What to say to a friend in distress

You’re here because you desperately want to know what to say, or because you have said something and didn’t receive the expected enthusiastic response, or because you’re going through a tough time and you give passionate “thank-you”s only because you know that’s what’s expected of you not because you connect with it.

I can tell you exactly what to say to that friend of yours who is going through a tough time: a devastating diagnosis, a loss, recovery, personal growth, injury…

People like to say motivational/inspirational things or memes to people in distress and hide behind the omnipotence of it being “out of good intentions.” But what is that intention for? Having a chronic pain syndrome has allowed me to see that, in most cases, it’s self-serving.

There is no way to avoid taking those comments personally when you and I are in the middle of it. So I am hoping to discuss this idea away from me and you being in that situation.

Do you know what I think when I see something like this that’s supposed to be motivational? I think “Don’t remind me that I not only gave up a day of my life but also all the possibilities that were in it.” I’m not being cranky or reactive. It’s just the reality of it. Chronic pain sufferers make trades – I want to attend a long work meeting today, and I accept that I won’t be able to get off the bed tomorrow. My today is never a new day. The selection of this meme emphasizes that you don’t know my reality but also that you don’t care to know.

But it’s not your fault at all that you don’t know my reality. We haven’t discussed it. So, what is it that you should say?

Let me ask you first. Think of the last time something like that happened, and remember what you said. Why did you choose that to say? The typical answers to this question are
“Because that’s the right thing to say.”
“Because I’ve heard other people say it.”
“Because the instructions/solutions I gave them will be helpful to them.”
“Because I want you to know I care about you.”

You know what I’d love to hear from my friends?
“I knew what to say because I asked you how you were feeling.”
“Because I sat down long and hard and thought this is what I thought you’d want me to say.”
“I talked to several people who’d been in a similar situation, and they all told me to say this.”

I think that you noticed the big thing that’s missing from the first group is the perspective from “you.” I’m sorry to break it to you so abruptly. But we are very often saying things to satisfy our own need to say something. When our attention is swept by the need to say something, we completely forget about the person we are saying it to.

How arrogant we think that anything that comes out of our brain/thoughts/experience can help our friend in distress at all.

Sit down, have a good ponder about what your friend is going through, close your eyes and get a sense of the air, the noise, the environment they are in right at this moment. You’ll know exactly what to say.

How to manage awkward moments

Awkward moments are like that round-around-the-edges uncle that you fear as a child and end up being the best friends as adults.
 
Our knee-jerk reaction with uncomfortable moments is to find the quickest way out. Make a joke, change the subject, walk the other way, or simply say “awkward~.” But so-called “awkward” moments is where all the magic happens.
 
In that uncomfortable moment of awkwardness, you’d think people’s guard goes up, right? Shockingly, I’m finding the opposite.
 
Next time we find ourselves in an awkward situation, stop, take a breath, and look the other person in the eye. Their eyes tell of a giggle, fear, despise, or desperation… it’s absolutely absolutely full of connection.
 
What would happen if we say “Tell me. I’m listening”?

“He loves me. He won’t intentionally hurt me.”

“I love nature!”

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“I love wildlife!”

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Yes, they will hurt you. Their saying they love you doesn’t even mean they love you. Look at those photos! All inflicted by people who say they love the thing they are hurting. “Well, I didn’t do it on purpose,” they’d say. But, well, you and I both know they knew the impact of what they were doing.

It’s not like they don’t really care. It’s also not like they are having to make the tough choice between their quality of life and the nature stewardship. They just… it’s like they just roll on completely unaware of the expectation that you are supposed to care about things and people you claim to love.

It is easy to say they love you. It is also very possible they believe they love you. And, most importantly, you believe it too maybe because you have this incredibly intense passion to believe that you are truly loved in that deep, genuine, fairy-tale love. Because being loved that way makes you feel worthy. You never have to show up to weddings alone. Your rent will be cut in half, and you can stop stressing about what happens if you suddenly lose your job. And, if a moment of courage allows you to realize that this person’s love isn’t as perfect and whole as you want to believe, you have to give up this ignorant bliss and go back to the foxhole for the pursuit of love.

It doesn’t mean you love each other.

WAIT!

It doesn’t mean you don’t love each other either.

The hurt they cause, the mess they create inside you, the way you feel destroyed by their words or actions may be an indication they simply don’t love you like they say they do, but it may also an indication that they have yet to learn how to care.

It is easy to say they love you, but they possibly actually love you. Here is the thing. We are all work in progress when it comes to avoiding hurting those we love. None of us can claim to know how to avoid every single last little way in which we could hurt another person. Maybe some of us have less practice in it, and maybe some of us have a ton of experience in areas other than the ones you’re particularly sensitive about. It does not mean this person is a sociopath or someone too immature to know how to love someone.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the fact they’ve said they love you isn’t indicative of anything really, but if you have to use “But s/he said s/he loves me!” to defend your choices, you need to think hard about the lack of other facts that should have come to your defense.

