YOU REVEAL YOURSELF BY WHAT YOU TELL
In coffee confabs, bull sessions, chance remarks, intimate confessions, everybody — man and woman — draws a picture of his character, his most secret desires and hates. But it’s a different you speaking every time
ONLY MAN, of all the animals, is abashed and secretive. There are things he cannot or will not reveal about himself even to his vital kin — his parents, his mate, his brothers and sisters, his children. For the rest of the world he edits himself with still more compulsion and cunning. In fact, everything he thinks, feels, believes and remembers he also considers None of Somebody’s Business.
Yet he seems also possessed of a furtive urge to make himself known. In freakish hints, in contagious bull sessions, in aggressive boasts, in coy parables or jests that cloak truth, in shy confidences and in tortured confessions he keeps setting the record straight. It’s as though the finally intolerable thing — and never mind his privacy — is to feel himself misunderstood.
Why do these twin urges war
CONTINUED ON I'AGE 42
You reveal yourself by what you tell
Continued from page 17
An expert says: “In a sense, we're all mentally ill.“ He suggests “psychoanalysis for everyone“
within him? What kinds of things do people conceal about themselves? Why? Who do they talk freely to? Who should they talk freely to? How much should they tell?
Most people are only fitfully aware that there is an inner clash. The sole symptom may be a tiny moment of puzzled irritation or dismay: "Why on earth couldn't I come right out and admit the truth?" or, on the other hand, "Now what made me tell that?” Or it may catch their attention by the anomaly of dislike for the confidante that often follows the luxurious heart-to-heart talk.
Yet ever since Freud, students of the human personality have been convinced that our patterns of self-disclosure are crucial. In fact classic psychoanalysis is based on the premise that mental sickness resides just in what we keep secret — and that the cure is to talk about it. And talk. And talk.
By this token, everyone who keeps secrets — that is. everyone — is more or less sick. This is just what one English psychiatrist, Charles Berg, maintains. "We are all, in a sense, mentally ill people," he writes. Then he offers his solution: "It may be a justifiable ideal that every person . . . should be analyzed."
In the same vein, marriage counselors prescribe full and frank disclosure between partners for a happy marriage; welfare workers think many problems could be solved if parents and children talked freely to each other; and industry has its stall' counselors installed to encourage and hear out employee beefs.
And it would almost seem that people are as eager to talk about themselves as the social scientists are to have them talk. Gordon Allport, a U. S. social scientist, reports, “When students are given their option in writing either an autobiography or a case study of some other personality the majority — often eighty percent — choose to write about themselves." The Public Opinion Quarterly, commenting on a survey of sex attitudes in Britain, remarked, "Many people stopped at random in the street were eager to talk to perfect strangers.”
Yet talking readily, even about personal things, is not total self-disclosure. Psychiatrists know that some material is so painful for a patient to dig out of himself that he will fall into lies and abuse,
spend whole sessions in stubborn silence or threaten to discontinue treatment rather than put it into words. Derek Miller, formerly on the staff of the Saskatchewan Hospital at Weyburn and later with the Menninger Foundation, tells of a delinquent seventeen - year - old whom welfare workers couldn't help because he literally could not bear to talk about himself at all.
While most people, unlike this boy. are eager to talk about themselves, they will keep from one person what they will reveal to another. A man will speculate about the new blond in the office with his co-workers but not with his wife. He will tell his wife details of his college carousals that he would never tell his parents. He will tell his parents he is having to borrow money but will do all he can to hide it from his golf partner. He will indulge in florid accounts of his past to his golf partner but not to his son. And he will tell his son of his love for poetry though he thinks he would sooner die than admit to his co-workers that parts of A Shropshire Lad still move him to tears.
