Dear Carolyn: Do you have to tell someone about your past to absolve yourself?
I spent my early adulthood lying constantly. The lies didn't hurt anyone directly — except me, in hindsight — but perhaps hurt the world in an abstract way. I now realize I was just too afraid to be myself, that I was actually just trying to please people to assuage my fears about being inadequate.
I've put a lot of effort into becoming a more authentic person and I'm still working on it, but I wonder if I have to tell someone about my lies to actually overcome this character flaw. I'm so embarrassed about my behavior. I worry I could lose long-term relationships if I come clean. Any advice?
— Have to Tell?
Have to Tell?: You don't tell for absolution. That's not something others have to give.
You do tell, though, as a necessary step in conquering your fears. You spent years making up a fake self out of fear that others would see your real self as inadequate — yes? So if you now deliberately withhold the truth about your past, then that will be, in effect, just one step up from lying: Instead of rewriting your true self, you'd just be hiding it.
Either way it's a capitulation to your fear of not being enough.
This isn't to say you have to tell everyone everything you did. It's not a binary choice between blabbing or hiding. You can be authentic as a work in progress while providing no or some or full detail, as circumstances warrant.
When you want to experience intimacy, however, you will have to risk being vulnerable, and that means telling your truth. Not just with romantic partners, but with good friends and close family, too.
There's another, more practical reason to share. If you don't, then you will just live in a new kind of fear: the fear of discovery. You will always have some awareness in the back of your mind that your most cherished relationships hinge on your ability to keep your secret. That's torture.
You may risk losing people when you tell, yes. But the ones who know all about you and then choose to stay? Those are worth the risk.
Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend's (of four years) parents do not like me . . . or rather his mom doesn't like me and is a very controlling woman so it's hard to tell what his dad thinks of me. They just booked tickets to visit us for the second time this year in spite of my boyfriend saying it is a bad time because he is very busy again.
He is overloaded with work, so instead of confronting her when he found out, he has chosen to push the confrontation until later. Last time they claimed they would occupy themselves, but of course when they arrived, the "we paid all this money to see you" guilt trip started immediately.
He is younger so he still is working on the standing up to her. Any suggestions for me to help him put his foot down with her? (Suggestions for me to keep calm enough to not give her an actual reason to hate me would be nice, too.)
— Unwanted Hosts
Unwanted Hosts: No, I will not give you suggestions to help you become the next controlling person to whom your boyfriend outsources his uncomfortable decisions.
He is "younger" so he's still "working on" it? No to that, too.
You're clearing two different paths with that rationalization. One is toward taking over the decisions your boyfriend fails to make. This is how people wind up either exhausted and resentful for having to carry the entire mental load both for themselves and a partner — the role you're training for — or detached and resentful for having little say in their day-to-day lives — the role he's rapidly slipping into.
The other path leads to treating your boyfriend's weakness not as a bad thing, but instead as a thing that will be good eventually and he just needs to fix it, ya, no problem. This is how people find themselves mid-divorce 10 years later and marveling that the marriage-ending problem was one they'd known about all along and yet signed up for anyway.
You don't want to be on either path. Neither does he. You're out of balance already.
So no more rationalizations.
Instead, speak only for yourself: "When you decide not to say no to your mom, I end up in the awkward spot of having to host them while you're busy at work. That's not fair to me — or to your parents, for that matter."
Then, see whether (and how) he speaks for himself in response to your concerns.
Then see whether you, he, and the power balance in this relationship are healthy enough to hold up under the pressure of forceful moms and passive dads and overloads of work. Not when he "grows up" — now. When they are, in general, I suspect you'll find your demeanor takes care of itself.