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Posts Tagged ‘support’

In the past, I have had people take advice I didn’t mean to give from this blog.

I rarely mean to give advice. When I sit down to write, I’m not thinking, “Now then, let me tell people how I think they should do x or how they should feel about y.” I’m generally talking about my own experiences, knowing very well that people are different and their concerns are different and what works and doesn’t work for me might have nothing much to do with you. I talk about things I find interesting and things I have learned, but they are all very much colored by me being me.

But advice, well, advice can be tricky. I was reminded of this fact by this post about advice, which contains many examples of two pieces of directly conflicting advice, both of which can be valid. It’s really illuminating to read so many examples back to back. I’ll give you just one here to give you a taste:

“You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”

I know people for whom the first piece of advice is probably best, and people for whom the second piece of advice is probably best. I even know people who might benefit from both pieces of advice. So yes, advice is not simple.

Ultimately I think good advice depends a lot on context. Generalized advice is all well and good, but nothing can replace the insights of a therapist or a close friend or family member who knows the specifics about who you are and what your situation is. (This person must also be wise and experienced enough to have helpful insights.) Often situations have many factors at play, so one piece of generalized advice can easily miss a lot of nuance.

In learning how to better set boundaries, for example, I found it very useful to have people I call “sanity checkers:” people who know me and my background and who are very skilled at setting boundaries themselves, who I can get feedback from, run things by, or get help with wordings. I find I need their help less and less as I get more experience, but even so, it’s nice to know I can ask for their expertise if I need it. And sometimes I still definitely do!

The other interesting thing about advice is that you can’t force people to take it. It doesn’t matter if you do know them and their situation, if what’s going on seems really incredibly obvious to you, or how painful it is to watch them suffer. People do things on their own timeline. They’re ready when they’re ready, especially when it comes to accepting hard truths and making difficult changes. Sometimes they’re never ready.

Which means I always feel fairly wary of giving personalized advice. You have to find a way to do it that is gentle enough that it doesn’t alienate the two of you when they probably don’t take the advice. And I try not to give advice unless it’s actually been asked for. There are exceptions to this (oh, nuance!), and we all slip up at this from time to time, of course. Some people feel they need to give advice to be useful, which isn’t really true but can certainly feel true. And sometimes it can be really hard to sit and witness the suffering of someone who is simply stuck and has been for months or even years. That tends to be when I’m most likely to slip up.

Advice over milkshakes!

Advice over milkshakes!

In conclusion:

Generalized advice: can be helpful, but must be considered in context

Personalized advice: can be helpful, but must find people who are insightful and get you

Giving advice: can be helpful, but usually only if asked to give it and if not too attached to the outcome

So yes, these are my thoughts (but not advice!) about advice.

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Today I have a story to tell you that takes place in India. Now, I’ve never been to India, partially because I tend to avoid places where catching malaria is an option and partially because of the stories my friends have told me. But happily, I have friends through whom I can live vicariously. And their stories, besides being amusing, serve to provide me with a healthy dose of perspective.

Now imagine, if you will, a thriving Indian town up in the Himalayas. It’s so hot and dusty that the shopkeepers throw cups of water on the dirt in front of their stores so there will be less dust. My friend was wandering in the middle of town when she suddenly felt violently ill (something that happens frequently to Westerners in India, from all accounts).

My friend had a dilemma. Her lodgings were on the outskirts of town, and there was no way she was going to get there in time. But there weren’t any public bathrooms for her to use either. So she began to scout out a likely location on the public streets to take care of business. She found a likely alcove guarded by a cow, so she squatted down there and was very sick. She told me the cow stared at her the entire time, and what was particularly amusing to her was that she was creating a cow patty of her own.

And then she realized she didn’t have any toilet paper.

Photo Credit: Mikelo via Compfight cc

My friend went back to her lodgings and told her partner what had happened. He said, “You think that’s bad? Listen what happened to me.” He proceeded to tell her a story of how he was sick during a ten-hour bus ride in India. The bus wouldn’t stop, so he was sick in his pants every two hours for the entire trip.

