You know that great feeling when you are able to vent and finally get things off of your chest? Well I wrote a number of emails this week that were intended to be “strictly business,” but before I knew it that whole personal-professional line was blurred again and I ended up telling a few of my higher-ups what I really thought of them.
I wrote to my advisor and told her how much I have appreciated her continued support of me and my academic work over the six years that we’ve known each other, and that I’ve actually really missed our face-to-face conversations while she’s been in France on sabbatical. I also wrote the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at my undergraduate alma mater and mentioned how a piece of solid advice that she gave me five years ago continues to ring through my head on a near-daily basis as I prepare for big life transitions in the months to come.
If I really wanted to dedicate more of my time this week to speaking my mind, I’d write a letter filled with choice words to someone in Australia whom I’ve never met in person. I’d describe to her in detail how much I admire her commitment to her work with children, how I’m always impressed by the honesty that comes through her writing in our email exchanges, and how much I have appreciated her willingness to reach out to me and become another unexpected source of incredible support. Then I’d write a letter to a few of my other former professors, people from previous places where I’ve lived in previous phases of my life, the parents of an old college boyfriend, and a handful of people who could be accurately described as mere “acquaintances” but whom I nevertheless really respect, admire, value, and think of very often. And then, of course, there are my best and closest friends, the one’s who always mean so much to me, my family members who I love and respect far more than I’ve ever been able to fully acknowledge and express, and those students who have been awesome facilitators of my own growth, thinking, and personal development. These people, and many others who may not even know that I think of them like this, all deserve letters that would note how much they mean to me.
It’s a sad state of affairs when we feel more inclined to express negative feelings toward others than share our compliments, praises, and positive bits of appreciation for them. Against generally-accepted social norms that tend to focus on making sure others know our complaints and what we don’t like about them, I’ve been in the habit of unexpectedly dropping personal, heart-felt letters and messages of love, respect, and gratitude on people for many years now. It’s true that I think of people much more than I let them know and sometimes my life gets too busy and I don’t write as much as I want to, but when I do set aside the time to write an email or a letter, it feels good. (If you’re into empirical studies and scientific research, it turns out that “gratitude letters” are a big deal to the positive psychology people.)
As with most things that involve honest feelings there is some vulnerability in all of this. What if someone is taken aback by your sudden shower of heart-felt expression? What if they don’t feel the same way? What if they feel uncomfortable because then they assume that they have to do something in return or respond in the same way? What if they think that you are really weird for doing the unusual thing of putting your feelings down into words and letting them know? What if they hardly even remember you?
On one hand, people who can’t handle hearing good news or receiving praise and appreciation without feeling the need to respond by either mirroring those feelings or deflecting what they are given have their own work to do. But that’s their problem, not yours. (Not Audrey from Liar, Liar, though. She’s a strong lady and knows how to hold her own in a way that is honest and full of care.) On the other hand, even if caught off guard my sense is that, more often than not, people are very pleased to receive warm, expressive messages from others. Who doesn’t like to feel acknowledged, appreciated, and recognized? And the chances are that if someone meant so much to you, they probably remember you, even if you didn’t mean the same thing to them.
But, again, so what if they don’t feel the same way about you or even remember you? From where did we ever get the idea that the only appropriate and meaningful relationships are those that are exactly reciprocal in exactly the same ways? Children aren’t expected to parent their parents. Mentees aren’t expected to mentor their mentors. In the same vein, the people we respect don’t have to respect us back, people we admire don’t have to admire us back, and people we love don’t have to love us back. Some of this is captured in that great scene from Adaptation where Charlie and Donald are hiding together in a swamp.
With a mix of condescension, humility, and misunderstanding, Charlie tells Donald that he actually admires him because he’s so “obliviously happy.” But then Donald completely life-schools Charlie by dropping one of the best lines ever: “You are what you love, not what loves you.”
We don’t (or shouldn’t) respect, admire, and love others because they respect, admire, and love us anyway, so why would the chance that they don’t feel the same way pose such a giant block to us letting them know how we feel? Telling others what they mean to us only if we are guaranteed to hear it back from them misses the point – it takes away the sense of radical generosity that makes such genuine expressions important, special, and unique. In other words, it feels good to acknowledge and express wonderful things about people because we don’t have to do it. It should be clear, then, that I’m not talking about obligatory and trite “chore-like” thank-you letters. Nor are the kind of messages that I’m encouraging us all to write inspired by ulterior motives to get people to do more or be more for us. The thing that makes the type of messages that I have in mind so good is precisely that they are gratuitous, excessive, unexpected, unconditioned, sincere, raw, and honest. And it doesn’t matter if the recipients write back with a response or not. When I write another person in this way, the feelings are all my own and I just want them to know.
Of course, it’s that feeling-and-gifting from a source of radical generosity that is the tricky part. One has the responsibility to clearly convey that an expression of how important and meaningful another person is or has been is intended as an act of generosity and not a means to get anything in return. This, of course, requires (at least) two things: 1) One has to actually feel these things freely and without expectation and 2) be able to skillfully communicate her or his feelings. A not-so-skillfully executed delivery can come off as a weird confession or a self-indulgent and overly-romanticized demonstration of delusion. (Imagine how celebrities must feel with the barrage of exclamations like, “OMG! You are the most perfect man/woman to have ever lived and I love you so much! Marry me!” These expressions fail the generosity test on both counts.) In those cases, it’s reasonable for someone to feel a little uncomfortable and perhaps even not-so-warmly receptive to your “gift” of feelings. The key to letting people know what you think of them, then, is to do it well and for the right reasons. The good news is that you don’t have to be Lord Byron to do this well. If the motivation to share is unconditioned by expectations and the message is not intended for any other reason than to express honest thoughts and feelings, this usually comes through enough from the start to mitigate whatever concerns another might have that make them feel skeptical, uncomfortable, or threatened.
My suggestion, then, is that we take Donald’s wisdom one step further and challenge the inhibitions that prevent us from speaking from our hearts and sharing a piece of our minds. We can work to be brave and generous and honest, to really pay attention to the good things that we feel about people and then try a little harder to go out of our way and let them know. Others will benefit from it. Our relationships will benefit from it. And our hearts will learn that they can be, and maybe already are and have been, open to others in really surprising and important ways.