Readers share their take on oversharing
I’m humbled by the stream of response to our discussion about privacy. I’m also impressed by the intensity of feeling and depth of thought readers give the topic.
Apropos discretion versus openness, not all questions that came our way can be treated appropriately or responsibly in a public forum. That’s not to say that the topics raised aren’t important. If your ideas aren’t aired below, please don’t back down, but turn to a rav, rebbetzin, or professional to have your questions privately addressed.
In Need, Indeed
I was recently going through turbulence in my marriage and was keeping it quiet, since so many kallah teachers stress that we should refrain from talking to parents and friends about marriage issues and rather stick to mentors or professionals. I had no teacher or rebbetzin whom I was close to and would feel comfortable to talk to about such a personal part of my life, so I was trying to deal with it on my own and hoping things would settle down quickly. They didn’t. Eventually I opened up to a friend, and it was the best decision I could have made. She made me feel so normal and encouraged me to reach out to a therapist she knew. I decided to trust her recommendation, and once I started therapy, I couldn’t be happier. My therapist is everything I needed to help me pull through. I’m now seeing her over a year, and sometimes I wonder what my life would look like had I not opened up to my friend. Would my struggle have spiraled out of control? Would swallowing my pain have led to unhealthy coping mechanisms that would take time to undo? Would I have given up from lack of support? Probably. In the beginning I wondered if I was doing the right thing by talking to my friend; but looking back, I no longer have any doubts.
You’re so lucky to have a wise friend to turn to. Judiciously confiding in a peer is wonderful. It doesn’t sound like you became overly dependent on this one friend, nor did she overstep her jurisdiction with assessment and advice that was beyond her abilities.
The advice to young marrieds to approach someone outside of their close family and social circle has strong basis. No one loves you more than your parents, but because of that, when a couple struggles, so do their parents. Naturally, it’s difficult for a parent to be an impassive or objective facilitator for many reasons. Still, this isn’t a fast and hard rule. Many successfully turn to their parents, and each case should be judged on a stand-alone basis. As for friends, as great as they are, they often lack the experience and maturity to advise. At times, details are indiscriminately shared further. In your case, your friend sounds solid, and clearly you did the right thing.
Would you agree that it’s not always necessary to seek out a paid professional, and sometimes a person going through something difficult just needs a friend in her life to support and empathize and help her weather the hard times? When that person is on the same page as you and is going through something similar, you form a type of “support group.”
When you’re distressed, often just expressing what you’re experiencing helps. If there’s worry in your heart, say Chazal, talk about it. The baalei mussar explain why that works: Emotions can lack control and be too hot to handle. Speech forces us to think. Intellect is cold, and by running what we feel through what we think, we cool it down, and can establish boundaries and control over runaway feelings and distress.
Conversely, the Alter from Kelm wouldn’t share certain spiritual ideas until they stopped affecting him. He feared cooling down the fire of inspiration through the cold speech of communication would destroy the impact they were having on him.
It’s true that often we have the ability to deal with things on our own, and talking it through with a good friend is enough to give us the support we need. Running for professional help can be unnecessary when you have the ability to tap into internal resources or gain clarity and equilibrium by talking things out with a friend.
But it’s upsetting when people avoid professional help and don’t get the healing, alleviation, or direction they need. It can happen that the reluctance to get help when necessary is in itself a sign of dysfunction. Oftentimes, a healthy person with a problem can turn for help, and the person with deeper issues can’t, either because they don’t have the emotional resilience to deal with the fact that they have issues, or they fear uncovering and having to deal with those issues. So while getting support from a friend is great, and utilizing your own abilities is wonderful, it can’t take the place of intervention from a properly trained, experienced professional when called for.
I’m also concerned that when a friend is going through something similar, she may be advising you through too subjective and limited a lens. If we’re talking support and validation, then it’s a gift when a friend has been through something similar and can truly empathize. You want to take care, though, that your path is a responsible one.
Here’s a reader from the other side of the mechitzah who didn’t think any of this was grounds for a conversation:
When I read the article about sharing I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Years back, I had been learning with my chavrusa for a few years, and my wife asked me “How many married children does he have?” I hadn’t the faintest idea. She was shocked, but it had never come up. She told me that she could be waiting in line behind a perfect stranger, and by the time they left the store they’d know each other’s details. (Not personal ones, just children, yeshivos, shidduchim).
Tell me, is it men-women, America-Israel, millennials-older folks? What is this need to totally spill your life?
The reality is that differences in sharing styles between spouses can be very challenging. This woman struggles with that:
How deep is too deep to share with a friend? Especially in a situation where a husband isn’t the type to have patience for deep conversations, how can you know when you’ve crossed a line?
There are always differences between husbands and wives who are often not cut of the same emotional cloth. There’s room for connections with siblings or friends to partially compensate. Sharing intermittently and with discretion is reasonable. But the point at which involvement and support morphs into unhealthy neediness and enmeshment comes way sooner in a friendship than in marriage.
When you say deep conversation, do you mean “deep thoughts,” or “deep emotion”? Deep thoughts can be shared freely with friends. Deep emotions need more care.
When it comes to the emotional aspects of your life, you need to ask yourself, “Will sharing this with my friend take me further from my husband and home as base?” If so, then despite the yearning to share, and even though this could assuage some of your void, hold back. Taking it outside will widen the distance that you’re trying to narrow between yourself and your spouse.
