What Having ADD Taught Martha Beck About Owning Her Baggage
Maybe you, too, suffer from a condition that could have an impact on the way you interact with others: Tourette syndrome, dyslexia, lethal allergies, the lingering effects of a natural disaster (please, God, not all of the above). These issues may not inform your entire life, but often it's best to let people know about them, just to avert any potential confusion. That's why psychologists are always telling us to share about ourselves and "own our stuff": Openness can clear the air and encourage healthy communication.
Some people, however, use openness as a substitute for considerate behavior. But there's nothing virtuous in simply promulgating all your vices, as in: "Look, I have no mental filters, so I'll probably hurt your feelings. Also I'm a total slob, so expect a mess. And I steal things. What can I say? It's who I am." Owning your stuff should not be confused with letting your freak flag flap in everybody's face; it's an act of integrity that leads to more compassionate, responsible behavior.
So, how do you tell the difference between constructive honesty and lazy excuses? Here's the test: Any disclosure should be subjected to the three questions below. If you can't answer all three in the affirmative, you may need to own that you're not really owning your stuff.
Have I changed as much as I can? Say you're pathologically scatterbrained. As an ADD veteran, I can tell you there are lots of work-arounds. Have you tried setting multiple alarm clocks, writing notes on your hands, even paying assistants or bribing loved ones to repeatedly remind you where you're supposed to be? Some things may still slip through the cracks—but you are integrity-bound to compensate for your issue in any way possible. If you just let other people work around you, then you're not owning your problem. You're handing it off to someone else.
Is it true, kind, and necessary? There's not only a right time to own something, but also a right way to own it. I love the philosophy that everything we say should be true, kind, and necessary. Many of us practice false humility by saying things that aren't true in very unkind ways, like "I'm such an idiot—you should just hit me with a shovel and raise a pig instead." This kind of exaggerated self-denigration isn't honorable and it isn't cute. It's manipulative ("Please say something nice about me!") and annoying.
Even when owning something is true and kind, it may still be unnecessary. Does your boss need to know you're struggling with depression? Should you tell Grandpa that your badgerlike aggression stems from the worst premenstrual syndrome in recorded history? Maaaaybeeee—depending on the boss, the grandpa, and the severity of the situation. Generally, you should share whenever someone needs to know about the way you function in the world and you're looking for genuine understanding. Follow your confession by acknowledging what's happened—you were late with the report, you exploded in flames when Grandpa pinched your cheek—and having, as they say, the serenity to accept what you cannot change, the courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Am I sharing just enough to create understanding without burdening my listener? Your unchangeable, true, kind, necessary stuff doesn't have to be outlined in great detail. Before an "owning my stuff" speech, ask yourself: Are professionals paid to listen to information like this? Your therapist is fascinated by your childhood traumas because that's her job, and the same goes for your nutritionist's obsession with your colon health. You can describe your troubles ad nauseam if you're offering something—possibly cash—in exchange. Otherwise, sing your issues briefly, then put a sock in it.
Speaking of reciprocity, chances are you'll someday run afoul of another person's unskillful stuff-owning. When someone in your life consistently owns her stuff in offensive or upsetting ways, you must open up as well. Otherwise, you'll just grow angrier and more disgusted, which is a surefire way to wreck any relationship. Truth flows both ways.
Of course, you're also going for kind and necessary, so don't blurt out, "Well, when people 'own their stuff' without trying to change, I feel an urge to smack them. That's just the way I am." You may be able to head off the oversharing with polite hinting. Next time your cousin says, "Sorry I flaked; I can't keep promises because of my commitment issues," don't tell her it's okay. Arch an eyebrow. Pause meaningfully. Be honest enough to avoid the expected permissive response.
If your oversharers don't take the hint, step up and speak out. Own your stuff, and be as truthful as they're pretending to be. Say, "Here'?s something I need you to know. I'm grateful that you're up-front about your problems, but it feels as if you're just talking about them instead of doing something about them. That bothers me." If they say they can't change, suggest that they find a professional who specializes in helping people with that problem.
I'm so glad we talked, and I promise that observing these stuff-owning guidelines will make your life happier, calmer, and—whoa, lookit! Shiny object! I'll be going now. What can I say? It's just who I am.
Martha Beck's latest book is Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening (Cynosure Publishing).