Sunday, November 20, 2016

I feel sorry for you

from here

A few years ago, a friend said she felt sorry for me because I didn’t drink coffee. Last week, my aunty told me she felt sorry for me that I didn’t go to church. In both cases, I could see what each was saying: “I find this thing enjoyable/calming/whatever, and I want you to experience this same kind of joy/peace/whatever, because I love you.” But what struck me about both of those comments was that they weren’t preceded by me tearfully sharing my deep sadness over the lack of coffee or church in my life; had they asked or listened, they would have noticed that in fact I fell somewhere on the spectrum between neutral and completely happy about both my caffeinated-beverage and Sunday-morning decisions.

I’m not sure it’s ever okay to say “I feel sorry for you” (unless your aim is to insult somebody, in which case, go nuts*). Even if the person feels sorry for themselves, it seems to be a self-centred reaction: why start talking about your feelings when someone else has just shared theirs? Let them have their moment. This isn’t about you. But “I feel sorry for you” is especially inappropriate when the person you’re speaking to has given you no reason to believe they’re at all sorry about their circumstances/preferences/choices. It shows you’re listening to your thoughts and feelings rather than those of the person you’re speaking with, and it suggests that you believe the only way a person can live a truly fulfilled life is if they are exactly like you.

It’s totally fine to want other people to feel the same positive feelings as you – I, too, want good things for everyone I know, as well as many people I don’t! Here’s the difference, though: saying “I feel sorry for everyone who hasn’t heard this song” is not the same as saying “I want everyone in the world to feel the same kind of incredible joy that I felt while listening to this song.” The latter sees that fundamentally one’s desire is for the feeling to be shared, not necessarily the song. It acknowledges and accepts that the song you love may make someone else gag, while the song that brings them incredible joy is the one that makes you switch stations every time it comes on. People are different. Different is good.

So, if you’re about to blurt out, “I feel sorry for you!” you could stop and say instead, “I find it so interesting that you’re not upset about not drinking coffee, when I find so much pleasure in it!” Or, “Isn’t it strange that a service that brings comfort to one person can have the complete opposite effect on another person?” 

Rather than the message being, “If you were like me your life would be better,” it would be, “We’re different, and I love you anyway.”


* This is a joke. Please be kind.

** There’s a cool study, described in the first few minutes of this talk, which found that sometime between 15 and 18 months old, babies figure out that not everyone likes the same things they do. The researcher made it clear she preferred broccoli over crackers and then asked the baby, “Can you give me some?” 18-month-old babies would offer the researcher broccoli, whereas the 15-month-olds would offer the crackers, because DUDE. It’s BROCOLLI. I’m not sure what I’m saying with this, but I couldn’t help thinking of it. (Possibly: We learned this lesson a reeeeally long time ago! We should know better!)

Friday, November 11, 2016

The US election, and feelings

On Wednesday morning I dropped Mo at school with thoughts of the US election bubbling in my head. I imagined how it would feel watching Clinton accepting victory, a daydream which made me happily teary. Later I read encouraging articles about the record number of Hispanics voting against Trump, greedily gobbled up all election-related tweets, and followed a thread in a Facebook group populated mostly by Americans which explained how the electoral college process worked and kept me updated on what states Clinton needed to win. All the while I refreshed the Google page for ‘Election USA’, which showed a map of the US with each state coloured red or blue depending on who was leading there. The mood during the morning was hopeful; just before lunch (Sydney time) one member of the Facebook group wrote, “Trump is probably thinking he’s winning lol” and another, not long after, predicted that “this is the worst moment of the night for those supporting the blue team. When the big city votes come in I think it will look much more palatable.”

Over the next couple of hours, however, hope was replaced with increasing shock and despair. By school pick-up time, it was clear that Clinton’s victory speech would not be needed. I was devastated, and surprised by how much it hurt given the fact that I’m not American and Trump is literally #notmypresident. I was mostly gutted because I’m female, and I was desperate to see a powerful role going to a powerful woman, to prove that it was doable and that the times truly were a-changin’. I long for a day when a woman as president is not a news story.
from here
One of BrenĂ© Brown’s suggestions that’s stuck with me since reading Rising Strong is the idea of starting vulnerable conversations with others about how you’re feeling with “The story I’m telling myself is…” I like how the phrase acknowledges that I may have misread a situation (thanks to my irritating tendency to interpret the confusing things others do and say as being a) caused by me and b) sure signs of my defectiveness) without diminishing the realness of my emotional reaction/s. For example, I could say to Alan, “I feel like you haven’t listened well to me this week. The story I’m telling myself is that it’s because you think I’m annoying and you don’t care about me.” And then he could respond by saying, “I’m sorry I haven’t listened well this week. I’ve been going to bed too late and work is overwhelming, so I’ve been tired and cranky. I don’t think you’re annoying, and I care about you a lot.” The story I told myself about Alan’s behaviour was all about me, whereas the actual story had far more to do with stress and a lack of sleep. The feelings still needed to be aired and processed, though.

