The “Bad Memories” Fallacy*

*Note: there will be footnotes. 

There’s a big mistake almost everyone makes when it comes to comforting people who are going through a hard time. I’ve made it. You’ve probably made it–probably more than once–without ever meaning to or realizing it.

Here’s the scenario: you are are worried about a friend, family member, or colleague that has recently gone through/is going through something really awful. You think “I’d like to reach out and offer my support.” But then you follow that thought with “Oh, but I don’t want to stir up any bad memories for them, so I probably just shouldn’t say anything.”

First of all, I am happy to say that I have good news for you. If you’ve ever had this thought, it means that you are a kind person who is concerned with the wellbeing of others, and that you care enough to want to help and not make things harder for someone having a hard time. And that is admirable.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking often results in the opposite effect, and makes people who are already having a hard time feel even worse. Avoiding talking to a person about something that has disrupted their life in a big way–even when it’s well-intentioned and coming from a place of care–results in further isolation, loneliness, and emotional pain for the one who is suffering.**

Speaking from personal experience, when truly painful and upsetting things happened to me, I was, on some level, never not thinking about it. I have not have a single day go by recently during which I forgot that my mom died, that my friend died, or that I had a miscarriage. It’s always there, even when I’m not actively thinking about it. And when someone approaches me and brings it up with the intention of offering comfort and support, my emotional reaction is almost*** always “Oh thank goodness, I get to say  all these things I’m feeling out loud and have them acknowledged, what a relief.” Never ever not once has my reaction been “What are you talking about? My mom didn’t die, she’s at home right now…wait, oh god, it’s all coming back to me…I had it all wrong, she did die…oh dear god no…why…Why?…Why did you say this!?!?! THIS HAS BROUGHT UP HORRIBLE MEMORIES FOR ME THAT I’D TUCKED AWAY LIKE A SQUIRREL HIDING NUTS FOR THE WINTER AND NOW I CAN NO LONGER ESCAPE THE AWFUL REALITY BECAUSE OF YOU!!!

Okay, so now you’re thinking that you’d like to stop falling prey to the Bad Memories Fallacy (™ pending) and start offering words support to someone that you care about who needs them. You might now be having a few different reactions to the thought of this undertaking. You might be thinking, “I am great face-to-face with folks and always know what to say!” or maybe, “Oh god I am terrified of saying the wrong thing, but I want to say something and please dear god don’t make me do it in person. Or on the phone.” So here’s a handy-dandy list of suggestions to fit a range of strengths and preferred methods of communication:

  • Schedule a phone call or hang-out with the person and then say something like, “Hey, I know something’s been going on and I’m worried about you. I’d be happy to be a listening ear, or just to provide some distraction. Whatever you need in this moment.”
  • Approach the person during a private or quiet moment in your workday and offer a simple, “I just wanted to say that I heard about [insert what happened] and that I’m so very sorry. You’re in my thoughts.” And if you’re feeling extra capable and fancy you can add a, “If you’d ever like to talk about it, I’d be happy to listen.”
  • Send a card to their home or leave on one their desk, on their door, etc. This option has a bonus: you don’t even have to know what to say because you can buy a card that already says it for you. There are lots of sympathy cards that are really well written and great. I myself have deployed the sympathy card option on many occasions to great effect. Added bonus: cards can be kept, and re-read whenever needed (I have a stash of particularly meaningful sympathy cards that I re-read when I’m feeling blue).
  • Send the person an email, Facebook message, DM on any other platform, or text. There are people who will tell you that it is inappropriate to express these kinds of things via electronic communication. Those people are wrong (and probably say things like, “Kids these days!”). Reach out with a message or text that says something like, “Hey, you’ve been in my thoughts so much lately, and I just wanted to let you know how much you mean to me and that I’m here for you if you need anything.” Getting texts like those have, at times, been a life-line when I felt like I was drowning.
  • Still overwhelmed by the idea of making words of any kind to express your feelings? A small token, like some flowers, a gift certificate to a bar they like or for a luxury service, a little piece of art or poetry that made you think of them, or even a mini muffin is a fabulous offering. You can add a card that says “Thinking of you” or just has a heart drawn on it if you want. Or you can even give it anonymously! No matter what, I promise you that it will be appreciated and that you will have a positive impact on their day.****

What I’m trying to say is, no matter how you express your concern and your care and condolences, express them. It doesn’t matter if you know what to say, or if you feel awkward, or out of your depth, or afraid of making things worse. And I guarantee that you won’t be bringing up Bad Memories™ because they are not memories. They are just that person’s reality. And that person could use a little love and support. Couldn’t we all?

