How much easier do you find it to crack a joke with your family than tell them how you really feel? Laughter, humour and the unbridled ease that only our nearest and dearest provide is often the main currency in a family home.
It can feel natural to express an array of sentiment and opinion in front of our parents, siblings, and other close relatives. But it can be harder to show the raw, unadulterated emotion that underpins much of our human existence.
You might find it difficult to reveal your insecurities and vulnerabilities to family members, even more so your fears. These earliest relationships in our lives are complex, sometimes our trauma stems from them, and we might fear disappointing relatives, worrying them, or even making them cringe. You probably wouldn’t lament the woes of your sex life to your family, after all.
Of course there are those who do defer to family on matters of the heart. But for many more of us, the expectations are clear: family is about celebrating the good times – birthdays, weddings, graduations, cultural events – and, sure, showing up in times of support. But a certain realness might be amiss.
Our families mean so much to us, it can feel burdensome to reveal our deepest scars and emotional hangups, especially when we know they have their own struggles, whether of identity, trauma, or more generational issues.
Henna*, 27, who works for a charity in London says she has to consider the mental capacity of her loved ones before unloading on them.
“I do struggle to be vulnerable in front of my family,” she tells HuffPost UK. “But I’m really trying to change that with my siblings and husband. I feel like my Bangladeshi family just haven’t had the emotional literacy to be able to do that. And I think it’s understandable.”
Henna doesn’t resent her family for this, appreciating they have their own challenges.
“Their first thought wasn’t to create safe spaces for their children to express themselves, their thoughts, ideas, and feelings, but to actually survive, find a home in the East End, a well paying job and fight back against the racism they faced back then. My parents then just continued this, it’s all they knew.”
Due to these reasons, plus generational and cultural differences, Henna says it’s easier to open up with her partner and siblings than it is her parents. “I was reluctant to share my experiences of being sexually assaulted, because nothing is done when it’s shared. It’s kind of just not talked about,” she says.
“Even about fertility issues, I find it hard to talk to my parents, grandma and my in-laws. If it does come up, it’s very much that, God willing, it will all work out, but not really about how I’m dealing with things. But I can talk about it, cry my heart out, and feel sad about it with my siblings, partner and friends.”
In most cases, no one loves you as much as your family, but this can mean they don’t hold back when it comes to expressing their opinion – and you might live in dread of that judgment.
“When we are vulnerable we are open wide to all of our insecurities and the things we keep hidden deep inside,” explains Natasha Page, an integrative counsellor and psychotherapist accredited with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapists (BACP).
“Taking a step outside of our comfort zone can be hard. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as a success so when we open up about our failures or vulnerabilities it can make us feel unsafe, it can make us feel emotionally exposed and we loose a sense of our control. That is what vulnerability feels like: a loss of control. It can leave us feeling open wide.”
There are other barriers to honesty, too. When we expose our problem areas to loved ones we know we may have to face our fears and do something about it. “We may also worry about them worrying about us,” Page adds. “Shame also plays apart in this. When we feel ashamed we feel vulnerable.”
Ultimately, it can be in your best interest to be honest and upfront, she says.
“This can be a positive thing for our relationships as people can get a better understanding of us and what we need help with,” says Page. “It can also bring you closer to those that you love. We often cover up our vulnerabilities by keeping secrets, masking our emotions or pretending everything is alright but this can only be sustained for so long.”
So what can you do if you feel uncomfortable about stripping back the facade and revealing things you’re unaccustomed to showing to your family? Page explains that it all takes practice.
“Show ourselves compassion,” she says. “Practise vulnerability in spaces you feel comfortable such as with a therapist first, with someone who is not connected to you, as this can act as a step towards sharing deeper emotions with those closer to you. Accept that you won’t always be understood by others. Talk to those you do trust first before sharing with others.”
Despite whatever uncomfortable feelings may arise, when it comes to being open and candid, it usually feels a hundred times better when you let it out.
For Henna, as difficult as it was, she was eventually able to open up a little with her parents and loved ones – tackling those topics with some patience and understanding of her own. “I do show vulnerability now, but I’m aware that my family won’t always know how to handle it and that’s ok.”
* Name has been changed to offer anonymity.