5 things to do instead
I was having a really bad stretch at work. A cold, rainy week had left my students stir-crazy, loud, and barely manageable. I’d had an encounter with an angry parent (whose child wasn’t even in my class). And my administrator still hadn’t responded to several requests for basic supplies we sorely needed.
I was unloading my frustrations to a friend; someone with whom I’d always had a sense of mutual sharing and support. So I was more than a bit taken aback when she said, “You know, you’re lucky you’ve got a job.”
So OK, maybe I was a bit whiny. Maybe I caught her at a bad time. And it was true that I had been fortunate to snag one of very few openings our district was to have that year.
But lucky or not, that was not the point. And it was absolutely the last thing I needed to hear.
Don’t dismiss my reality
Despite my genuine gratitude for the work and income, I wasn’t feeling all that lucky that day. I was frustrated, angry, and embarrassed that I wasn’t having more success in a profession I had passionately pursued my entire adult life.
No, I wasn’t feeling remotely lucky. At least not in this setting. Or this particular week.
I had bared my soul, and instead of being respected and heard, I had been blown off.
I thought about all the times I’d felt sad or disappointed or irritated, times I wanted something I was having trouble achieving. And I thought of how some well-meaning person tried to distract me from these feelings by telling me how fortunate I was that things weren’t worse.
These feelings are not mutually exclusive. Yes, I know things could be worse and that others have it worse than I do. And yes, I’m grateful that I have a job and a roof over my head, or that I wasn’t hit by a bus today. Stop trying to cheer me up.
Gratitude as a Drug
Please understand that I am a huge fan of gratitude and make a point of counting my blessings on a daily basis. I know that this practice can help keep me stay focused and positive, and at times, can be a great tool for keeping despair and panic at bay.
But gratitude is a crappy way to numb feelings when they come up—and need to be felt, processed, and yes, sometimes acknowledged.
Although my natural inclination is to be fairly chipper and upbeat, stuff gets to me, and I no more enjoy sitting with pain, fear, or frustration than anyone else.
But it’s important for me to honor this emotional complexity and to resist the habit of using gratitude as a drug to not feel things I don’t want to deal with. I know the long-term outcomes of stuffing or dismissing uncomfortable emotions, and the resentments, self-harm, and addictions are no longer viable options for me.
So please don’t give me any message that suggests it’s not OK for me to feel how I’m feeling, even if those feelings seem irrational or absurd to you. Perhaps I will eventually agree with you, but at the moment, what I’m going through is very real for me.
How to be a supportive friend:
If you really want to be a friend—not just to me, but to anyone you really care about —then there are a few things you can do to support a range of emotions without getting sucked into an emotional vortex. (These tips are applicable to any relationship you value, including those with your partner, family, co-workers, and kids!)
Sometimes I just want to vent. I tend to process my emotional experiences by talking (or writing) about what I’m going through. If I trust you enough to share something that is affecting me at a deep emotional level, I need you to hear me.
I don’t want to be anesthetized or “calmed down.” I want to be heard, so please don’t jump in with suggestions or distractions.
Respect my vulnerability. Don’t judge or deny my feelings, or blame me for what I’m going through. Resist any urge to impose an agenda of how you think I should feel or act. (And by the way, starting a sentence with “At least…” is just as bad as one that uses “You’re lucky…” as a distraction.) That won’t help me, and it will create mistrust and distance instead.
Share your understanding of my experience, or at least of my right to it. Reflect. Agree. Nod. Acknowledge.
Chances are, after a short time, I will be able to shift out of the intensity of what I’m experiencing, although sometimes it takes a little longer for me to gain the clarity and perspective I need. Be present. And be patient.
Let me know
I’ve developed a bit more discretion about where and how much I share, but sometimes my judgment (or timing) is off. If this isn’t your thing—if you’re uncomfortable hearing what I’m sharing or if my feelings trigger your own stuff—it’s fine to say so.
I have a strong network and other places I can go. However, if you’re able to go deeper with me, these gifts will be greatly appreciated. Plus they will reinforce my intention to reciprocate when it’s your turn to need me.
Feelings are just feelings. Hold a space for me to be wherever I am at the moment and I am likely to gain some perspective and emotional sobriety. Let’s avoid drifting into unrelated events or experiences. I’ll catch up with my good luck when I get to the other side.
This piece was originally written for the YourTango website and published under a different title. (© 2017, Dr. Jane Bluestein).
© 2017, Dr. Jane Bluestein
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