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

**Before I go any further, I need to put in a big caveat: not all people are the same. And I’m sure that somewhere there is someone for whom the best and most loving care and attention would be to ignore whatever has happened to them and to carry on like everything is normal. But it is my experience that these people are in the vast minority. In fact, I’ve never met them. (Which doesn’t mean that they don’t exist! It takes all kinds.)

***Yes, there are moments when having an emotional moment and crying with someone aren’t preferable. For example, I would not welcome the “Heeeeey, I’m so sorry about your miscarriage. How are you doing?” right before, say, walking on stage to present a slide deck to a thousand investors or something. It’s important to pick an appropriate time to offer condolence (or, more accurately, to avoid doing it at an inappropriate time.)

****Okay so there’s one instance in which I can’t actually promise this: if you are super creepy and/or give a gift that’s overly extravagant or otherwise inappropriate and that makes them feel uncomfortable. Giving someone a bar of chocolate or a small bouquet of hand-picked flowers with a, “You’re in my thoughts” note? Lovely. Buying them a Tiffany’s diamond necklace or a new refrigerator with a, “This reminded me of your sadness” note? Confusing and weird. If you wonder whether your gift is a good idea, jut run it by a couple other people. If they look at you with confusion and horror, get thee to a therapist immediately.

No One Told Me I’d Be A Little Bit Terrible…At Everything

I could write a whole list of the Things No One Told Me About Grief (in fact, it may become an ongoing series of posts.) But the one I want to focus on for this post is how grieving has affected my ability to feel competent. Period. And I’m not just talking about feeling competent in the face of highly complex logical reasoning and/or emotionally stressful situations (although that has doubtless been affected). I’m also talking about, like, feeling competent about putting on pants.

I am a person who has always prided myself at being hyper-competent. I’m an incredibly independent natural leader, and a quick learner with high standards. Give me a job, and I will do it to the best of my abilities simply for the sake of pride in a job well done. However. Since my mom died, and then the subsequent losses and trauma that occurred (mom died, childhood friend died, three miscarriages and a major injury, plus some other stuff) I just kind of suck at…everything. Here is a partial list of things that I used to be amazing at but which I’m pretty sucky at right now:

  • Being on time (hooooooboy this is a big one for me. Being “on time” used to mean arriving, fully prepped, half an hour early. Now being “on time” means anything that’s less than 10 minutes late and with pants on.)
  • Feeding myself and my husband (gotten a lot suckier at making sure the grocery shopping is done and that we’ve got ample food to stay alive in the house)
  • Putting on clothes that aren’t sweatpants (I’ve actually just given in to this one and adjusted my wardrobe to embrace what I’m calling the “Sweatpant Lifestyle.”)
  • Being social (everything from just talking to people at a bar, to running into an acquaintance on the street, to throwing a party, now requires a billion times more physical and emotional energy)
  • Not breaking things (I have lost track of how many glass jars and bowls I have broken in the kitchen…in the last 3 weeks)
  • Being consistent (how many weeks has it been since I published the last blog post? Lolz I don’t even know)
  • Remembering things (scheduling? Phone numbers? Names? What day of the week it is? Who you are? Yeah, sorry, no idea.)
  • Putting clothes on, period. (there was one day a few weeks after my mom died that I was trying to put a shirt on but I couldn’t because I literally forgot how to do it. For clarity: I forogt. How to put on. A shirt.)
  • Keeping the house organized and tidy (I am a person who is House Proud, which Google defines as being “attentive to, or preoccupied with, the care and appearance of one’s home.” Preoccupied with? Sounds judgy. But unless you are a super duper best friend…you are not allowed to see my house when it’s less that immaculately clean.)

