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.

For Those Who Don’t Know What to Do: I Feel You.

Since publishing this blog (last night), so many people have contacted me to say that they really connect with what I’m writing about, and relate to my experience. The amount of encouragement and support in the last 24 hours has been amazing and overwhelming, in fact. I have heard many different versions of “I cry all the time, thank you for talking about this.”

But I also want to reach out to readers who don’t share my penchant for crying multiple times a day, who aren’t comfortable with tears, and who perhaps are at a loss or feel uncomfortable when they see that someone is visibly sad. Does this sound like you? I want to reach out to these readers because in many ways, I used to be you.

Allow me a brief anecdote. I was raised by an introverted mother who was extremely private about her feelings and emotions. I watched her witness people in emotional distress, and react by respecting their privacy and dignity, and giving them space. Because this was the model I grew up with, it is how I learned to react when I found myself in similar situations. Then one day, in my early twenties, before I became an emotional ninja, I was at a sing-along screening of West Side Story with a group of friends from college. One of our friends had recently lost her longtime boyfriend to a tragic accident, and was still reeling from it. I was seated next to her, and during the scene when (SPOILER ALERT) Maria is weeping over Tony’s dead body, I felt her begin to shake, and heard her sniffle, and knew that she was crying. And what did I do?

I froze. I thought “I have never experienced anything like what she’s going through right now, so I won’t intrude on her emotions or insult her experience by trying to give comfort,” and I pretended like it wasn’t happening. So I just sat there, knowing she was crying and ignoring it, for the remainder of the movie. And then when the movie finished and the lights came up, I turned to her and made chit-chat and ignored her swollen and tear-stained face, and made my way out to the parking lot.

And then driving home I felt super shitty about what I’d done.

At this point, I realized “I don’t think that was the right way to handle that situation, I don’t like how I reacted.” But I didn’t have any frame of reference for any other way to handle that situation. I felt stuck and confused.

Fast forward a couple of years to a workshop I attended. One of the women (C) who was leading the workshop had just lost a parent, and was still raw and emotional. At one point while presenting during the first day, she was triggered and began to cry. Hard. The other woman leading the workshop (E) wordlessly took over, and another woman (A) who was there to help out took the grieving C outside into the hallway. While E gracefully took over the presentation, we could hear C’s cries in the hallway intensify into sobs, and then wails. Eventually the women moved farther away, and we could no longer hear C’s distress. Then, a little while later, C and A came back to the room, dripping wet, covered in mud, laughing and hugging. When C had began wailing, A had led her outside and into a rainstorm, taken their shoes and socks off, and run with her through a muddy field. C ran through the rain, wailing and crying, until the wave of grief receded, and she was done. And when she was finished, A brought her back to the workshop.

“Holy shit,” I thought “that is how I want to be. That is the kind of friend I want to be. That is how I’d like to be able to react when someone near me is going through some deep shit, whether I’ve been through it myself or not.” What I’d just witnessed was someone being deeply present with another person’s intense grief, seeing it, validating it, being with it, and giving it space to be.

It was a clear turning point in my life towards becoming a more present, open, and available friend person. It was also the first moment in my adult life when I began to realize that personalities are not fixed, and that we can make changes in our behavior to better reflect our values and beliefs. But for most of us, before we can do that, we need see examples of the kind of person we wish to become.

If you find yourself struggling or feeling incredibly uncomfortable in the face of others’ sadness, grief, and suffering, I hope to be able to offer understanding, support, and practical advice. And don’t worry, you certainly don’t need to share my desire to be able to run screaming through a rainstorm with a wailing woman to be able to help someone you care about when they’re upset. You can just learn a few simple questions and statements that are very helpful, and keep it simple as that. Check out my upcoming piece on Dos and Don’ts for when someone in your vicinity is having a rough time, or read my personal anecdotes as a way to begin to understand what others are experiencing when they’re hearing bad news, venting after a rough day, or just sobbing in the cheese aisle at the Berkeley Bowl.

For those of you who feel awkward, uncomfortable, or confused when someone is crying: I see you. I feel you. I used to be you. And it’s okay. We’re all in it together.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

You’re Crying in Public: Now What?