The Adulthood and its intentionally constructed social circle

So, ironically I was “sheltered” in a way. Just not by wealth but by violence. I didn’t learn the things other kids did. I spent every extra second I could in my bedroom, and I kept my heart locked away because even my bedroom with a deadbolt on the door wasn’t safe. Important time frames to learn how to make and keep friends came and went. No one taught me that there are such things as skills to develop relationships and careers weren’t my priority, and these are some of many things kids don’t just notice unless they are pointed out to them.

This obviously caused major difficulties as I transitioned from childhood to adulthood. The friction in interacting with proper social communities and interactions due to my lack of social skills started surfacing in high school. It was full blown around 25 when (or because) I found myself in a serious relationship.

My realization about what was going on and where it was coming from would hit me a lot later. I was 28 when I realized I completely lacked something that other people seemed to know. I was 33 when I recognized that my childhood deprived me of proper mentorship and education about how to interact with other humans and be a member of a community as well as how to aim for and build a career.

It’s been 10 years now. I’ve intentionally and intensely focused my efforts at catching up. Some went well. Some were much harder and took tremendous pain and effort. Others were too late and had devastating and/or irreparable impacts on my life.

I am thankful for everything. Sure, many days I wish I had a much easier life and daydream about the life it could have been; When I started university, an elite career was planned out and laid out in front of me. And, at the same time, I really enjoy the fact I get to experience the things many others do as kids without even noticing. When you do it as an adult, especially a logical scientist, you’re really understanding and analyzing and choosing and observing all of my past mistakes and every bit of my future successes. I’m finding something new to work on every month. It’s exhilarating and fulfilling. So very satisfying since I’m the laughing at self type person.

(Oh, yes. That’s earned. The fact I don’t value myself based on the hierarchical view the society has of my job. The fact I don’t base my worth on my wealth. The ability to laugh at myself. They are learned values.)

What I discovered recently is that I need to intentionally construct my social circles. Hanging out with people who like the same activities and who are also interested in hanging out with you is the default in elementary school, and that’s how I’ve been operating. Then in my mid to late 20’s, everyone accused me of hitting on them, so I became jaded. Today I’m jaded and cautious but really unskilled at making and keeping friends. I have enough, and I have enough close friends, I would say.

I had already learned (albeit much later than others) that I can’t expect all of my friends to be there for me all of the time. I am now realizing that it’s wrong to expect all of my friends to be all of the things I need from my friends. It’s just not fair. They might want to, and they might be deeply insulted if I tell them that they can’t fulfill all of my needs. Don’t get me wrong. I know that “You pick which friend you go to based on what you need from your friends that day” thing. Some of them are really good at listening. Some of them are wonderfully non-judgmental. Some pamper you. I have my “tough-love” friends. On the other hand, my “sister-from-another-mother” can be counted on to be supportive 100 % of the time no matter how uncomfortable or disagreeable she may find my choices.

And, at the same time, it’s completely unfair for me to be upset when a “friend who likes the same activities” isn’t a good listener and makes me feel unimportant, for instance. Mainly, the mistake I’m clearly aware of now is that my expectation of that friend is often defined not by what kind of friend I see them to be to me but by what kind of friend they see themselves to be to me. 

Yes, I’m thinking about this topic now because I felt hurt about friends who are not good listeners. I pleaded and prayed and sat them down and tolerated, and I’m now exhausted. I realized that the verb that’s missing there is “adjust.” What I need to work on is to not construct a social circle around me so that, as a hive, they meet my needs and I am also a contributing member of their social net, and do it so intentionally not just by chance. Remain mindful of where people fit and resist demanding more from them.

“He should do ___ for me because he is my boyfriend and that’s what a boyfriend does!!” my friend said a few weeks ago. I pointed out how unfair this statement is for her boyfriend. I realized now that I was doing that with some of my friends.

 

Standardization of Psychological Professions

We all know there is an issue, and many people are working on it urgently.

But exactly how urgent is it?

I recently had this encounter in another country that I think you need to hear. The man is a “clinical psychologist.” He is my brother, and I knew that he had absolutely zero qualification to be called that in other countries. He doesn’t have an M.D. or Ph.D., and he didn’t have any practical education or training. His B.A. and M.A. were purely academic, and his M.A. thesis was solely based on his personal view only intermittently supported by literature citations. Say, very reminiscent of a term paper by the North American standard. I didn’t tell him this, but I was absolutely shocked that the university gave him a graduate degree for it.

When we were having just general conversations, I immediately realized that he didn’t even have the basic skills even a crisis line volunteers would be trained on, such as listening fully and validating experiences. I sort of turned a blind eye to it, seeing that he was personally involved with some of those stories and may find it hard to be fair and objective. Then I realized that his dismissive, patronizing, and downright demeaning attitude only increased over time.

