I’ve long had an issue that I’ve verbally chased but mostly keep to myself, and it’s this: I’m a guarded and typically emotionally distant person, and I wish people would believe me when I say that I’m okay.
No, I’m not okay every minute of every day, but who is? I just wish people wouldn’t take a bad day, or a tendency to write rather than speak, or a refusal to change a particular habit, or my refusal to talk about what’s bothering me, as me needing to be fixed. They insist I’m in denial, that deep down I’m hiding some sort of fear. If I say, “But I don’t feel afraid,” they’ll tell me it’s buried.
And I have to admit, when people try to insinuate that they know me better than I know me, people who have answers for all my objections, and that have determined that I need fixing, and that if I don’t agree, I’m the one who’s in denial…it does piss me off. Quite a bit, actually.
Newsflash: The quickest way to shut down a guarded person is to call out their guardedness as a sign that something is broken and needs fixing.
What sparked this was an article called ‘Why Being Guarded In A Relationship Is Actually A Good Thing‘, written in defense of those of us who don’t open up like a well-read book an hour after meeting someone. It’s on a site called Ravishly, which isn’t a site I normally take all that seriously given that they feature such groundbreaking articles as “6 Things You Should Never Put Inside A Vagina”, but this piece just…had me in pieces.
It’s written in a romantic relationships framework, but the overarching points work well when applied to any relationship. You shouldn’t let just anyone in. You’re shutting the wrong people out. You’re not damaged or broken or intense. You’re looking for the thing that makes being open worth it to you.
I didn’t wake up one day and decide, “You know, I think I’ll be emotionally distant and not open up to people easily.” It’s a finely-tuned defense mechanism that develops over time and, as the article points out, shows that I have an attuned sense of self-awareness. I’ve been through enough shit to know that opening yourself up too quickly can result in the sort of damage that can take years to undo, if it’s undoable at all.
I’m also at a point where I’ve decided that if people feel entitled to my honest thoughts and feelings and deep dark secrets, they’re not someone I want in my life. That happened more in my young adult years, and always with cishet white males – as soon as they realize you don’t want to pour your heart out to them, they get offended. If someone gets offended that I won’t open up…well, that’s the surest way to make sure it’ll never happen. I don’t owe anyone access to me in any way, physically or mentally.
So it’s not that I’m too damaged to open up. It’s that I have enough experience to know that not everybody deserves to see your inner core. It’s that I have enough confidence to know that it’s a privilege someone earns, not something they have a right to.
It’s also a privilege you can lose.
And that’s not to say that guarded people haven’t experienced bad things…in fact, I’d guess most of us have, and being guarded is a reaction to that. It doesn’t mean the reaction is unhealthy. It doesn’t mean we’re all secretly unhappy and yearning to be close to other people.
I was fine walking away from my last therapist when she and I hit a point where I was honest about the fact that I don’t see my guardedness as something that needs to be fixed. In fact, I don’t see it as a problem at all. (What I do see as a problem is a therapist telling an abuse survivor using a coping mechanism that reeks of self-awareness, works beautifully, does not hinder their life, and does not hurt others, that they need to stop and make themselves vulnerable to other people.)
The problem is that people often don’t want to do the work. I get that, and I don’t hold it against them. But I take work. I’m not an easy person to get to know, and I don’t want to be. And even if you do get to know me, if I feel that I’m being consistently mistreated, not heard, shut down, or ignored, I will back away. Once I do that, it’s kind of hard to lure me back in, because at some point, I will ask you point blank: What changed? And whether or not I choose to go through the process of deciding whether or not to trust you depends heavily on how that question is answered.
That’s not to say it’s one-way. I’d answer that question, too, and I have. And if someone asks me that, or some equivalent of it, and I realize…wow, I don’t have a good answer here…that’s a cue to me that I’m pursuing something that perhaps I shouldn’t. I’ve lost my closeness privileges with people in my life, and I’m sure I will again. We’re none of us perfect, and if I do try to get back into someone’s good graces after some sort of rift, I’m prepared to tackle the issues that led to my fall to begin with. That’s only fair.
Sometimes falling outs and drifting aparts are a misunderstanding. I know other guarded people, and I don’t badger them to open up. Sometimes that comes across as me not caring, because we’ve been conditioned to think that if you care about someone, you’ll badger them and keep asking and pursue them relentlessly. I don’t think that’s romantic or heroic, I think it’s annoying and disrespectful. If someone doesn’t want to tell me something, I don’t push it, and I don’t take it personally. I used to, when I was younger, until I caught some self-awareness and realized that the majority of the time, someone’s reason for not sharing has nothing to do with me. (And if it does, well…hopefully they tell me so I can try to fix it, but me nagging them won’t help.)
These days, I’m cool with not being confided in. I’m cool with distance. I don’t push boundaries, and when I do ask people questions that I think might be intrusive, I always say something like “feel free to not answer this” or “feel free to tell me it’s none of my business” – simply because I want to acknowledge that I’m not entitled, and that I’m not trying to pressure them. If someone avoids responding to an inquiry, I let it go.
There are people who want to be chased, but I don’t chase. So if letting it go offends them, it’s best we go our separate ways, because I’m past the point in my life where I will chase someone and plead with them to confide in me. Nothing good ever comes of that.
All of this is my long-winded way of saying that being guarded doesn’t mean you’re not okay. It doesn’t mean you’re unhappy, or damaged, or in need of fixing.
When I encounter people with a “you need fixing” attitude, what I always want to say is – maybe you need to stop trying to fix me and start trying to understand me.
But I don’t usually say that, because maybe being on my guard against people who see me as something they need to fix is actually the healthiest thing I could do for myself.