A stranger may hear all
These selective reticences and revelations may seem normal and practical to him. But people often make a choice of confidante that seems quite impractical. It's not uncommon for patients in neurological hospitals to remain on guard with psychiatrists but unburden themselves to the nurses or the masseuse. A Canadianborn sociologist, Erving Goffman, reports studies that reveal men will bypass their own doctor to confess to some corner druggist that they need abortifacients. contraceptives or venereal-disease cures. And almost everyone, at some time, has discussed an intimate problem with some bystander—even a stranger—who could not possibly help or arbitrate. "Marital troubles,” sighs Lou Friedman, manager of the Co-op Cab Company in Toronto. "It's almost a fact that seven or eight out of every ten fares are gonna tell you their marital troubles. Or girl - friend troubles."
A little over two years ago, Sidney Jourard. an associate research professor at the University of Florida, undertook studies of what people arc willing to reveal, and to whom.
riere are some of his findings: Mothers are generally the closest confidante of unmarried young people, sons or daughters;
Females also confide in their girl friends and males in their men friends, but females tell least about themselves to :heir beaux, and males to their girl friends:
Married men and women transfer their confidences from parents to spouse, but don't tend to increase the number or depth;
Most people will talk willingly about their attitudes, tastes and work;
The majority are reticent about their financial affairs, their personality and their bodily functions and appearance; Women disclose themselves more than men.
"Women are quite prepared to talk about their sexual habits—which after all have some moral connotations." reports Ralph Bowden, president of TransCanada Marketing Studies.
"But,” he adds, "it's an astonishing thing. Women are not prepared to answer questions about menstruation, which has no moral connotations.”
The literature of the human personality suggests there are at least three drives that prompt people to talk about themselves. The first—and the most time-honored—is catharsis, that gush of relief and freedom that follows confession of guilt. Many North Americans heard or read Charles Van Doren's recent confession that he'd cheated as a quiz contestant on the TV quiz show Twenty-One. They also heard him say. "This is the first time-I've felt happy for three years.” Many people have found that secret guilt is a blackmailer and that publishing the blackmail themselves is the only release from a frightened eternity of paying.
The second motive could be called exhibitionism. It is the need for prestige, the need to make a mark, to get attention, sympathy, love, pity, even hatred or contempt—any sort of recognition. Nob stories, confessions for shock value, or locker-room boasts are of this order. It is a motive that's capable of sweeping aside even the simplest caution. Artie Newman, a member of the notorious Birger gang that terrorized southern Illinois in the Twenties, once started trading anecdotes with a stranger on a transcontinental train. The stranger talked very big about guys being bumped off and other guys being taken for a ride. Newman began topping him. The stranger was a reporter, Pulitzer prize winner John T. Rogers, of the St. Louis PostDispatch. Newman and ten of his gang were convicted of the two murders he'd bragged of to Rogers.
The third motive is self-understanding. It's as though putting feelings into words helped them make sense, begin to seem normal. The confidante's reaction can complete the process. If he is unshocked, unsurprised, unpuzzled, the confider feels confirmed in his self-analysis and freed of his fears of being unattractive or—worse — unnatural. Most heart-to-heart talks and bull sessions send the talkers home a little more sure that what they are is, after all, all right.
But each motive to tell has its matching motive for silence. The need for selfconfirmation may be countered by the terror of finding oneself abnormal. Researchers into psychic phenomena or into the subject of hallucination are convinced that many people desperately conceal such experiences through fear of learning that they are to be considered mad.
The urge to confess and find catharsis
may be outweighed by the fear of punishment. So for years Sheilah Graham, the Hollywood columnist, could bring herself to tell no one that she had been born Lily Sheil in a London slum lest she lose her job. her status, her friends and her lover.
The need for recognition may keep people mute as well as driving them to talk: they will hide information about themselves that might lower their prestige, or prevent their raising it. This seems to be the motive behind the universal— and initially puzzling — reticence about
income. People will tell how they voted in the last election, how they cheated on a college exam and why they nearly committed suicide. But to have others know the size of their salary seems as threatening as though it were, in literal truth, the measure of what they're worth. In the same way, it's commonplace among poll-takers that their respondents will seek to raise their status by pretending that they vote, contribute to community chest and have a driver's license.
