When is it okay for people talk about their problems?

Most people say they don’t want to talk about their personal problems because they are too private.  Some people put talking about *any* problem with anyone at any time off limits.  They endure their troubles alone.  Others will talk only with a very few trusted friends and family members, keeping everyone else at bay.

Then there’s the common admonition about not being one’s personal problems to the job, so that talking about difficulties in doing one’s job or even undue stress at home is verboten.  The assumption is that we are supposed to already have the answers or be able to handle our jobs or take care of ourselves without anyone’s help.

Is that true?  Can we handle it all without help? 

On the one hand, I certainly believe that a person’s preference for privacy should be respected.  On the other hand, I know people who are trapped by their desire to not share their private troubles with others.  Also, the rest of us may lose when private troubles are left unaddressed.

What do we lose when others keep their troubles private?

People who keep their private issues secret may block themselves from getting help that would put them back on an even keel or even raise their performance.  Meanwhile, the rest of us at their jobs or homes are stuck with their neglected tasks and alienating presence.

Lucinda has been struggling since her divorce with finding a reliable baby sitter.  She shows up late and leaves early.  Her silence results in her coworkers’ additional work without their agreement. Her coworkers know something is wrong, but worry that if they ask her questions, they will appear intrusive.

Sam’s partner comes home from work, turns on the television, and sits and broods for the rest of the evening, leaving Sam feeling pretty much alone in his own home. Sam feels the silence and the separation, but doesn’t know how to break through without further pushing away his partner.

But shouldn’t people keep their personal business to themselves?

I’m not advocating indiscriminating blabbing about your personal stuff to anyone who is in the vicinity.   But there are times when it’s in your best interest to find the right setting in which to open up, whether you think so or not.

I sometimes warn my young relatives and friends to watch out for dating partners who tell them to keep secrets from their family and friends.  This could be the first sign of potential abuse.  One way abusers get away with tormenting their partners is that they start off the relationship by estranging their potential victims from their family support systems.  When the abuse finally begins, the abused partner feels disloyal if they confess how badly they are being treated to friends or family.

A young woman I know entered into such a relationship. After a huge fight in which her boyfriend cursed her out, he told her to not tell her family what was going on in their relationship (“don’t spread our business to your family”).  She told him that if she couldn’t tell her family about their relationship, then something wrong was happening in it. She told her family, they rallied to encourage her to stand up for herself, and his behavior changed.

In a similar vein, over the years I have coached several people who were experiencing emotional abuse in their jobs.  By the time they finally confessed what was going on, they were deeply ashamed of the situation, often erroneously believing they must have deserved it, and feeling powerless to address it.

Then there are those who are experiencing tremendous emotional difficulty or workplace dilemmas — crushing work overload, protracted grief, spiraling credit debt, inability to concentrate, insomnia, and so forth.  In the name of privacy, they suffer alone, acting as though their private troubles are unique to just them — and erroneously believing that no one else has ever experienced anything so difficult.  In their minds, reaching out to others means admitting failure, so they stay quiet about what they are going through, even though help is readily available.

What does this mean for you?

If you are bearing the weight of a persistent and nagging private issue, consider testing the assumption that this situation is so private or so unique or so shameful that you cannot discuss it with anyone.  Not sharing may keep you from the very help that could point you in the direction of positive change and restore your sense of balance.

Years ago, I founded an organization and managed to get funding for it.  Within a couple of years, I was swamped by problems I hadn’t anticipated.  I felt deeply embarrassed — after all, if I could think up the organization, certainly I could run it.  Couldn’t I?

After floundering around for a few weeks, I decided to call a woman I had recently met, Linda Calvert, who taught organizational behavior at a local university.  She agreed to meet with me — and to bring a friend who was also interested in organizational issues.

That friend was Jean Ramsey who later became my co-author in Reframing Change.  Jean and Linda met with me once a quarter for over a year, listening to my sob stories and providing steady guidance. Taking the chance on Linda yielded benefits far beyond anything I could have imagined when I made that first shaky phone call.

But how to reach out for help?  What if your private issue is actually a public trouble?  I’ll talk about this in the future two blog entries.

  1. Do you know someone who is keeping their private troubles to themselves and it is affecting your relationship or how well you can do your job?
  2. Are you doing this to others?



Filed under: achieving your goalsstrength-based

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