Relationships are fertile ground for realizations about how I undermine my own efforts. It’s easiest to learn from the close relationships with people I see all the time, but the observations apply to a much broader spectrum of connections: people to whom I’ve sent music, people with whom I want to partner on a project, people from whom I want to learn. I don’t always know what to do differently, but noticing that I am doing something to get in my own way is definitely the first step.
Here’s the deal: I am generally a polite person, a considerate person, a “nice” person. I am generally tolerant and accepting of people’s idiosyncrasies, and I’m not threatened by points of view that differ from mine. All that is genuine and real as a personal baseline. But sometimes it becomes an act. Sometimes, I don’t actually want to be considerate or tolerant. Sometimes I want to be more direct in what I say, even what I would consider harsh and impolite. And instead I just pretend to be tolerant and accepting and “nice.”
That only works for so long, though. Eventually, I get fed up with pretending and decide that I’m through tolerating someone, and I let out the directness and the impoliteness and the harshness I was holding back. Actually, this very thing has occurred a couple of times in the past couple of weeks. Both times, I was actually rewarded for it, in a way. The people to whom I was being direct and harsh and impolite didn’t cut off all contact, they didn’t compete with me to see who could be harshest, and they didn’t throw a guilt trip on me for being impolite. They heard me through what I thought was a challenging degree of directness, and I got to see a more unguarded side to these people than I am usually granted access. Not what I expected.
After a lot of thought on these situations, I have come to believe that I was rewarded with people being unguarded with me because I was being unguarded with them. The “nice” act, when it is pretending and not sincere, is protection. The directness and harshness is real in that moment--my genuine feelings and thoughts. By the time I let myself go there, I am so fed up with someone’s behavior that it doesn’t seem like I have anything to lose. I am invulnerable at that point. Why bother being polite if I no longer care what somebody thinks or does? Why bother being nice if I have all but written someone off?
Except that I haven’t. It’s all an illusion, a trick my mind has played on me. I’m just as vulnerable (or invulnerable) when I am pretending to be nice as when I am over-the-top harsh and direct. And I never actually stop caring about what these individuals think or feel. When I actually stop caring, it’s usually because I am utterly convinced that nothing I can say or do will have any impact whatsoever on the person in question. I’m not harsh or direct or impolite with those people, I just literally stop trying to be anything at all to them. When I let myself get direct and impolite and harsh, somewhere inside I still believe that there is something of value to the connection, even if I don’t admit that in the moment so I can feel safe in expressing what I really want to say. When I’m vulnerable, I have to just pretend to be nice, but when I reach invulnerability, I can say what I really want. Twisted.
So, it isn’t the sincere and genuine considerate and nice behavior I want to change, and it isn’t really the directness either. I want to be unguarded enough to have high-quality connections with people, and sometimes that involves being vulnerable and saying something that might seem harsh in my head. Being polite doesn’t always serve people. Or me. And letting perceived vulnerability stand in my way has other adverse effects on what I want, too. Sometimes I avoid doing things that could build connections and create the opportunities I want for my music and my life, and I hesitate to make those phone calls or write those emails because I don’t want to bother someone. I want to be polite. I want to be nice. Except that I don’t really want to be nice. What I want in those moments is safety. I don’t want to be vulnerable.
This isn’t the case all the time, but in those moments when I choose perceived safety over acting on my own behalf, the sacrifice is great. I want to be a better advocate for myself, for what I see and what I want. The evidence in front of me is that, at least in close relationships, people value what I actually have to say, even when I let myself reach a point of frustration before I say it. There are plenty of times when genuine politeness is appropriate, but I don’t think I’m putting myself at risk of losing that quality if I stop pretending. Maybe I can even start expressing things directly and authentically without harsh tones if I don’t wait until I am fed up with a situation. Maybe sometimes I just won’t be polite.