I think this is a helpful way of talking about the election, too. The story I’m telling myself is that a woman wasn’t voted in because female is still (STILL!) seen as inferior to male by too many people in our world. The story I’m telling myself is that a lot of people thought that ‘racism’, ‘misogyny’, ‘sexual assault’ and ‘inexperience’ (among far too many other flaws) were preferable to ‘woman’. The story I’m telling myself is that my views must be in the minority and things will never change, that patriarchy will have the last word, that the struggle will continue for our daughters and their daughters and their daughters until humanity is wiped out in five billion years by a dead sun (or global warming or something… I did start reading more about possible ways it could all end, but I gave up; today I’m aiming for “relatively positive” and “anxiety-free”).

I’ve read enough analysis since Wednesday to know that sexism probably played a limited role in the election outcome. I think of Julia Gillard’s speech after losing the leadership spill in 2013 in which she said that her sex did not explain everything about the difficulties she faced as PM, nor did it explain nothing. It explained some things. Economics may have been the primary factor influencing those who voted for Trump, but I saw enough to know there were at least some who couldn’t bear the thought of a woman leading and being empowered to make (or uphold) decisions about womens’ bodies and rights. Sexism doesn’t explain everything about what happened in the US this week, but it explains some things and “some things” is enough to cause deep pain. (I’m also aware that Trump’s harmful views on those who aren’t male, white, cisgender, straight, Christian, able-bodied, etc. would cut far more deeply if I didn’t tick almost all of these boxes. I still experience a level of privilege others don’t, and I can only imagine, therefore, what the combination of insults would mean for the tummies and hearts of people in the many groups Trump offended, if mine feel this awful.)

So the stories Im telling myself about the outcome may not be entirely accurate (certainly none of it is about me), but there’s some truth in them, and my feelings about them are valid.

from here
I’m currently training to work as a volunteer on a crisis support phone line, for which we’re taught a model that is three-fifths listening and understanding and two-fifths problem-solving and plan-making. Three-fifths may not sound like much, but it takes effort to stick to; my natural inclination is one-fifth listening, four-fifths fixing. My biggest challenge in training has been to not rush too quickly to the solutions and the silver lining, but to sit in the yukkiness for longer than feels comfortable so the caller can purge and feel like they’re not alone in/with their big feelings.

Since the election, I’ve noticed how quickly people’s reactions have been dismissed, how unwilling many are to sit in the hard places with those whose stories about the outcome are hurting them. “It’s okay because God’s in control!” some say (as if reassuring us that God is also on Trump’s side will make us feel less like dying). “The sun will still come out tomorrow!” chirp others (thanks so much, guys! I’d briefly forgotten how science worked! My bad). “It’s not about race!” was a loud and repeated response to Van Jones’ emotional speech. I heard a journalist on the radio last night saying it certainly wasn’t sexism that got Trump elected, as if she was tired of hearing this argument. And “This wouldn’t have happened if Bernie Sanders was the candidate!” may or may not be true, but only acknowledges half of my disappointment; for me the election was less The Republicans vs. The Democrats and more The Misogynist vs. The First Female President of the United States. (I imagine that for others it was The One Who Talked About Walls vs. The One Who Talked About Bridges, or Supported by the KKK vs. Not Supported by the KKK, or Anti-Abortion vs. Abortion Rights, or - importantly, it seems - Something Radically Different vs. More of the Same. Everyone saw the election through their particular lens.)

Whatever the election result was actually driven by, the feelings I have about the stories I’m telling myself are real and (mostly) rational, and they need to be allowed and heard and validated, as do everyone else’s, closer to three-fifths of the time. As nice as rushing to the positives and the planning (Michelle Obama 2020!) feels, the reaction to “The story I’m telling myself is…” should never be, “Well, your story sucks. Get over it.” This is a chance to work on checking your privilege, understanding others’ hurts and fears and hopes and desires, and practicing extreme-sport-level empathy. Im going to need to feel sad for a little bit longer, and Im going to need you to be okay with that.