There is one other area of reticence, so deep-rooted and instinctive that it
seems linked with a kind of self-preservation. This is the experience of mental anguish or outrage so severe that it cannot be faced. A Toronto book editor said recently, “The one thing I’ve never been able to discuss with anyone was something I saw once as a child. It was someone torturing an animal in an unbelievable way. It's as though if I put it into words it would make it real.” In the same way soldiers returning from battle will say, "I don’t want to talk about it.” And a Scottish psychoanalyst. Dr. W. Ronald Fairbairn, after noting that sexual offen-
ders would talk freely about their crimes, reported that the children who had been victims of their assault could not be persuaded to talk about the experience.
Humiliation seems to tap the same self-protective instinct. Annette Garrett, a U. S. social worker, reports the case of a boy who was being counseled because he'd quit school. The boy admitted without probing that he'd once got into trouble for pilfering, but only with skilful and patient questioning and after many false starts could he blurt out his most painful secret: he wouldn’t go to school because his mother had made his underwear from her own cut-down knickers and he wouldn’t risk being seen in them in the washrooms or gym locker room.
Why didn’t the boy tell his mother instead of the counselor? “She’d feel real bad because she knows we haven't any money to get underwear,” he explained.
The decision to spare someone is part of the urge to be worthy of approval. For. though the evolution of inhibitions is infinitely complex, one way of describing it is as a gradual process of learning what people do not want to hear and obediently keeping it from them.
It starts in babyhood. If what the child reports about himself brings too much anger or distress from his parents he will stop reporting it. So he learns to suppress— and to feel guilty about — his destructive rages, his jealousy, his curiosity, his occasional impotent hatred of his parents, his lies, lusts, cruelties or stupidities. It is “sins” such as these— smothered, festering unacknowledged — that may bring him to the psychoanalyst’s couch in later life. Soon the child learns to screen his confidences not only according to what behaviour will bring approval or displeasure from his parents but also according to their views on what is welcome to the world at large: “We don’t tell people mummy's age;” “We don't say that granny had to go to a nursing home;” or, simply, “We don't talk about that!” So Victorian parents who equate wholesomeness in sex with simple lack of activity rear their children to taboos about bodily functions and natural urges.
The child also absorbs his parents’ explicit training about expressing himself. A boy will be taught that it's not manly to complain. A girl will be taught that her traditional role is to listen sympathetically.
By adolescence most children start to find outlets for the confidences they feel they can’t bring their parents. For the urge to be worthy of approval wars with the wistful need to be accepted, sins, problems, fears and all, just as they are.
They test their friends with ever-narrowing generalizations for signs of shock or ridicule or apathy. They blurt out the contraband thought: their mother has a martyr-complex, they've decided, or she has this mean habit of sitting tight-lipped and prickly at dinner without ever saying what they've done wrong. Then . . . the cathartic realization that such disloyalty is not just permissible but epidemic in the whole group. Here, they feel, they can abandon pretense.
But even as his friends help emancipate him the friends themselves turn into tyrants. The intelligent girl must never talk about her marks or she won't be popular. The boy must not admit he likes the French teacher whom everyone else considers a drip. The taboos differ with education, income level, race background, religion, locale, but by the time they reach their twenties most people know what others expect from them.
They present it economically and efficiently. trying to volunteer nothing that would intrude on, say, the boss's concept
of a secretary, the PTA's picture of a charming matron, the golf-club version of the rugged male. For example, in The Organization Man, William Whyte reports on a community of wives in the new suburbia who simply didn’t want to hear about any too-rarefied tastes in literature or music. Rather than be thought a snob, the egghead in the group quickly learned to censor her thoughts and feelings on these subjects when she was with them.
