“And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small, cramped dark inside you so long.” ― Sylvia Plath

The questionnaire said she had a problem. She had answered “yes” to more than two questions. She went to a friend and asked, “Do I have a problem?” She clearly did not have a problem, according to her friend.

Over the next many years, she would ask herself the question again. Sometimes, she’d be brave enough to ask other people, too. No one ever thought she had a problem. She decided to keep her secret fear to herself, and perfection became her middle name. And that’s the way many of us move through life. We keep our secrets tucked away, hoping they won’t be discovered, but as Plath says, they might shock even us when at last we let them out.

Growing up, we never discussed politics, religion, sex or money. Those were the three big topics. When my fiancé (now husband) and I were in pre-marital counseling with my minister (back in 1988), the three topics he wanted us to discuss were sex, money and family — an obvious contradiction to what I’d been learning the previous 20-some years.

And here we are, almost 34 years later having discovered that not talking about things can cause catastrophic problems in life, so I want to broach a few topics today that I believe deserve our attention.

• Money — create a budget, don’t hide expenses from your spouse or yourself, live within your means

• Politics — learn what is going on in the world from reputable sources, and then really challenge yourself to figure out what is important to you and why. After that, and only after that, should you consider supporting a person running for office because their views align with your own.

It’s way too easy to just do what our parents did in our voting, and never investigate for ourselves what matters to us — especially regarding the greater good in our world. Allow yourself the opportunity to re-evaluate throughout your life because your views and values just might change, and that’s OK.

• Racism and bigotry — recognize that people are people, regardless of skin color, regardless of sexual orientation. Your world and mine will be happier, healthier places when we embrace the reality of the human race. Speak up, question how others are being treated by anyone else — adults, teens, teachers, police, ministers, parents. Learn from and accept others, and you might learn a little more about yourself in the process.

• Religion — this is almost exactly the same as politics. Growing up, we are exposed to what our parents want us to see. If they are super religious, that often becomes something we follow in adulthood, and if we haven’t been exposed to religion, we might not understand what the big deal is for other people. Find reputable sources for distinguishing what religion is, what makes sense to you, what you can believe, and what isn’t working for you. As with politics, don’t assume you are never allowed to change. Throughout life, we will find a faith either comforting or problematic, and it won’t necessarily be the same when you are 15, 30, and 80.

• Sex — talk about it, please. Talk about it with friends, honestly, and talk about it with your children, appropriately, and most importantly, talk about it with your spouse. Ending up in the backseat of a car thinking you’re expected to behave a certain way is traumatic and tragic, for either individual. Teach your sons to be respectful of others, and teach your daughters to be respectful of others, and teach everyone to stand up for themselves.

One of the greatest disservices to ourselves and those we love is the lack of honesty about sex throughout life. Many teenagers have sat with me, some by choice and some not, to talk about this hard topic when no one would discuss it at home. Damaged children grow up to be damaged adults, and the few who aren’t damaged can’t understand why the others can’t get it together. Have conversations!

• Addiction — it starts innocently enough. Parents are out of the house, and the teenagers want to taste the alcohol in the cabinet. When the kids are caught, the shaming begins. To avoid that happening again, those same curious kids might be willing to try pills or other drugs put on the table by a friend. And before you know it, the pain of the shame is numbed by any number of things. In fact, we numb our pain of shame with too much food, too much shopping, too much exercising, too much gambling, too much sex or pornography, and those addictions don’t just hurt the one person, they hurt many other people.

The cost of addiction includes the price on the front-end, many times the price for rehab, the price a family pays at being torn apart, and the price society pays for lost work, increased incarceration, and deaths — of the addicted and sometimes victims. And how does this begin?

1. Silence

2. Avoidance

3. Shame

We don’t hesitate to share photos on Instagram or Facebook of perfectly decorated living rooms or weed-free landscaping, but we leave off the photos of tear-streaked faces of parents and spouses whose family members are unable to pull themselves out of one addiction or another.

We don’t post the photos of the empty bank account when the gambler or shopper has spent it all. But we do post photos of the latest acquisition to our own collection of beautiful items, and that’s ok, but only if it isn’t hiding a secret behind it. We have been taught somewhere along the way that the look of perfection is the key.

In the words of one of my very favorite researchers, Brené Brown, “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” In my experience, silence, avoidance, and shame are the ingredients for the cocktail we call perfectionism. I have fought those things that paralyze us, and I’m betting you might have, too.

I hope in your bravest moments you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul in fear and defuse the power the secrets have to paralyze you.

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (stories@susanbsteen.com).

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