Essential Reflections

Withholding – Part 1

You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.” The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.

From The Prophet on Giving, Khalil Gibran

We practice, in the Essential Experience Workshop, delivering what we call “withholds.”  Many graduates take this practice into their lives, working to get more honest and clean in their personal relationships.  It is helpful to have the experience we have in the workshop, but, as many graduates have told me from experience, there is much more to delivering withholds than we discuss or practice in the workshop.  A mini-workshop I conducted recently convinced me that it would be worth expanding our understanding and experience.

This first post discusses what it means to “have a withhold.”  The second will focus on the delivery of withholds, and the third will address how to respond to a withhold delivered to you.

A few preliminaries.  There are, of course, many things we do not communicate to others in our lives.  We probably don’t say more than we actually do say.  Often, this may be a good thing.  The principle behind delivering withholds is not to say everything to everyone.  This is preposterous.  The idea is to identify things we are withholding that are causing damage or pain by virtue of being withheld.

Broadly speaking, we can distinguish “positive” from “negative” withholds. We will focus here mainly on “negative” ones.  Positive withholds are compliments, observations, expressions of feeling that you might expect to affirm the other and the relationship.  We often don’t take the time or make the effort to say, “You did a good job,” or “I appreciate how you did that,” or “I noticed your support” or even “I love you.”  Withholding these feelings and observations can impoverish or weaken a relationship.  It is helpful to practice delivering positive withholds more regularly and fully and to work at overcoming the resistance we often have to delivering them.  That, however, is a different issue from the main one that concerns people, namely, the difficulty of delivering “negative” withholds.

Withholds are a form of feedback.  To deliver one is to give feedback to a person in our lives.  When we feel hurt by someone, or are troubled or confused by their behavior, or see them acting in ways that aren’t working, we might be inclined simply to tell them.  Withholds arise because just telling them seems to us to feel wrong or dangerous.  We can generate dozens of reasons not to say it.  It will hurt their feelings.  It will rock the boat.  S/He knows already.  Nothing will come of it.  So we “withhold.”

Some examples may help.   I had a client – call her Joan – who, at one point, was dating a person she was somewhat attracted to.  She wasn’t head over heels, but she saw some potential in the relationship.  The person she was seeing, however, tended to say things that hurt her feelings.  As she experienced them, they went beyond “teasing” or “banter” to create emotional wounds.  She didn’t say anything about her feelings or perception.  Rather, she withheld them.

Another example.  Dan worked in his company for twenty years.  About five years ago, he had been passed over for a promotion, which was given to a younger colleague.  He didn’t think that the boss, with whom he had generally been friendly, gave him fair consideration or good reason for the decision.  He hadn’t expressed his feelings or perceptions with the boss during the ensuing years.  Rather, he withheld them.

You can no doubt recall or observe many other cases, times when we might not say something to family members or work colleagues or friends or others.  At some point, it begins to develop a “charge.”  This is, I suggest, the first indicator of a withhold, the feeling that not delivering it has an emotional price.  To be carrying resentment or frustration or some other negative feelings begins to weigh on us.

We manage this weight in at least two ways.  First, we tend to distance ourselves from the other person.  It’s uncomfortable to have these feelings sparked again and again with no resolution.  Better to stay away physically or emotionally.  Second, we tend to make up stories to fill the gap created by the information we are withholding and any response we might get from the other person.  The story will generally involve projections about what the other person thinks and feels.  Usually, it will involve judgment about the other and/or oneself.  As often happens, these stories become the reality we live in.

Does this mean we should always deliver withholds?  This question is one I will discuss in the next installment.  For now, I note how the charge played out in the examples above.  Joan began to see the person she was dating as simply insensitive and oblivious in ways that made them a bad match.  Without ever delivering the withhold, she broke it off.  Dan began to feel alienated at work and lived in the story that his boss didn’t like or appreciate him.  When, finally, with support, he delivered his withhold, his boss responded with information Dan didn’t have about special skills the other person had and about how difficult it had been to make the decision.  While the relationship was never quite the same, Dan felt lighter and more able to enjoy his work again.

Questions about whether to deliver a withhold and how will be the focus in my next blog.  The final one in this series will address how to respond to a withhold delivered to you.