He started going through my psych textbook. “You wouldn’t mind if I give you a bit of a rant lecture?” I said no. It was incredibly humorous and painful to listen to him go on and on about things where he was wrong. Yes, textbooks are full of misinformation and it’s healthy to debate about information in a textbook. But I’m talking at a more fundamental level. He, for instance, completely failed to recognize DSM, and when I pointed it out, failed to recognize the term “DSM.”

Then later we were having a bit of a heated argument between my mother and me, and his interventions weren’t helping. I couldn’t finish a sentence without two of them interrupting. I repeatedly clarified “I’m not trying to fight about what really happened or didn’t. I’m trying to share how I experienced those events,” to which he would say “Oh ok.” But he couldn’t help himself interrupting without letting me finish one sentence in the do-over.

When my 5th try at it wasn’t allowed to continue, I said “I’m just thinking… this conversation is getting heated, and it’s not helping anyone. How would everyone feel if I just calmly walked out of here and we continue this conversation another day? I’m not storming out. I’m calm. I just think this conversation isn’t helping any of us.” And he jumped on me. Physically restrained me. Even after about 45 minutes of negotiation and physically freeing myself, I was blocked from exiting my mother’s apartment. I kept telling my brother what he was doing was illegal and unethical, to which he kept responding it was OK because I was family. I said “How do you not know how bad this is? If your employer finds out about this, you will lose your job.” He *chuckled* and said that’s not going to happen. The whole time, he was yelling “No one here will hurt you!” and my mother was screaming “I’d die for you!!” with me telling them that me calmly leaving a fight is not a situation that justifies any of the several things that they were doing and saying, and that they’d watched way too many movies.

I told him that he was traumatizing me.
I pleaded him to let me go to avoid giving me PTSD.
I explained to him that his weight on me was causing difficulty breathing and that I was faint and afraid of passing out.
I repeatedly told him that, if his reason for restraining me is to prevent me from leaving, he has to at least free me to let me walk back into the living room, away from the door. He refused.

I eventually called the police, who agreed that what he did was illegal. The officers demanded my brother apologize to me for touching me let alone physically restraining me. My brother refused, and he, in front of the police officers, declared it was legal for him to man-handle me and forcibly confine me because I was family. The officers then tried to make my brother promise my safety, which he again refused.

(When I pressed, the police officers agreed that my brother was not complying with anything they were asking him to do, but they told me I had no choice but to comply with their demand to stay in my mother’s apartment till the next morning. The police and their lack of education in domestic violence is a whole another topic, however.)

I fled once both captors started snoring. I ran out with shoes in hand and hid in the airport for 10 hours till my flight home. I felt very confused about the local culture, and I no longer trusted police officers. I was also very afraid my brother would use his credentials as a “clinical psychologist” to try to do harm to me. I made sure I knew where the nearest person with an American or Canadian accent was so I could run to them if needed.

I hesitate to contact his employer because I am frightened of the consequences I’d suffer from my family if they found out.

But this man absolutely should not be practicing any psychology let alone have the title “clinical psychologist.”

“Your inability to accept does not justify your rejection.”

“Pfffft. I don’t believe you.” We’ve all said in various forwardness. All the way from really rude “God, you’re stupid” to knee-jerk “really?” to the subtler “Ok…” where the doubt is indicated by the trailing off alone.

If you take just one second to look at it, this is so casually used for such an incredibly violating statement.

What’s not violating about it? When someone says that to you, they reject your reality. Your experience. Your knowledge, intelligence, wisdom. Your objectivity. Your ability to research, consider, and deduce. They reject your chance to explain and provide evidence. They shut their ear and stop listening.

I don’t know why this type of status is delivered with so much jubilation and triumph. It’s for a psychologist to explain to us. We have to be mindful that there is this tendency in a human and constantly check in with empathy in order to combat against it. Especially dealing with such sensitive issues as personal choices, their past experiences and trauma, and gender identification.

Inspired by this article:

The Punctuation That Kills

The “second comma in the Second Amendment” is considered the deadliest puncturation and is blamed for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. That’s not entirely correct.

There was a discussion regarding the interpretation of the Second Amendment whether it said an individual’s right to a firearm was not to be infringed or not, and Justice Scalia decided that it did based on that now-infamous second comma. He argued that the second comma made everything that came before it to be just a little decoration.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The people keen of grammar would most likely put the emphasis on the third comma, however. Words and clauses that are bracketed by a pair of commas are inserted “sidebars,” and the sentence does not lose its core meaning with them omitted. In other words, there cannot be a comma placed between a true subject of the sentence and its verb, disqualifying “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” from being the thing that shall not be infringed.

I am not saying this is wrong. It took the Justice’s will to interpret it the way he did, and the use of interpretation is what got him appointed as the supreme court justice. This is how it works. What I’m saying is that this is the “well… you could interpret it that way if you really want to” interpretation, not the “yeah, that’s the most natural interpretation” interpretation.

The second comma didn’t kill anyone; it was made a patsy.