On the other hand, the wives permitted, even required, certain other kinds of self-disclosure. One young wife told Whyte, “A young girl who would get to brooding if she was in an apartment all by herself on the outside can talk things over with us.” Another said, “You find yourself discussing all your personal problems with your neighbors — things that back in South Dakota we would have kept to ourselves.”
But for the most part people find that talk of their personal problems is unwelcome particularly outside the home. “Don't tell me your troubles,” is perhaps society's most devastating sanction.
How anger releases secrets
Tangled in the cat's cradle of acquired reticences and imposed bans, most people keep looking for someone to emancipate them from the group, just as the group once emancipated them from childhood. They look for someone with whom they can just be themselves.
Ideally this is the person they marry, but that’s not always quite the way it is. Even in well-adjusted marriages, says sociologist Erving Goffman, "We expect that each partner may keep from the other secrets having to do with financial matters, past experiences, current flirtations. indulgences in ‘bad’ or expensive habits, personal aspirations and worries, actions of children, true opinions held about relatives or mutual friends, etc.”
Ill-adjusted marriages not only foil the basic needs for self-expression but themselves create problems and emotions that cry for outlet. Sometimes the partners can tell each other the truth about these only in moments of anger so convulsive that it sweeps away inhibition. Sometimes not even then can they communicate. An American lawyer's wife once visited the London office of Cosmopolitan magazine with an astonishing proposition. She explained that she wanted to leave her husband but couldn’t screw up enough courage to tell him. So she made her suggestion: “I have been reading some of these confession articles in Cosmopolitan and I would like to write an article which you would buy and publish. And then I can put a copy of the magazine on my husband's desk and then I'd have to leave.”
She at least had a decision to com-
municate, but more often the situation is deadlocked in hate, misery and recrimination. In a recent letter to Ann Landers, a personal-problem columnist, a distraught and pregnant woman who signed herself “ZYX” confided that her husband had announced he was going to give the baby away because he couldn't afford it. “I’m so ashamed that I must get help from someone who doesn’t know us,” the letter began.
For it's when all appropriate confidantes seem to threaten the punishment of anger, distaste or refusal that people turn to strangers—to the hired listeners like hairdressers, barkeeps or cabbies, the professional confidantes like poll takers, or reporters or ghost writers, or to the motherly Mary Worth figures who offer their interest and their ear.
They're neutrals, so they are nonthreatening; and one way or another, even if it's only because you’re paying them, they’re guaranteed to hold still long enough to listen. Otherwise they fall pitifully short of the social scientist’s definition of the ideal confidante. As Jourard, the pioneer in self-disclosure research, puts it, “Actively accepting, empathie, loving, non-punitive responses—in short, love — provide the optimum conditions under which man will disclose, or expose, his naked, quivering self to our gaze.” Psychiatry’s substitute is, of course, the psychoanalyst.
Does telling strangers—even psychoanalysts—do any good?
What it depends on, oddly enough, is how hard it is to tell. The man who buttonholes the barkeep, his best friend, his golf partner, his sympathetic secretary and a whole series of neighbors to say his wife doesn't understand him is doing nothing for himself—and boring his fellows into the bargain.
For an interesting phenomenon is emerging: as a new generation grows up, schooled in easy self-expression and the commonplaces of Freudian thought, psychoanalysis is beginning to take longer. David Riesman, the U. S. sociologist who wrote The Lonely Crowd, notes that when talk along these lines comes cheap, analysis is often “interminable.”
It seems that only when telling is a shock — an emotional drama in itself — does it do what is therapeutic: make us be ourselves and take a look at what this is. The man who, in agony, blurts out his nightmare fear of being a coward in battle is stumbling on a part of himself and facing it for the first time. The woman who, in love, confesses she is ashamed of her body has abandoned glibness and pretense so that with help she can begin to change herself.
For true mental health lies not in words but in self-understanding, and in growth. It's just that sometimes the words help. ★