I don’t believe in problem comparing, but I do think these stories help us calibrate our perceptions of the world and gain a different perspective on our lives. They illustrate the twin truths that there is always someone who has it worse and that, even so, sometimes that doesn’t matter very much. Was being sick for ten hours on a bus worse than being sick out on the public street? Perhaps, and yet at a certain level, suffering is suffering.

These stories also make me feel extremely grateful for the comforts I enjoy. It’s so easy to take the things to which we are accustomed for granted, whether that be available restrooms, toilet paper, or food and water that doesn’t make us constantly ill. I’m glad I live somewhere clean with so much modern infrastructure. I’m glad I have hot water more than a few hours a day.

Finally, they highlight our lack of control over life. Sometimes things go wrong and we have to cope with it the best we can. And sometimes that means hiding in an alcove with a curious cow.

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I’ve written a fair amount about being happy, feeling gratitude, dealing with disappointment, and other related topics over the last two years. But it was only last week that I realized that a lot of what I talk about is actually how to be emotionally resilient.

I’ve been thinking about emotional resilience (although not under that particular label) since I was a kid. I took a good look at the people around me who were dealing with stress and adversity, and who appeared to be miserable most of the time, and I thought, “I don’t want to turn out like them.” Thus began my strong determination to become an emotionally resilient person.

At first my plan was to become resilient to tide me over to the point where my life would no longer have any upsetting bits. Now I realize that second part of my plan is never going to come to pass. Adversity is a part of life, and similar to whack-a-mole, the minute one difficult thing is more or less under control, another one pops up to do its own excited little “look at me” dance. The world is changing around us all the time, and inevitably some of those changes aren’t going to be ones that we want to happen. Health changes, life circumstances change, families change, employment and careers change, accidents happen. I can’t stop these things from changing because nobody can.

However, the first part of my plan, to become as resilient as I could, has been enormously helpful. It’s something I still work on and attempt to improve, and I expect I’ll continue to do so for the rest of my life.

Photo by Tom Magliery

Why is resilience so important? Because it’s something constructive we can do in the face of adversity. It tends to make us happier people. It makes it easier for us to deal with disappointment and rejection, which in my case means I’ve been able to continue working on my writing skills (and my singing skills before that). Resilience is what causes us, in the face of difficult circumstances, to be able to stand up, brush ourselves off, and continue forward. It allows us to hold onto the belief that whatever happens, we will ultimately be okay. It keeps us from becoming bogged down in a never-ending morass of negativity and powerlessness. It helps us live more fully in the present.

Resilience is real strength.

I found an article that describes eight of the attitudes and characteristics that encourage resilience, and I found myself nodding along as I read. It lists the following: emotional awareness, optimism, support, internal locus of control, perseverance, sense of humor, perspective, and spirituality. I’ve written about many of those ideas already on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll continue writing about them.

What about you? What helps you be more resilient? In what areas do you run into trouble?

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All people are the same, and all people are different.

I think sometimes we tend to get into trouble when we forget one (or both) of these statements. Holding both of these ideas in mind at the same time definitely exercises our ability to doublethink, but they are not as mutually exclusive as they might first sound.

Photo by Leo Reynolds

All people are the same.

We are born, we grow older, we die. We get hungry, tired, hot and cold. We feel pain, both physical and emotional.

We want. We want to be loved, we want to obtain safety. We want to stop feeling scared and uncomfortable. We want meaning, whether that be through myth, religion, stories, or science. (Or all of the above.) Some of us want stuff, some of us want intangibles, but most of us want something. And what we think we want and what we actually want is only sometimes the same.

All people are different.

We come from different backgrounds, geographical locations, religious beliefs. We have different bodies, different skin colors, different hair, and different health problems. We have different eccentricities, idiosyncracies, passions, likes and dislikes, loves and hates. We’re skilled and unskilled at different things. Our brains don’t all work exactly the same way either.

We have different memories, even of the same event. We have different ways of communicating. We have different opinions, different eating habits, different ways of conducting relationships. We have different needs and different desires and different ways of expressing ourselves. We have different tastes in style and pets and child-rearing and financial management and music and transportation.

We have different stories, different baggage, and different wounds. All of which lead to different life choices, some of which work for us and some of which don’t.

We are simultaneously the same and different.

