Today’s Words of Wisdom:
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
-Thumper from “Bambi”
The Foda’s take: While this is all well and good for a Disney movie, the problem is when people feel unequipped and don’t know what to say. Because sometimes not saying anything when a friend is in need is way worse than saying the wrong thing. After all, one can lead to a discussion- the other leads to isolation.
Welcome back, everyone! I’m feeling a little stronger today, and ready to dig into this delicate issue. For all of you who have been combating any kind of long-term illness, life upheaval, or emotional trauma, you know that “How are you doing?” can be one of the hardest questions to answer. Either you tell the truth or wave your hand and breeze past it as quickly as a T-16 shooting womp rats on Tatooine. My favorite combination is to admit when I’m not doing so well, but then immediately put my own bright spin on things so I don’t have to deal with any of the countless cliches people dig out when they don’t know what else to say… keep your chin up, stay positive, it is what it is, etc, etc. This type of response? Does NOT feel like people understand. It feels like they’re giving me advice on how to best deal with this, when they likely have no idea what this is like- which is even more isolating. Now, mind you, this does not make them bad people- they just don’t know what else to say. (And, note of humility here- when I’m feeling angry or resentful over my current condition, I recognize that I’m really not getting mad at them for triggering me- I’m mad that I have to struggle through it at all.)
However much these responses may frustrate me, though, it’s much better than allowing someone to see what’s really going on and then having them avoid you like the plague because they don’t know what to say at all. If you’re blessed…or cursed, however you want to look at it…. to have an illness or any kind of personal trauma that ravages your insides but leaves you looking relatively normal on the outside, it can make social interactions rather difficult. When I first got sick, some people treated me horribly because they didn’t understand why I couldn’t take on extra responsibilities, and eventually had to stop working because I couldn’t stand for more than a few painful minutes. They knew I looked tired, but had no idea what I was combating internally. For others, when I admitted some of the things I was dealing with, they got that deer-in-the-headlights look and forevermore avoided future conversations. You’d think I actually was a hairy-eared green alien!
So how SHOULD people respond when you’re brave enough to give an honest answer when asked? My favorite is a supportive response that offers no unsolicited advice and no judgement, such as “That must be really tough. Is there anything I can do?” or “Wow. I don’t want to pretend like I can truly understand what you’re going through, but I’m here to listen if you need to talk.” This opens a safe place where the receiving party can divulge as much or as little as they’re comfortable with without worrying about being judged or compared to a statistic. Most times, people dealing with chronic illness or trauma don’t necessarily want help, they just want to feel like they’re not going through it alone. In this Foda’s opinion, this means I don’t want you to try and fix me through buck-up, camper! cliches or relate to me with horror stories about that “friend” you have who went through something similar. (Hard lovin’ coming your way folks: Just because you know one person who went through it does not mean you know all people. The last thing I want to hear about is your cousin’s friend who had a horrible experience with my illness. It will NOT make me feel like you understand me. It will make me feel like Bantha fodder.)
Instead, validate this person’s difficult journey. Relax, knowing you don’t have to personally understand or relate. Empathy is just good listening without putting yourself into the equation. If you don’t know what to say, ask. People are naturally afraid of what they don’t understand. As kids, we’re taught that it’s okay to ask questions. As adults, we’re often ashamed to ask questions, feeling like we should know already. So just ask! Or if you’re uncertain the person wants to talk about it, here’s an oldie but goodie: “What’s up?” This casual greeting invites conversation that can go in any direction the recipient chooses, as it’s much more open ended than “How are you doing?” or the more direct “How are you feeling?” This way, I can choose to tell you how I’m physically feeling that day, or start a dialogue about the wickedly cute yet devastatingly impractical Star Wars printed heels I found last week on Etsy.
It’s amazing how sometimes all you need is to feel connected to another human being to feel better and more positive about the future.