Cindy was my own little JFK: A riddle wrapped in a question locked inside an enigma. She'd been my client for nearly three months, but I still had no idea what she thought or felt. Our conversations always went something like this:
Me: "So, Cindy, what's going on in your life?"
Cindy: "Oh, you know. Like, my parents...[long pause]"
Cindy: "You know how they are."
Me: "Um, not really. How are they?"
Cindy: "It's like, well, anyway...I don't know, they...like...[sigh]"
Me: "Like what?"
Cindy: "You know."
As flattered as I was that Cindy seemed to consider me omniscient (she said "you know" approximately four thousand times per session), I eventually had to advise that she stop wasting money on a life coach who had no clue what to tell her. "But," Cindy exclaimed with obvious dismay, "you're the only person who really seems to understand me!"
Until that moment, I'd assumed that Cindy didn't trust me enough to talk about her inner life. Then I realized that she just didn't know how. To some degree, most of us share her dilemma. We want desperately to be understood, and we think this will happen when we meet the Perfectly Understanding Person. The truth is that we lack the capacity to make ourselves understood, the ability to disclose our real selves in a way that connects us with others. Even if you're as stuck as Cindy, you can—and if you want to live joyfully, you must—learn to do it.
The Dance of the Seven Veils
The ability to make yourself understood is a prosaic, practical skill, like swimming or telling time but more fundamental to your emotional health. In his poem "A Prayer for My Daughter," William Butler Yeats called it "the heart-revealing intimacy / that chooses right," phrasing that emphasizes the importance of opening our feelings to others—but carefully. Most of us reveal ourselves about as gracefully as drunken ducklings until we've had a little experience. Like Cindy, we may spend years in inarticulate silence, then blurt out things that make us feel, well, like we're exposing ourselves.
The ability to disclose our true selves effectively is a bit like the famous dance of the seven veils, in which the dancer removes one veil at a time, with plenty of dancing in between, creating far more allure than if she just showed up buck naked. Relationships, even completely asexual ones, work the same way (one of my clients used the term falling in like to describe the happy dance of gradual disclosure involved in making friends). Our true selves are hidden behind innumerable veils. Each time we disclose a truth about ourselves—anything from our favorite color to our deepest feelings—we remove a layer. Pay attention the next time you do this. Notice the other person's reaction. Does it make you feel understood, safe, glad you've unveiled a bit? If so, you'll probably feel like shedding another layer sometime soon. If not, simply stop unveiling. By responding to your instincts, you'll develop the skill of setting boundaries very precisely. This sets you free to bond with people who really understand you, while remaining cordially detached from those who don't.