None of us enjoy bursting into tears (or just having tears slide silently down our cheeks, unbidden) in situations that feel inappropriate or awkward. And yet for a person who cries, it is a scenario that is sometimes unavoidable. Some examples of places I have found myself unable to keep from crying that felt inappropriate:

  • In the cheese isle of a gourmet grocery store, because I had enjoyed buying cheese there with the man I broke up with 5 months prior
  • In front of a group of 5 year olds, because they “Weren’t taking Aladdin rehearsal seriously”
  • At work at a summer camp, because one of our campers, a 3rd grade boy with a twin sister, died tragically the day before
  • At the chiropractor’s office, because I was in so much pain, and he was an asshole who was telling me that failing to treat my misaligned back by seeing him for 12 sessions (which I couldn’t afford) could result in my death
  • SOBBING in a movie theater, after the credits for “Captain Philip” have finished, and the lights are on, and the employees are trying to sweep up popcorn because, as I kept repeating to my date: “It’s so complicated, there are no easy solutions!!!”
  • In front of a group of high school students I was teaching, because I was sad that my mom died
  • At a bar, because my husband and I saw a homeless kitten on the way there.
  • Checking people in to a yoga class because I was sad that my mom died
  • Silently sobbing in the back room of a tax office I worked at because my mom died.
  • In the radiology lobby of Kaiser, where I was waiting to get a “I had a miscarriage” ultrasound
  • Buying shampoo at CVS because I was sad that my mom died.

The list goes on and on (and on), but you get the idea. The reasons may be completely stupid or profound, but the result is the same: you are crying when you really don’t want to be crying. You are horrified, and would like to make it stop, and yet that just makes the crying happen more. Sometimes also with snot running down your face.

In the aftermath of my mom’s death in February of 2016 I’ve been in this situation so many times that I’ve (almost) become comfortable with it. At the very least, I have accepted that it is a part of life. And here are some strategies that I have found helpful:

1. Leave. I’ve left in the middle of yoga classes. I’ve abandoned shopping carts in grocery stores. I’ve just quietly excused myself and left the room. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply to quickly get yourself somewhere that you feel less awkward crying. Just go. No need to explain yourself (because you’ll probably just burst into tears AT the person). You can always tell them later that you had to step out for personal reasons.

2.If you can’t leave, don’t try to fight it. The more I try to resist crying, the worse it gets, and the longer it drags on (and sometimes results in that AWFUL sound that is a cross between a ragged gasp and a snort that results from trying to hold back sobs and that is roughly the same volume as a sonic boom). So if I feel those tears building up in a place that is awkward and I cannot leave, I just accept that it’s happening, cry some cries, and then move on.

3. Warn those around you that crying might happen. This one is a biggie and, frankly, my personal favorite. I’m a big fan of transparency and disclosure. There are some days when I wake up knowing that I will not get through the day without multiple cry-fests, and that I will have no control over when they happen. On those days, I give my students, friends, or co-workers some version of the following heads-up:

            Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I’m having a really emotional day. I’m fine and everything is okay, but you’ll probably see me cry at some point. And I want to assure you that if that happens you don’t need to do anything to fix it. 

And then, when the inevitable crying happens, I once again reassure them that I am okay, and continue to work/teach/hang out. And when I do that, something magical happens: people stop caring about the fact that I am crying, because they see that it is not a problem that they need to fix. They see that I am just a person, and that having visible emotions doesn’t interfere with me going about my day or being competent at what I do.

4. Phone a friend. Do this literally or figuratively. If you are alone, call someone that you can talk to through the episode. The time I was crying in the cheese isle, I called one of my very best friends who had been roommates with me and my ex boyfriend, and told her about my emotional breakdown at the sight of dill havarti (it was his favorite!). Walking down the street with my husband in downtown San Francisco one day, I had a panic attack because the sight of a man’s leg injury brought on flash-backs of my mother’s emaciated body in the hospital when she was dying. I tapped on my husband’s shoulder and managed to squeak out that I needed a minute, and we stopped walking, stepped out of the way of other pedestrians, and he just hugged me for a few minutes while I calmed down. If you are by yourself and you cannot hug or call someone, put on music that is familiar and comforting to you, find something nice to look at nearby, or just buy yourself a hot chocolate. These are not suggestions intended to help you avoid crying, but rather to provide comfort and support, so you can feel the feelings, cry the cries, and then move on.

While these tactics have been incredibly helpful to me, I’m sure they’re not everybody’s cup of tea. Do you have a go-to trick for when you start crying in public? I’d love to hear about it.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe