Poker Face

I have high walls around my heart. I also have a poker face. Don’t show people that they have hurt you. Don’t let them know you are afraid or that you care what they are doing to you.

I had every reason to develop these mechanisms for self-protection. But, like so many coping mechanisms, they have their disadvantages. People don’t understand what I need. They think everything is all right when it isn’t. I feel sometimes like they don’t get me–and I rush to conclude it might be because I am too strange or too twisted to connect properly (Note: I actually do this less now than I used to. Progress.) I can feel lonely.

I don’t want to be lonely anymore. I want to connect deeply, not to many people, but just to a few, people that I know are entirely trustworthy. My husband and my therapist, for example. They seem like a good place to start.

But damn, it’s hard sometimes.

I have no doubt that I love my husband, and in some ways, I think we are very close. We share the same values, and we are very tolerant of and patient with one another. But the other night, when he was holding me in bed, looking in my eyes and telling me how lucky he felt to be with me, it was too intense. I urgently wanted to turn over, pick up my book and start reading. I wanted to put a little more space between us.

This made me realize that I do this a lot. I just hadn’t really noticed it before. I like to be side-by-side with him. We take walks together or work on our own projects in the same room. We plan our meals and other activities. But I deliberately limit opportunities to talk to him about the deeper things I am thinking or feeling.

Last year when I was so depressed that I could hardly breathe, when I was thinking of ways to hurt myself or ways to die, he didn’t even know I was depressed. When I finally told him, he was sad and berated himself. “What’s wrong with me that I didn’t even see it in you? How could I not pay enough attention?” I assured him that it wasn’t him; it was me. I have a lot of practice pretending–as I’ve written before, hiding is part of who I am.

I’ve tried here and there to open up to him a little more. One night last summer I told him that the depression was connected to sexual abuse I had experienced when I was a girl, and as a teen, and as an adult. Later I told him about the creepy neighbor/family “friend” and even showed him a photograph of the guy together with my dad. He listened calmly, reassured me that he never thought badly of me, never pressed me to tell him more but always said he’s open to hearing more. And–something I haven’t even written about here–on May 2 or 3, I told him that some of my abuse history involved my father. No details at all, just that fact.

Since then, I haven’t said a word more about it. I feel like I am shut up like a clam shell, and every now and then I open just a crack to burp out some toxic gas. Then I lock up again and go on with my “I’m doing fine” poker face.

E tells me that my relationship with my husband is a great gift (I already knew that, of course). She encourages me to open to him as much as I can, no rush, but to rely on his perfect record of accepting, supporting, and not judging me. We talked about ways I was starting to do that a little, starting to share with him what I need.

For example, when I was preparing for my surgery, I’d say something about it, and he’s say, “don’t worry; it will all be fine.” And this frustrated me because it seemed to dismiss my fears as trivial. I finally said that to him, that it felt like he didn’t see that it was a big deal to me. As soon as I said that, he shifted tone entirely, “But it is a big deal! I absolutely see that. I just wanted to help you feel better.” Then we talked about how it actually makes me feel better if he says, “Wow, yes, this is a big deal. No wonder you are worried about it. I’ll be right here with you through the worries, and waiting during the surgery, and at your side during the recovery. I can’t make it go away, but I can be your companion as you go through it.” He’s remembered this since then, too, and applied it in other contexts (he’s a fast learner).

E said that is an example of opening that clam shell a little bit, not to release toxic gas but to show my genuine needs. She said I did that with her the other day. When I felt her response to my text about needing pelvic floor therapy missed the point, the next day I sent her another text, which shifted our exchange.

    I’m doing fine but when you have time can you send me a msg  to the effect of: I get it that this  [the need for pelvic floor PT] sucks for you. 

If you do get it, I mean. I imagine you do, and really want you to.

I love your reaching for the support you want and need. Yes, I get it. I get that by going with this treatment you bring up all sorts of fears and memories of injuries. We’ll work through this and build some supportive strategies together.

