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How To Be Genuine In Your Relationships

Genuine is an adjective that means “truly what something is said to be.” According to the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, synonyms for the word genuine include authentic, real, sincere, honest, truthful, straightforward, direct, frank, candid and open. All great words, right? Ask 10 of your friends if they aspire to be any of these things, and my hunch is that most, if not all, will say yes, absolutely! Who wouldn’t want to be authentic, real, sincere, honest, truthful, straightforward, direct, frank, candid and open?

Well, if these traits are all so highly sought after, then why are there so many people out there in the world who are, to a greater or lesser extent, guarded, false, insincere, dishonest, deceptive, passive-aggressive, indirect, and closed? I believe it’s because they’re afraid; afraid of being hurt, afraid of being exploited, afraid of being taken advantage of, afraid of being walked on, and afraid of being exposed and humiliated in some way, so they (i.e., we) posture. We guard our hearts, pretending to be something we’re not; we hide our needs and our true intentions, and far too often we don’t say what we mean. After all, if I never come right out and share my innermost thoughts and feelings (which is a requirement of genuineness), then I don’t have to worry about someone criticizing me, or worse, rejecting me. So we (i.e., I) posture. Or our emotional pendulum swings in the other direction, and fearing that we can’t get our needs met honestly and voluntarily, we over-control, and over-demand and over-take what we want, and we posture.

Of course, it’s okay be guarded in certain situations, and with certain people. In fact, it’s vital to have good boundaries and show discretion in opening our hearts to others. People must earn our trust before we let them into the deeper recesses of our brains and our hearts. Problems arise though when we either trust too quickly, or never trust at all as protective measures, because we lack the ability (perhaps because of years of unhealthy relationships) to discern when and how to become more genuine, real, and authentic with another; or we avoid being genuine and transparent because we think we have something to hide.

In fact, I think one of the most common driving forces keeping many of us from resting in our truth and genuineness is the cumulative impact of year of hiding. I moved to a new state after college and recreated myself. It felt wonderful and freeing to create a world where no one knew my historic family dynamics, including my parents’ ugly divorce, and my years of rebellious behavior. By using my move as an opportunity to hide the more painful parts of myself, I engaged in a physical cut-off.

When I had a baby on the heels of my divorce, after years of much publicized infertility, and with a man who fell squarely in the “rebound relationship” category, I identified myself as a “divorced mom,” in a rather covert attempt to deflect questions about a deeply painful and private time in my life. By presenting myself in a ‘creative’ light to avoid potential judgment and embarrassment I engaged in an emotional cut-off.

This pattern seemed to work for me for years, providing insulation against imagined scrutiny, but the problem with being too guarded is that we hide our truth not only from others, but also from ourselves, and at some point what initially felt like freedom, ultimately enslaves us, as we begin to believe our own posturing tales.

By hiding my truth I also hid the very best parts of myself – those parts that arose from the ashes. I learned to be more empathetic because of my past. Because so many of my reactive choices were made in the wake of deep pain and despair, I learned what it feels like to have nothing but double binds to choose from, and I learned that sometimes society’s conceptualization of morality is a luxury that some of us cannot seem to afford. I hid my genuineness whenever I said I was fine when I wasn’t, whenever I acted confident when I was broken, and whenever I pretended to be strong when I was fragile.

I started my journey toward increased genuineness when I craved increased depth in my relationships, more than I craved self-protection. I started slowly, by making the commitment to look in the mirror and get to know who I really was in graphic transparency, and then extending myself the same level of compassion, empathy and acceptance that I always tried to show others. I took this first step before making any effort to reveal my true self to others. I become an observer, rather than a participant in many of my interpersonal interaction and what I found surprised me. I was surprised at how often I nodded my head in agreement, when I didn’t really agree, or didn’t express an opinion or a feeling, because it wasn’t worth it to me to have conflict, or how often I felt defensive when someone got to close to my truth. So I mentally sat back and watched, and learned.

Ultimately I discovered new truths about myself (and the world) that eventually set me free, and that I hope can set others free a well. I learned that our truths are just that – our truths, and no one has a right to judge our choices. I learned that being fragile or broken is our right, and nothing that we need to be apologized for. I learned that the best way to be genuine is to rip off the Band-Aid, and just be honest – about our fears and our acts of courage; our mistakes and our victories; our vulnerabilities and our strengths.

The next challenge was figuring out how and when to become transparent with others. I decided that for myself, it was better to reveal my true self earlier rather than later, because sometimes hiding myself is still something rather automatic. Ultimately I believe that figuring out when the timing is right to expose ourselves to others is irrelevant – it just doesn’t matter because genuineness is something we do for ourselves; because this too is our right.

Michelle Martin

Dr. Michelle Martin is on the faculty at a university on the west coast, where she teaches in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. She has worked in the social work field for over three decades in a range of practice settings, primarily with women in various life transitions. Dr. Martin has an MSW and a PhD in peace studies. She is the author of three books, and other publications focusing on social work, social policy, wellbeing, middle age, international human rights, and peace. When Dr. Martin hit middle age, she found herself both overwhelmed and fascinated with the aging process. Her interest in how women traverse middle age and empty nesting, particularly when single, is a very personal one. Dr. Martin is currently writing a book entitled Aging Naked™ about the struggles many women face when they hit 50, and the importance of aging honestly, with transparency and authentically (no masks allowed!). Her upcoming book is based on her personal blog, Aging Naked where she writes about her own challenges with middle age and empty nesting, and the insights she's gained along the way. Dr. Martin is the single mom of one fabulous son who is away at college.

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