Not only did I used to be  amazing at these things, but I identified as a person who was amazing at them. Needless to say, this has all been a profound lesson in humility and loss of ego.

In some ways, I feel like a different person than I was in December of 2015, before the shit started to continuously stream through the fan at an unrelenting pace. And I’m not sure if my current state of reduced capacity is temporary, or if it’s the new normal. (I assume folks feel similarly after having a baby, when the “you” that you used to recognize has faded into obscurity, and you wonder if you’ll ever be that person again). I’m trying to accept my current suckiness with grace, and  stop judging myself for it–I am trying to view it with patience and humor.

But one day when I was feeling a particularly ashamed about the fact that I was wearing the same sweatpants I’d been wearing for the last 5 days, and I was running late to meet somebody because I was sweeping up the glass I’d broken, and I was crying with frustration and berating myself for being so horribly incompetent, I had a moment of clarity; after the tantrum of shame passed I thought “You know, I might be fucking up a lot of things that I used to find effortless, but I’ve also gotten really good at some things I used to struggle with.”

Here is a partial list of things that I used to be pretty sucky at but which I’m amazing at right now:

  • Saying “no” to things that I don’t want to do
  • Asking for help when I need it
  • Being present for friends who are going through some Rough Shit
  • Having difficult conversations
  • Initiating difficult conversations
  • Watching awesome British television
  • Finding humor in even the darkest situations
  • Slowing down to really enjoy a beautiful moment
  • Thinking about death
  • Talking about death
  • Thinking about my own death and the deaths of those nearest and dearest to me in a way that is not terrifying or awful, but is actually okay
  • Communicating clearly and honestly with others about my emotional state
  • Going to bed early (Okay fine, I’ve always been good at this one, but I’m extra super good at it right now.)

So while I’ve had to let go of feeling like a person who Does Everything Well, I’ve also grown in some rather profound ways. Would I go back to the old, more competent me? Well, yes insofar as that me was ignorant to the pain of profound grief. But if I’m really honest; no. I think the experience and emotional intelligence I’ve gained is more meaningful than being able to juggle my schedule, get places on time, and dress myself well. I think that for all my new flaws, inconsistencies, and mistakes, that the new me is actually a better version of myself.

Umm, okay wow. To be completely honest, this is not where I thought this post was going. When I started writing this my only intent was to write a humorous and honest piece about how much I feel like I am failing at basic tasks right now. (“Me! I’m such an idiot, amiright?”) I am surprised to have arrived at a completely different conclusion—that I’ve actually changed for the better, on a post that I set out to simply write about my incompetence. Well…shit. You learn something new every day.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

The Question I’ve Been Avoiding

Lately, there’s one question that I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding. It’s enough to keep me away from parties and social functions, and turning the other way when I see someone I know coming down the street. I dread it. I try to come up with distractions or jokes or just my own questions to avoid being asked. I’ve gotten quite adept at preemptively asking lots of questions and steering the conversation away from the Dreaded Question, which is:

“So how are you, what’s been going on with you lately?”

When someone makes it past my defenses and I am asked the Dreaded Question, my general response is to smile, pause, take a breath, and then ask “How honestly do you want me to answer that?” That reaction alone generally takes folks aback, because it’s not the expected “I’m fine! Things are great. How are you?” Then depending on their response, they get one of 3 answers to the Dreaded Question:

  1. “It’s actually a long story. We should catch up some time.” (and I launch into a full asking-a-million-questions assault position, and avoid making plans to catch up.)
  2. “Well, I’ve had a really intense year with a lot of emotional upheaval, but there have been a lot of really wonderful things too and I’m doing really well overall. How are you?” (and I launch into a full asking-a-million-questions assault position, and give more details if they ask direct questions.)
  3. They get the truth.

For those who get answer #3, there is always a brief silence when I am finished, followed by a heartfelt “Oh my god Kat, that is…that is so much. I’m so sorry. But you sound like you’re handling it all like a champ” (see this blog post about hearing that last comment often). And I hear the shock and concern in their voice…and imagine pity and revulsion.

