped curve. So most of us are somewhere in the middle and some of us are more at the tails ends of the curve. But the chances that you and your partner sit in the same spot on any of those five dimensions is slim to none. And the space between your agreeableness score and your partner’s agreeableness score is at risk of being a space of hurt feelings and judgment.
It is worth noting that when we are talking about individual differences, neurodiversity plays a role here as well. Neurodiversity is the idea that we need to value the reality that people interface with the world around them in many different ways. Neurodiversity is a movement to destigmatize and depathologize conditions like Autism and ADHD, which we have traditionally called disorders. Sometimes bluntness is a reflection of neurodiversity.
We all have profiles of strengths and growing edges. There are costs and benefits to every single way of showing up in the world. If you are someone who is more blunt, the costs include: being at risk of offending people, putting your foot in your mouth, pushing people away or being in lots of conflict. You are at risk of being perceived as arrogant or pushy because your opinions are so out in the open. The benefits? People know where they stand with you and that can create a kind of safety and trust. You can bring clarification to that which feels muddy.
If you are someone who is more people-pleasing, the costs include: being at risk of exhausting yourself trying to figure out how to language something just right. You are at risk of tolerating situations that don’t prioritize your health and wellbeing, and you may be at risk of being perceived by others as inauthentic because others may struggle to know what you mean or how you feel. You may even have difficulty experiencing pleasure because it’s hard to enjoy activities that you really didn’t choose. If you can’t connect with your own wanting, then you cannot enjoy what you have. The benefits: people-pleasing means that you are paying attention to the context. You know how to smooth things over. You are emotionally attuned. People feel safe to be themselves around you. You value people’s happiness.
So we’ve covered how your place on The Filter Spectrum is shaped by these individual factors like your culture context and your personality. But we have to bring in the relational context because the rubber hits the road the moment something passes through the filter between my thinking bubble and my speaking bubble. The moment something inside of my head (a musing, an observation, an opinion) comes out of my mouth, there is a relational impact. You will feel some kind of way: curious, elated, annoyed, offended, whatever. The relational impact is what matters.
Bluntness is relational. Always directed toward someone. It’s not purely a personality trait. I spent so much time in this episode thickening up how we think about bluntness because we have to do something more interesting than simply stick a good or a bad label on it. It’s not about being critical of how you are… or how your partner is. It’s also not about saying, “I am who I am and you just need to accept it” or “the problem with the world today is that everyone is too damn sensitive.”
Your tendency toward bluntness impacts people differently based on their tendency. People in your life are going to experience your bluntness differently. Some will seek it out. Others will be hurt by it. Your tendency is also very likely context dependent. You may notice that you’re more blunt at work and more tactful at home. Or vice versa.
People-pleasing is also relational. It is a tendency to be accommodating… relative to someone else. It is a tendency to be adaptable… relative to someone else. It is a tendency to focus on serving others. Being more reactive than proactive. Looking at people-pleasing through a relational perspective means that we can’t simply deem people pleasing behavior as all bad (“You’re a self-abandoning doormat!”) or as all good (“You’re so virtuous because you consider everyone else!”). We have to look at the context, the dynamic, the relational choreography. When you make an accommodation, what does the other person do? Do they thank you or do they trample over you?
So as you reflect on this article for yourself and hopefully with your partner, keep that “both/and” in mind: The filter is both about me and about us. My tendency, your tendency, and how these tendencies bump up against each other. This Relational Self-Awareness framework opens up a much more interesting conversation than one that is about trying to figure out who is too crass and who is too sensitive. That quest for right or wrong ways of being in the world is going to get you tied up in knots, feeling frustrated with each other, and feeling disconnected from each other. Talking in a curious way about why each of you have the tendencies that you have and the sensitivities you have is far more intimacy-promoting. That’s the place from which you can make relational agreements about feedback and repairs when comments land poorly.
Family of Origin Dynamics
Now that we have wrapped this topic in a relational framework, I want to highlight one last piece before we close out this article. Looking at your filter in terms of a relational framework pertains not only to how our filter shapes the dynamics between you and someone else right here right now. It’s also about the fact that Family of Origin dynamics very likely had a hand in creating your needs and preferences in terms of the kind and quantity of feedback and openness you want and need in your intimate relationship today. Your past shapes your filter.
You’ll have to do a bit of investigating to understand how your past specifically shapes your needs and preferences around transparency today. I cannot give you a list of if-then statements that make this neat and tidy, but I will give you some examples to get you started on putting these pieces together for yourself… and your partner
If you grew up in a family of secrets, you might grow up into someone who is very people-pleasing because you don’t trust yourself to know what can be said out loud. Alternatively, if you grew up in a family with a lot of secrets, you might grow up into someone who is very blunt because you need total transparency to feel safe.
As you can see, just from these two examples, there’s not a 1:1 correspondence (if this, then this). The first example highlights what I call the Path of Repetition. You experienced a household in which not much was said out loud, there were lots of secrets, and you said, “This is just how it is. I must tread carefully at all times.” The second example highlights what I call the Path of Opposition. You experienced a household with lots of secrets and you said, “never again!”
The translation from the past to the present may be direct (Path of Repetition) or opposite (Path of Opposition). The work of Relational Self-Awareness is to forge a third path, what I call the Path of Integration. Your path. On this path you recognize that you do indeed have a tendency, a tendency that was formed for a very good reason during a very vulnerable time in your life. You practice disentangling what was needed back then from what is possible now. You get to do it differently now. Now that you are grown, you get to choose your responses rather than having to simply react to a reality you cannot control, which was what you had to do when you were little.
Also, by the way, lots of different dynamics in a Family of Origin can create a tendency toward bluntness versus people-pleasing. Addiction, trauma, unavailable parents, intrusive parents, etc. If you grew up in a home with an intrusive or controlling parent, perhaps your parent viewed your inner world as a betrayal of them. Something you were not allowed to have. Therefore, you might have developed a very tight filter simply because you don’t want other people to know what’s going on inside of your head. If your parent was insecure about their parenting, they needed to know what was happening inside of you to ensure that they are doing right by you. Here again, a very tight filter is a means of control for you. These are very different types of Family of Origin dynamics that could create the same type of filter in adulthood. What I’m wanting you to do is see what connections you can make between the nature of your filter today and the experiences you had in your Family of Origin. What happens for you TODAY when you have a thought/opinion/observation/feeling inside of you? Does saying it out loud feel risky? Does not saying it out loud feel risky? What does expression versus withholding feel like inside of your body? What does that suggest to you about your early experiences with disclosing versus refraining? Speaking up versus staying silent?
Reflect on how your specific reactions/needs/preferences tie to your early experiences. Draw a line from then to now. Making this connection between past and present can help you get disentangled from old patterns and more clearly figure out the kinds of boundaries you want and need in your intimate relationship today.
This is where we will pick up in the next article—really staying focused on the relational dynamics and how you and your partner can work together to ensure the space between you feel safe– you have enough access to your partner’s inner world to know where you stand and to feel connected but you don’t feel like you’re trying to navigate your way through a sea of your partner’s every thought, reaction, and musing.