Monday, April 14, 2014

Privacy and Isolation when Life is Tough

Appearing calm; paddling frantically.
By Mary C. Tillotson

When I was in college, a Difficult Thing occurred in my life. I don’t see any reason why the internet at large needs to know the details, in part because it’s personal and in part because plenty of other people were involved, and I don’t think it’s fair to them if I share personal details from their lives. Suffice to say something had been brewing for a while and it came to a head when I found out there would be undeniable physical proof of what had been brewing. I had to figure out how to transition from pretending everything was okay.

What made it more difficult, as you might expect from your own experiences with the Difficult Things in your life, was my belief that nobody else struggled with anything like this. I remember walking to the cafeteria with some friends the day I found out, silent and mentally absent from the conversation. Mostly I was ashamed: all these people with Perfect Families and Perfect Lives hung out with me now, but how could they even relate when they found out about This? Would they assume a bunch of other stuff that wasn’t actually true? Would they start treating me differently?

After dinner, I finally accepted an offer from a friend to talk about it. I cried. She listened. To my surprise, she related: she had a similar Difficult Thing in her life, and so did several other people we knew. It just wasn’t coming to a head in everyone’s life that week like it was in mine.

Have you had that experience? Probably. I think most of us have: we face a Difficult Thing, feel ashamed and isolated because we’re probably the Only One dealing with it, then find out we’re not alone and at least feel better (even if the Difficult Thing isn’t resolved).

This brings me to a question: where is the balance between oversharing and isolating?

Whether it’s an embarrassing medical problem, a misbehaving family member, a marital conflict, an anxiety or depression disorder, sexual abuse, or whatever, sometimes life is just really tough and it seems like there’s no one to talk to. It’s an isolating Catch-22 where no one wants to air their dirty laundry, but we all desperately need someone else to air theirs so we know we’re not alone.

Some find a solution in talking frankly, openly, and publicly about their Difficult Things. This can be helpful, but I don’t think it’s always the best solution. Sometimes a Difficult Thing touches multiple people, and I don’t think it’s fair to say publicly “such-and-such a family member did this horrible thing, and I’m really suffering from it” because, if it’s my uncle (for illustration; all my uncles are actually really good people), maybe my mom or dad doesn’t want you to know that about his or her brother; maybe my aunt doesn’t want you to know that about her husband. Sometimes Difficult Things really are personal; they involve a kind of intimacy that the whole world really doesn’t need to know about. And while one blogger may feel comfortable telling the internet at large about her anxiety disorder, other people with anxiety disorders need to feel that it’s okay not to tell people if they don’t want to.

The solution I think best is friendship. Relationships secured by a deep trust can be safe places to confide Difficult Things.

But it takes time to build these kinds of relationships, and most of us young people end up moving again before we’ve had time to get to know anyone that well. We often live in cities or towns that don’t have very good getting-to-know-people structures; we’re often too busy with work and family to have energy for the historical society or some church group that doesn’t sound all that interesting but might have people who could be really close friends if we kept going for three years, maybe.

I don’t know the answer. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Agreed that sharing in person is good but sharing on the internet is less often good. . . . . Funny how it feels easier, sometimes, to share something online than in person. I take that as a sign that I need to invest more in in-person relationships.


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