When we forget we are the same, we may feel alienated or isolated. We may turn another person or group of people into the Other. We may think we’re better than everyone else, or that we’re not worth the air we’re breathing.

When we forget we are different, we may impose our own life choices on other people. We may become visibly judgmental. We may make inaccurate assumptions and stifle other people’s voices. We may forget there are other points of view.

There is a universality to the human experience, but the details are always different–sometimes very different and sometimes only a little different. We try to understand each other with mixed success. And we forget the following important truth.

You are not me. But we are both human together.

 

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My husband was telling me about a friend of his who is a good listener. “But I think she’s the one who needs emotional support right now,” he told me.

So we are going to be revisiting a topic I’ve talked about before, problem comparing, because obviously one time was not enough.

Just because your friend has problems does not mean you can’t talk about your own problems. Even if your friend has really big problems. Keep the following in mind:

1. Your friend may have more times during which they can’t listen to you. If they’re fully in crisis mode, right in the middle of dealing with their problem, whether it be physical, mental, or emotional, they probably can’t be there for you right this minute. However, unless there’s a problem with codependence in your friendship (and if there is, that’s a whole separate issue), they will tell you if now isn’t a good time. And if it’s not a good time, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a better time in the future.

2. Your friend may not be able to track you as well. Meaning, they may not have the bandwidth to check up on you, make sure you’re doing okay, send you texts and invitations, and come to you to see if you need anything. That doesn’t mean that if you go to them, they won’t be able to listen.

3. Your friend might find it a welcome break to hear about someone else’s problems for a change. Distraction can be very helpful in certain circumstances. They might also feel better knowing they’ve been able to be supportive to a good friend.


The other aspect of this issue I’ve noticed lately is how invalidated some people feel when their problem isn’t the one getting the full spotlight. It’s as if there’s some kind of suffering quota that they’re afraid is going to be filled up before it’s their turn.

Let me help you out. Everyone suffers. Every single person. And everyone deserves compassion for the suffering they face. It doesn’t matter if your suffering is different than mine, or worse than mine, or not as bad as mine. You still deserve compassion because suffering is hard for everyone.

But when we use our own personal suffering as an excuse to shut down conversations about institutionalized suffering, we are becoming so caught up in our own heads that we are not showing compassion to others. I see this kind of thought process again and again in conversations about race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. Just because we are talking about these issues, just because there is lots of statistical evidence that institutionalized injustice exists, does not mean your own personal suffering does not also exist. But not every conversation has to be about you. Sometimes we need to talk about suffering that affects wide swathes of people, even though you are not one of those people.

Don’t worry. The suffering quota won’t be filled up any time soon.

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I started watching the first season of The Vampire Diaries on Monday night. I could say it was for research purposes, to see what’s going on in YA high school land and vampire land right now (in which case Glee is also research). But really I just wanted to watch a silly show that wasn’t taking itself too seriously after receiving bad dental news. Who knew that it would inspire my next blog post?

The first episode establishes the teenage protagonist of the series, Elena, who is starting a new year of high school only a few months after her parents were killed in a tragic accident. We see her getting ready in the morning, telling herself that she’ll no longer be “the sad girl”. And later on, she complains how everyone is asking her “How are you?” when really they don’t care and just want her to be fine. She spends the day lying because, of course, four months after losing her parents, she’s not fine. She’s pretty far away from fine.

A lot of that first episode was bad in a funny way (some of it, I suspect, on purpose). But I keep thinking about that moment of complete truth, because the writers completely nailed the “How are you?” detail. That simple question had the same effect on me. It took me quite awhile to accept its usage as a social nicety and standard greeting rather than the question it purports to be.

Offering this greeting to a grieving person is like jabbing a sore muscle to see if it still hurts…only it’s somebody else’s sore muscle being poked. It’s a reminder that no, you’re actually not doing fine at all, and not only that, but you are now expected to lie about it and pretend everything’s just peachy. That kind of pretending, unfortunately, takes energy, and energy is in fairly short supply when you feel like your chest is going to split open from missing the one you lost. In addition, it causes you to feel like you should be as together as you’re claiming. After awhile, you learn to dread the question.