Reaching for support is a really beautiful thing.

In my session, she was sorry that she responded the first time with, “well, it will be worth it” instead of with empathy about situation. She had also not understood that I didn’t already know this was coming and that I was still reacting to just finding out. She said she knows it’s hard for me to open up and show who I am and what I need, but that I’m doing it bit by bit, with her and with my husband. She wants me to learn that it’s a good thing and safe to do this (which is why she lets me reach out by text and she responds with warmth and reassurance).

I want to open a little more. Either open a little more widely, or let those small openings happen a little more often. I came home from session having decided that I would tell my husband just that it was hard for me to be open, to let him fully see me, to be revealed, but that I was going to try to open up a bit more, because I want our relationship to be as deep and rewarding as it has the potential to be.

Even the thought of saying just that sent my heart racing. It took me hours to work up the nerve to say it (which seems crazy to me). But I did, at bedtime, and he was pleased. He also said that he loves me so much, he can’t imagine what “deeper” looks like but he’s happy to explore that with me.

OMG, I think I have just promised to reveal myself more to someone, to lose the poker face, at least some of the time, at home. 

clam shell

13 thoughts on “Poker Face

  1. This is a beautiful post, thank you for sharing it. It sounds like your husband is very supportive and that E took your feedback really well, when you told her you needed her to say something else. It was brave to tell her because revealing needs feels so utterly vulnerable. I also have a poker face – I’m very difficult to read, which can be good for work but not good for personal relationships.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right, the poker face is good for professional situations. When a client or colleague does something outrageous, I can control what I want them to see of my reaction. But showing real vulnerabilities to people, even people I love–that is really hard. It helps that I know I can really trust E and my husband.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. I’m so ecstatic to read this! You are making some huge progress here! This is SO huge!! I’m so happy for you that you’re able to open up the clam shell a little bit – and like E said, not to let out toxic gas, but to show the world (or at least for now, your husband) what you need. I completely relate to this post and I think it’s ironic that both of us are on similar paths right now with variations of details but still, that we’re both learning to deal with ourselves and our natures. And that bit by bit, we’re making progress! Wow. This is just so huge that I am so happy you shared it with us here! I’m so so glad!

    Liked by 2 people

    • And yes, I meant to also include a part where I gush about your amazing husband. He sounds like the sweetest man and you so deserve such a man too. He cares and he takes time to learn how to help you. That’s so precious and I’m very glad that you have him. I’m also glad that you’ve learned that you can trust him. I hope that in the future, you’ll be able to trust him with even more of your story so that he can help you carry your burden.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is the hardest thing ever. Especially if your trust has been violated in the past, it’s hard to know when to keep the walls up (i.e. at work, with acquaintances) and when it’s safe to take them down (around close friends, spouses/partners). Also your husband sounds like a wonderful person.

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  4. I love that exchange with E. I used to (and still kind of) felt that if I told someone what they were supposed to say then hearing it wouldn’t mean anything. But I’m finding that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t and it’s often worth a try. And E’s response is so validating and reassuring, and you were able to uncover the misunderstanding that otherwise would have stayed a hidden hurt.

    This feels very much at the heart of therapy – healing not only for freedom from old wounds, but so that your life is deeper and richer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s actually very close to what E said last week. The point of therapy is not just to reduce pain or stop hurting yourself. It’s to allow you to open up to deep connection and meaningful experience.

      Can I do it though? I’m not sure. After telling him I wanted to open up more, I haven’t done a single thing about it in the last week.

      Liked by 2 people

      • That’s a pretty tight timeframe! You have, what, another 30 or 40 years with your husband? I believe you can do it, and you will do it, but it doesn’t have to be tomorrow. And if time passes and you still haven’t or can’t, you are self-reflective enough to think about what is holding you back, and work through it.

        Liked by 1 person

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