Unconditional Openness: What Happens When You Tell A Stranger All Your Secrets
“I feel like I’ve already experienced real love once in my life, and I’ll be perfectly fine if I never do again.”
“I know what you mean. There’s that one guy I always think about, but besides him, I have zero interest in trying to do the monogamous thing again or tying my happiness to someone else’s.”
We were standing in his kitchen, chatting about life and love, less than 24 hours after we’d met for the first time. I already knew he had fallen hard for one girl several years prior but didn’t want to try to find that again, and he knew I had one guy that I thought of as “the one that got away” but I had no desire to chase love again, ever.
Fast forward a few weeks, and this time, I’m walking around the downtown area of a city with someone I purposely chatted with a day earlier at a local tourist site.
“You’re my spirit animal,” he says. “Your life looks like I want my life to look.”
“I don’t know about that. I pretty much constantly find myself in ridiculous situations.”
“Yeah, that seems like something you’d do. But your ridiculous situations are what most people want out of life.”
“What do you mean it ‘seems like something’ I’d do? You just met me, like, ten minutes ago.”
“Because. It is, isn’t it?”
He was right: I did find myself in one ridiculous situation after another over the past two and a half months of traveling full-time. And I was starting to wonder why. Not that I was complaining: I loved my new ridiculous, open, variable life. I just wasn’t sure what it was about me that I kept finding myself in totally incredible, hilarious, vulnerable, fun, scary situations day after day.
I thought back to another conversation where someone once described me as “a burrowing little ant that forces people to reveal the most intimate details about themselves within minutes of meeting you.” At the time, I liked that characterization, but I didn’t know why I did that, or why it worked.
It started as a steadfast adherence to radical honesty: the idea that we filter ourselves way too much in our society, and we’d all do better to just be completely honest with one another all the time. I don’t remember when I first heard this, but I remember feeling like it was already my life: I was really blunt, people either loved me or hated me immediately, and I liked to talk about deep life topics rather than the mundane details of the day — whether I had known you for five years or five seconds.
When I heard about radical honesty, I felt grateful to have a phrase for the type of life I’d already been living.
Somewhere over the years, however, that morphed from just being honest to being completely, totally, 100% open with whomever I met. I’d like to say this was born out of a desire to get to know people better immediately, but the reality is, it was a defensive tactic that I used to keep my self-esteem intact. The thought went like this: if I tell this person all the worst or most non-traditional parts of me immediately, and reveal all my thoughts as they are happening, (“hey, I’m vegan, I don’t believe in monogamy, I don’t want kids, your tie is ugly, but I’m also really attracted to you, how do you feel about the idea of war, how do you feel about the practice of war, I kind of want to kiss you, let’s go get more coffee”), they can make the decision about whether to like me or hate me right away. If they make the decision to hate me, I’ll be spared the heartache of getting to know someone, only to find out a few months into our new friendship that I’m not their cup of tea.
Sounds horribly pessimistic, doesn’t it? It was. It is. My therapist would tell you I have a deep-seated belief that people can only truly like me and adore me within the first bit of time of knowing me. “Once they get to know the real me, the flawed me,” I’ve said to my therapist on many occasions, “they can’t adore me anymore. It just is how it is. I’m only lovable when you don’t know too much about me.”
(And that may be the most intimate thing I’ve ever revealed in a writing.)
The defensive tactic continued as I got older and it grew in scope. As the truest parts of me changed with age, so did the things I revealed.
And a funny thing happened: I developed closer, more intimate, stronger bonds than I ever had before in life. I wasn’t entirely sure what caused this change. After years of having superficial friendships and yearning for true intimacy, I had finally gotten it, but I had no idea why. I didn’t think it was just age or life experience.
I attributed it, mostly, to the honesty I brought with me to my relationships. There couldn’t have been cause for arguments or disagreements or misunderstandings when I was 100% honest from the get-go, so maybe the key to avoiding fights in friendly or romantic relationships was just to be frank.
Somewhere along the way, though, I realized that it wasn’t the honesty that was binding me to new friends and lovers. It was the unconditional nature of the revelations: nothing was off limits, even in conversations with people I had only known for under ten minutes.
I stopped thinking of the philosophy as radical honesty and instead begin to see it as unconditional openness: the idea that there’s no point in holding back any intimacy from new relationships, just because they’re new. The slow reveal of awkward traits we do while we’re dating? Gone. The creep of irritating habits in our new friendships? Gone. The worry that we won’t be loved after we reveal our deepest secrets? Happily, gone.
What was driving the new bonds in my relationships wasn’t just my unconditional openness: it was also that fact that humans, by nature, lean towards empathy. Revealing a huge detail about yourself three to four minutes into a new friendship forces one of two options: either your conversation partner can reveal a huge detail about themselves, building immediate intimacy and fueling trust, or they can leave you hanging. More often than not, our nature desire is to want to relate to each other, so we find ourselves revealing things about ourselves we never thought we would, just because someone else did it first.
And I liked it — sure, I had found myself in some pretty weird situations while practicing my unconditional openness, but overall, I was happier than I had ever been before. There’s nothing like forming an instant bond with someone because you’ve revealed the worst parts about yourself within minutes of meeting them.
Traveling full-time can be a lonely proposition. Far from home and friends, with no routine and no long-term plan, it’s easy to start to exist exclusively in your own head. Unconditional openness, then, is the perfect antidote to that: you never have to worry that you’ll be far from intimate relationships because you develop them everywhere you go.
So, what does happen when you tell a stranger all your secrets? Well, by the end of the conversation, you’re not talking to a stranger anymore, you’re talking to someone that’s trusted you with the most intimate details of their life.
All because you did it first.
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