Another variant of the problem is the person who asks you how you are constantly, like you’re going to explode into a million pieces any second now. (Or, as shown during the episode, the fake, over-concerned, and pitying rendition.) The true answer probably hasn’t changed in the last day or two, but sometimes it’s nice, even necessary, to take a break from the wellspring of grief for the comfort of normalcy. Overasking shatters any possibility of creating moments and experiences of relative peace.

So should we avoid saying “How are you?” altogether? I don’t think so, but wouldn’t it be interesting if we began meaning it as a question again, instead of allowing it to remain just a form? And perhaps thought more about appropriate times to ask it and how to listen in a nonjudgmental way? Then, instead of lying, a grieving person could honor their own difficult feelings and feel more supported by the outside world. Heck, I’m not grieving right now and I’d still like to be asked how I’m really doing. But many people never ask.

Here’s how I’m doing. I’m tired. I’ve been having a hard time this last several months. I’ve been under a lot of stress and in a fair amount of pain. Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed. But I’m also determined, and I’m completely in love with life. So I’m hanging in and appreciating the good things even more than usual, especially the people who I love (and the dog, I can’t forget her). And I’m looking forward to change.

How are you?

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Jay Lake recently wrote an intriguing blog post about his theory of problems. To summarize, he states that problems cannot  be compared–that just because his problems (fighting cancer) are very serious, that doesn’t mean that other people’s “less serious” problems don’t matter too. He goes on to say that he still cares about his friends and that sometimes it can be a relief to talk about something besides cancer, even if the something else isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. (There is more interesting discussion in the comments, so you should check it out.)

 

I am in complete agreement. It is impossible to compare problems or lives, even though people try to do it all the time. It isn’t a contest with all of us competing to see who can have the biggest sob story to tell, who can be busiest and most stressed, who can have their behavior excused because gosh darn it, life hasn’t treated them well. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own actions regardless of the problems we face. And each of us has the problems we have, and since we can’t literally be in someone else’s head (at least not yet!), we can’t know how our suffering truly compares.

I didn’t always understand this essential fact. I had a tough childhood and adolescence; my mom dying while I was fairly young was just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy to compare myself to others and minimize their problems in my head. “So his parents divorced years ago. That’s not a big deal. Why can’t he just get over it?” I know, I know, I wince to recall it. It’s embarrassing, and my only comfort is that at least I don’t remember usually saying such things out loud. Everyone is deserving of compassion for the hardships in their lives, and problems hit different people in different ways. What may be, for one person, a relatively insignificant event, may be a life-changing catastrophe for someone else.

And honestly, even if it were a competition for who has the worst life, why would you ever want to win such a contest?

Speaking as someone who, for many years, had “worse” problems than many of those around me, I never wanted to shut people down. (Perhaps this is why I had the minimal wisdom to try to keep my mouth shut during my occasional uncharitable moments.) I rarely discussed most of my problems, partly because I dreaded the initial reaction and partly because I didn’t want my experiences to change the way people related to me. I was already isolated enough; I didn’t want further barriers between me and the rest of the world. I wanted whatever normalcy I could get.

It’s a tricky business, because when we know someone is struggling with major problems, we don’t want to burden them with our own concerns, which in comparison seem to middle away into insignificance. But when we aren’t honest about what’s going on with us, when we choose to protect someone instead of share with them, what we’re really doing is pushing them away.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to be tactful and considerate. If a friend is retching in the toilet, that probably isn’t a great time to start bemoaning an inability to find the perfect juice squeezer. Someone who is ill might very well lack the energy to do certain activities with you. And sometimes there are subjects better left alone for a while. Raving about an amazing romantic relationship to someone who is going through a bitter divorce? Well, maybe not so much. But if you talk to that same friend about problems with your aging parents, it might not burden them so much as build the mutual connection between you. It may give your friend a break from dwelling on her own problems. It may make her feel less alone. Or she may tell you it’s not a good time to talk, and that’s okay too.

In my experience, everyone has problems, even those people who look like they have perfect lives. We all have bad days mixed in with the good, we all have setbacks, we all make mistakes, and we all have to live with the hard parts of being human. But ideally the people with whom we move through life can make the hard parts more bearable and the good times sweeter.

What do you think? Do you find yourself comparing problems? If someone has a really big problem, does that make you feel that you can’t speak freely to them?

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