You may feel your husband is incapable of being there for you in all the ways you need. Perhaps that’s a skill that can be taught — either gently by you or by a professional. Simply giving up on him and going elsewhere will definitely not help your relationship.
Finally, give your husband time. The process of growing toward each other evolves over many years of mutual good will and commitment to give. Unless there are issues of unusual magnitude, fusion takes patience.
As stated in the original article, there’s a control valve in each of us that will usually let us know when we’ve crossed appropriate lines — unless we cross it so consistently that it’s deadened. If you feel that may have happened, speak this over with a mentor to get your bearings.
There are many relationships in our lives, and each has its place. There’s the role of parent, child, employee, sibling, friend, and spouse. Even under the best of circumstances, no one relationship can bear all of our needs. Our connection to Hashem is compared to every kind of connection and more. He can encompass all emotional bonds and needs as no human can. When we expect a husband, BFF, or parent to carry the full weight of our need for support or connection, we’re stretching that relationship beyond its natural endurance.
What happens when one’s spouse invites parenting rather than partnering, or when an adult relies on a child for authority and parental direction? Or when professional relationships between men and women evolve into friendship? Or when female friendship replaces an emotional intimacy that belongs in marriage? We’ve upset the balance of which relationships go where in our lives. `
We’ve come a very long way destigmatizing things that in the past were not generally spoken about. Wouldn’t we be turning the clock back if we went back to covering things up? I fear an article like this might take us backward.
There are wonderful aspects of the times we live in — help available for crisis being one example. There were problems and shortcomings in the past — lack of awareness of psychological and emotional challenges is a good example of that.
But an honest look around will show that resilience, fortitude, steadfastness, and persistence are on the wane. Oversharing is a prime suspect in that development. It seems that a bit more privacy and inner strength can take us forward.
Privacy definitely keeps women from seeking help. You can’t be pro-awareness while at the same time say “but keep it low-key.” We know that in previous generations, when the stigma of mental illness was high, awareness and the incidence of people actually getting help were correspondingly low. I believe the openness that’s slowly developing around this topic is only a positive thing.
This is one of countless examples of what to do when there’s a conflict between legitimate values, and halachic responsa is filled with resolutions of such conflicts. The question is not if you or I are pro-awareness or not — we don’t get a vote here — but if the Torah is.
Certainly, being informed as to the responsible steps to take when faced with difficulty is good. Awareness is one value, privacy another, and sometimes they clash. What is the ranking of ideals when one has to come first? In the secular ladder of priorities, it would be out with discretion, in with publicity. For a believing Jew, it’s impossible to make that judgement unless one understands where each one falls in the Torah’s hierarchy of values.
You say that you see openness as “only a positive thing.” No downside whatsoever? Is privacy so expendable? The truth is more nuanced. Yes, by being guarded, a certain ease in turning for help is lost, and that’s challenging. But loosening classic constraints carries with it a high price as well — a weakening of that which is central to who we are as Jews.
Aiming for Aristocratic
Your article raised many important points. I was concerned at your opinion that mental health struggles should be kept private for “self-respect” and “dignity.” I wonder if you’d find it similarly inappropriate for a woman to mention that she’s on antibiotics for strep throat at PTA? Or painkillers for her back pain? Why is it any different for a woman to share that she sometimes needs an Ativan for her anxiety? It’s not, unless you believe that mental health issues are shameful.
Everyone struggles with something, and blaming oneself for life circumstances beyond our control is counterproductive. Still, you wouldn’t say to a stranger on the train, “Hi my name is Rachel, and I’m on antibiotics,” or walk into PTA moaning because you have strep. That’s also a lack of dignity even though there’s nothing shameful about strep, just as there’s nothing shameful about any of the other conditions you list. You would share it if there was a reason to. And the grounds for sharing would be less private than say, bipolar or an eating disorder, because a strep throat is more external, more technical, and therefore less private. As things touch closer to our internal selves, privacy is more in place.
I’m hearing a question that touches on the difference between our physical selves and emotional selves — and our spiritual selves as well — and it’s hard to establish where one ends and the other begins. For example, being short-tempered is a bad middah and demands spiritual work, but sometimes just taking a nap will solve the problem. The Rambam explains that because the soul is ensconced in a body, these lines are blurred, so for example, there’s spiritual fatigue whereas the soul should never tire. You ask about the difference between back pain and anxiety. Anxiety has physiological, endocrinological roots, which is why it can be treated pharmaceutically. But an emotional challenge touches on our core selves far more than strep throat. Comparing strep throat and anxiety is to place our outer selves and inner selves on the same plane — and they’re not.
A word about feeling discomfort when encountering a lack of propriety. We don’t only feel embarrassed when something is “shameful,” but also when things are inappropriate. If you get caught at a wedding in a slinky skirt and sweatshirt, you might be embarrassed. There’s nothing shameful about your attire, but it’s out of place. The idea that being private about something shows we’re ashamed of it is an unfortunate misconception. The sentiment to allow all topics to be public because we have nothing to be ashamed of reminds me of the let-it-all-hang-loose ’70s, when there was a trend to keep all the doors in the house permanently ajar, no matter how personal what went on there because “there’s nothing shameful about natural life.” True, but it’s not appropriate, so we close doors. Privacy doesn’t equal shame.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 715)
Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor
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