An interesting thing often happens when you start to open up to people…
With practise, you get to a point where you feel reasonably comfortable opening up to NEW people… because they didn’t know you when you were “quiet” or “reserved”.
But things can be different when you then try to open up to old friends and family who’ve known you for a long time.
Conversations with old friends and family bring you right back to your old, socially anxious self.
And you start to feel like a fraud.
You start to feel like you’re not good enough again.
You close up and hide your feelings… and there’s a good reason why.
You’ve built your relationships with your old friends and family as a different person. As someone who doesn’t open up and share themselves.
You’re worried that they’ll think, “This isn’t what you’re like. Who are you? You’re normally anxious, introverted, quiet, etc.”
You don’t want to risk losing your relationships with these friends and family by suddenly changing. You don’t want to make them uncomfortable by opening up to them. You don’t want to lose your identity in their eyes.
And you might even be worried that THEY may not actually want to open up to you.
Why Is It So Difficult To Open Up To Old Friends And Family?
Based on responses from our readers, these are the big reasons why you’re afraid to open up to family and old friends.
Reason 1: Environmental relapse
The thing with environmental relapse is this… it’s not simply being in a certain place that triggers the relapse. It’s the routines that you adopt when you’re in that environment that prevent you from opening up.
When you visit your family and old friends, what do you do that’s the same as when you were a kid? What do you do that’s different to your normal life, where you’re more open?
Do you sit on the couch and watch TV?
Do you cook for everyone?
Do you talk in a monotonous voice?
Do you organise family activities? Like board games, trips, dinners?
Do you bring your friends gifts?
Do you lead conversations?
Do you constantly check your phone or computer?
If you act the same way you always have, you’ll be treated the same way you always have.
You’ll feel like a fraud when you try to open up because, as far as they can see through your actions, you’re still the same as you always were.
BUT… if, all of a sudden you start mowing the lawn without being asked (for instance)… well shit, something’s changed. Mike is not Little Mike anymore. Your parents will expect you to be different, because they’ll see a difference in your actions.
This will naturally lead family conversations towards talking about these changes. They’ll be eager to learn who you’ve become as a person… which sets the table for you to take the conversation to a deeper level.
You might meet some resistance though, because sometimes parents don’t want your relationship with them to change.
Mum might make fun of your efforts to cook dinner and suggest that you let her do it. That’s her way of telling you she’s scared of losing her little boy.
If you give in, things will go back to the way they were. If you stick to your guns and behave like the NEW you, your parents will see you differently.
Reason 2: It’s Too Late To Open Up To Old Friends And Family
If you’re at this point you’ve probably spent so much time thinking “It’s too late to open up”, that you’ve ingrained that belief pretty deeply. And it feels really difficult to push that belief out of the way and say something real to these old friends and family members.
Perhaps you’ve got something you WANT to share with them, but you’ve kept it to yourself for so long that saying it now would feel a bit like an admission of guilt. Like you’ve done something wrong by hiding it all this time.
And because you feel like that… you can’t figure out a way to say it without sounding guilty.
So what do you do?
You need a transition sentence. Something that lets you dip your toe in the water to check the temperature before opening up completely.
Here’s your transition sentence. Ask them something like:
Do you feel like you’ve changed in the past [length of time]?
Do you feel like people see you differently than they did [length of time] ago?
If your old friend or family member hesitates to answer meaningfully… that’s YOUR opening to share first. They’re more likely to open up AFTER you do.
But if they DO answer wholeheartedly when you ask… that’s your opening to share second. After they open up.
It’s easier to open up with them now because you’re not just blurting out “Hey I’ve been hiding this for years!” out of nowhere.
Instead you’re bringing up the topic of change to test the water first.
It’s never too late to open up to old friends and family. Just bring up the topic of change.
Reason 3: My Family and Old Friends Won’t Understand The New Me
In these cases the issue comes down to one of two things. Either…
1) Opening up to these particular people is actually pointless,
2) You’re not communicating effectively.
Some people are just emotional vampires. You’ve met them, right? Every time you speak with them they make you feel worse.
Perhaps they have a heart of gold buried deep inside… but it’s buried so far down that it’s really not worth your effort to dig for it. And it’s not your job to either.
Sometimes though, we can be too quick to assume that someone’s a “vampire”.
As you get better at communicating your thoughts and feelings clearly… you find that you meet less vampires. Because the problem was often actually your own conversation skills.
If you haven’t worked on improving your conversation skills, to improve the reactions you get, then you’re bound to have negative interactions more frequently.
Here’s a simple example of miscommunication:
Carl: Why do you feel anxious?
Lisa: Because there are so many people around.
Carl: Why do you get anxious around people?
Lisa: Oh I’ll be alright.
Carl is trying to understand Lisa and get her to open up to him. But the way he phrases his questions makes Lisa feel uncomfortable, so she closes down.
What if instead the conversation went like this:
Lisa: It’s all these people.
Carl: Yeah there are a lot of people. Is there anything in particular that you’re anxious about?
Lisa: I don’t know how to start a conversation. How do you do it?
Carl is again trying to understand Lisa, and he’s asking similar questions, but his phrasing (and tone) this time make her comfortable enough to open up.
It’s not just the way you convey your own messages either. It’s about recognising how the other person is interpreting your messages, and making sure you’re interpreting THEIR messages correctly.
You have to learn the psychology BEHIND conversation to make people feel like you’re on the same page.
Small Steps Will Get You There
When it comes to opening up to old friends and family, you don’t have to immediately dive into to your most precious and protected inner beliefs. Take small steps and see what happens.
Picture yourself opening up from the other person’s perspective. Actually see yourself opening up from their eyes. How would THEY feel if you were the first one to do it?
And about the people who don’t seem to want to open up to you… Picture THAT from their perspective. What’s stopping them from opening up? Is it the same fear that you experience?
Underneath it all, do your old friends and family members actually share your desire to open up and genuinely connect?