And I do not wish to be pitied or reviled, and so in answering the Dreaded Question honestly, I tend to highlight the Positive Things, share a few of the Things I’ve Learned, and add a couple of Humorous Anecdotes. And I’ll be darned, it works! But sometimes it makes me feel like I’m performing a version of myself, rather than just having an honest conversation about the last year.

The biggest relief is when someone hears what I have to say and interjects as some point with “I know exactly what you’re feeling, I went through something just like that myself” so that I can just look them in the eye, drop the act, say “Oh, so you know,” and then give them a big, wordless hug.

I’m not sure what the answer is to all this. Just get comfortable being dishonest and answering “I’m fine! How are you?” Trust people to be able to handle the truth? Just keep staying home and avoiding people forever? In any case, I’ll probably write about how it plays out.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

 

Grief and Shame

“…There has been little attention paid to the[sic] inhibitory functions of shame in the literature on death and mourning.”

From the Article “Shame” by Jeffery Kauffman, published in Encyclopedia of Death And Dying edited by Glennys Howarth and Oliver Leaman

 

In February of 2016 my mother died. It was my first experience with profound loss, and thus my first experience with grief. Sure, I’d felt sadness and loss when relationships ended, or when a period of my life came to a close, but I’d never experienced anything like the grief I felt with my mom’s death.

I could (and will) write about many of my experiences with grief, but I’m going to focus on the link I experienced between grief and shame. I’m not going to talk about shame related to the cause of my mother’s death (although I could), or feelings of shame related to my inability to help or save her (yep, could talk a lot about that too, and if you’re particularly interested in reading pieces about these kinds of shame you can find them here and here). I’m going to talk about something that I wasn’t expecting about grief: that it brought me face-to-face with my own feelings of shortcomings and shame, some of which were buried deep.

After the first wave of grief (the days and weeks that felt strange and surreal, like I was caught in a reality distortion field) began to subside, I felt open, raw, and vulnerable in ways I never had before–which is saying something, because I’m a very emotional and vulnerable person to begin with.

Now I’m going to say something about those days which may seem strange–although they were incredibly painful and difficult, there was also a profound sweetness to them. Sounds weird, but go with me for a sec. A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook:

broken-heart-smalls

This lovely piece is by Amber Ibarreche. You can find more of her stuff at her shop.

Now, my only quibble with this is that I think it would be more accurate to say “My heart is broken and that crack has created more space and so it also feels more open which is both painful and good.” But that is way less catchy. My grief made me more open to all the feelings, not just the sad ones. It also exposed some feelings I wasn’t aware I was harboring. This is where we get to the shame.

During that period I realized I was carrying around shame about my career, my sexuality, my finances, my gender, my ability to be a good partner, and (and here’s the real kicker) about my grief itself. How did I realize I was harboring shame about these things? Because I’d be having a conversation with my husband and all of a sudden I would find myself crying uncontrollably. Like, you’re having a hard time breathing and your voice jumps about 8 octaves you feel like you might vomit. So you shut your mouth and try to master your emotions and stop crying, but it’s just not happening.

“Hmmm,” I’d think when that happened, “there seems to be something here that I have strong feelings about.” I’d then try to dig a little deeper to figure out why I was weeping so profusely, and the answer was inevitably that I was feeling  deficient and ashamed about myself in relation to what we were talking about. It happened so often that I started laughing (but while also sobbing) about it. And I jokingly dubbed 2016 the Year of Shame.

But here’s the thing about talking about shame; In my experience, talking about shame is like exposing a vampire to sunlight. It weakens and eventually kills it. Even the act of simply identifying and naming the shame lessens it’s power, because shame can only control you if it is able to isolate and silence you.

The link I felt between grief and shame was so profound that I was surprised to find very little written about it when I searched the internets. The little I did find was more about the shame associated with survivor’s guilt than the effect of grief on uncovering one’s own feelings of shame related to their character and life choices. I did, however, find one article that mentioned the phenomenon I had experienced. It listed 7 “grief reactions” that prompt shame. I resonated with all of them, but especially reason number 6, which I’ve highlighted in bold.

“The following are examples of grief reaction that prompt shame. (1) The impact of loss triggers feelings of being out of control and vulnerable. Being out of control or anxious about loss of control prompts shame. (2) In grief one is particularly vulnerable to helplessness, separation, and abandonment anxieties, all of which are shame anxieties. (3) Persons may experience feelings of mortification and dread in grief over a death loss. These uncanny feelings are expressions of shame. (4) Feelings of self-blame may occur in reaction to death. Disturbance in self-regard, which are usually understood as guilt, tend to be, at a more fundamental level, shame… (5) A sense of utter aloneness may also prompt shame. Even though shame is called the social emotion (because it is an experience of oneself through the eyes of another, even when no other is involved), shame disconnects the self from both others and oneself… (6) A sense of violation of self, experienced as part of a grief reaction, is shame. Parts of the self that are exposed in grief leave the bereaved especially shame vulnerable. (7) The bereaved person is prone to further conceal the sense of exposure of the self that is present in each of these anxieties.”*

All of this–my own experience, the quotes and articles–is just to say that if you’re feeling your own shame in the midst of grief, that you are not alone.

More, invariably, to come on this topic.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

*Kauffman, Jeffery (2001) Shame. Encyclopedia of Death and Dying [Google Book Version]. Retrieved from here.

 

Kinds of Cry

What are some reasons a person might cry?*

*…okay by “a person” I mean me, and by “might” I mean “an exhaustive list of reasons I already have…today.”

Let’s be honest. Not all cries are equal. Crying because you got fired feels very different than crying because you’ve been dumped, feels very different still from crying (sobbing) because you’re on your period and you’re wearing a maxi dress and your husband wants to go for a walk but the shoes you’re wearing look stupid with your dress and you think you look like a Peanuts character. (That 3rd one is universal, right? Just me? Okay.) So in my quest to examine and normalize crying, I thought that a good place to start would be to list the different reasons there are for crying. In generating the list I noticed some things. Meet me at the bottom to hear more about that.

  • Shame
  • Grief
  • Heartbreak
  • Physical Pain
  • Surprise
  • Vulnerability
  • Sadness (see also: Grief and Loss)
  • Happiness
  • Laughter
  • Loss (see also: Grief)
  • Beauty
  • Humility
  • Hormonal cry
  • Sex: Pain (see also: Physical Pain)
  • Sex: Orgasm (see also: Vulnerability, Surprise, Release, and Awe/Overwhelm)
  • Confusion (see also: Shame)
  • Embarrassment (see also: Shame)
  • Art (see also: Awe/Overwhelm, Beauty, Surprise, Vulnerability, Nostalgia)
  • Frustration
  • Disappointment
  • Exhaustion
  • Empathy (see also: everything else on this list)
  • Hunger
  • Anger
  • Betrayal
  • Jealousy (see also: Shame)
  • Anxiety
  • Hang Over (see also: Physical Pain and Hunger)
  • Release
  • Relief
  • You Hear a Song (see also: Art)
  • Awe/Overwhelm
  • Nostalgia (see also: Grief, Loss, and Heartbreak)
  • Injustice (see also: Anger, Frustration, Disappointment, and Empathy)
  • Loss of Control (see also: Fear and Shame)
  • Cutting an onion
  • Dust in your eyes
  • Hayfever
  • Because something is SO FLUFFEH
  • I don’t know, I just am!
  • Because you’re still asking me this question (*quiet sobs*) (see also: Frustration)

Okay. That was a long list, and I’m sure there are things that I left out. Now on to some of the things I noticed.

Looking at this list I am struck by 1. How long it is, and 2. That emotions that are seemingly opposite are nevertheless both on the same list. For example, Sadness and Happiness. Anxiety and Relief. Disappointment and Benedict Cumberbatch (okay, so that last one isn’t on the list, but is definitely the opposite of Disappointment.). That tells me that I can cry for lots of different reasons, and that those reasons can be seemingly contradictory.

As I was listing these reasons, I also noticed that to me, many of them seemed to be related, or even to be sub-sets of one another (hence the “see also”s after some of the reasons.) This tells me that a reason I am crying often isn’t one single reason, but rather a combination of many, inter-connected reasons.

And something that surprised me about writing this list was that it brought up a big question: All of these reasons make me cry. So what is it like to feel these things for someone who doesn’t cry? That’s something I’m excited to explore in future posts.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe