I don’t know what I mean to think until I hear what I have said

Since I’ve been dealing with a lot of emotional thunder and lightning, and some uncomfortable relations with friends, I’ve had occasion to think about the limits of communication or understanding. How much, one asks, can we help or hurt each other with language?


Here’s what I mean. I’ll say something emotive and charged like “I am miserable because of such and such situation that I cannot change”, or “I despise myself because I do such and such thing that is abhorrent to me”. People respond in varied ways. The most common thing for people to do when confronted with someone else’s troubles is to tell the story of their own, partly as a counter-example or comforting success story at times, partly as a mantra or spell to guard themselves from misery also. Examples are: “I had a similar situation and I did this and this and this and I’m better!” or the less useful “I also have a life that sucks that is totally different and I am compelled by my brain stem to tell the entire story now.”

Quite often the response is an Infallible System for Curing Despair: a self-help book, the virtues of exercise, religious devotional advice, or some other bit of packaged goods. Woe to the sufferer who rejects the Infallible System: that way madness lies. If the System doesn’t work for you, try harder.

A variant of this response is the “Here’s what life is like, my friend” response which consists either of mutually bitter denunciation of the entire project of existence, or “the trick to it all that made me happy”. Sometimes these two are bizarrely combined in a kind of anti self help recipe: here’s how to be unhappy the way the Pros do it! Go on, it’s the inevitable path for you, my friend.

Some people attempt humor, with varying results. The extreme of “You’re slitting your wrists? Horse walks into a bar..” is to be avoided, but there’s some success in making an ironic play out of the tragedy. Since this is my own approach to life’s Death & Taxes moments, I always at least appreciate the sentiment even when it’s obviously in poor taste.

The oddest responses, though, have been the oxymoronic attacks. Quite a few people have responded to my own sad little yawps with anger, resentment, or a kind of growling animal self-pity. Since a lot of my own complaining has consisted of flailing at others, I’m neither surprised nor particularly offended at this. But there’s a strain of it that makes me wonder what one person’s misery sets off in another. Several people said — not in so many words — “You don’t really feel this way” in a very emphatic, angry manner, as if to suggest that the despair another person was experiencing was a kind of fantasy or play-acting. Another of the angry responses boils down to “Stop wallowing in it” or “Haven’t you fixed this already?” especially after I’ve been vocal multiple times about a problem I’m having. Other people seem quite put out that my own dysphoric ramblings have affected their own mood adversely, and have told me in no uncertain terms to take it elsewhere.

When I look at these responses, and then look back at my own ways of dealing with the expressed misery of others, I am convinced that psychological distress in others is mostly perceived as a threat. There’s almost a sense of contagion about it, as if one could catch The Unhappy by dealing with the sorrow of others in a meaningful way. I recall my own inability, for example, to be helpful to my mother after my father’s death. I just wanted her to stop freaking out! So, I couldn’t say or do much of anything, because I was too bound up in my own fear of her grief.

On balance I believe that the desire to express our unhappiness to other humans is quixotic. We want comfort, but it’s nearly impossible for others to know what to say or do, and even harder for them to act on their best impulses.

The sufferer seeks out an idealized parent, but reaches a fellow-sufferer. The response, whether canned or silent or self-serving or angry, falls short.

A lot of animals abandon their wounded herd mates. Are we much better? Sometimes, maybe. It’s probably best to hope so.

18 thoughts on “I don’t know what I mean to think until I hear what I have said

  1. I suspect the animal urge is to attempt solution where your genes are involved and run like hell where they are not, as any significant distress is a danger to everyone nearby. The human urge is the animal urge tempered by consciousness. That is, to assist because it is humane but to run like hell because that’s what the reptile says. Conflicts between reptile, mammal, and human always result in interesting, complex, and often useless behaviour. People who are carefully trained to respond usefully charge an arm and a leg, but they *are* trained.
    Armchair psychology is worth every cent.

  2. I feel compelled to comment further — one can hardly escape the conclusion that those most affected must also feel closest. You really do only hurt the ones you love — or rather the ones that love you are most readily hurt by you. Particularly in this sort of remote medium, one needs to have a pretty strong psychological attachment to someone in order to care enough to be hurt. In real life you can see the shattered femur protruding and the stalking panther closing in. Here we only have each others’ word for the pain and the danger. Suckers and lovers will take you seriously.

  3. I guess I sort of fall all over the map on that list of Things People Do. At least I don’t offer self-help books as a cure. When I’ve dared to say anything about your situation besides commiserating on some level or other, it hasn’t been (from my perspective anyway) out of a sense of “you should do this”, honestly. It’s just “this is what I see”. I don’t know if that information is helpful or welcome or not, so I’m reticent to say anything.
    From my perspective, sometimes I tell you how my experience is similar to yours, just so you know I’m not talking out of my hat. I guess that comes across badly.
    The big problem for me is distance, I suppose. If I were there, I would go over to your house and sit with you and hold your hands and let you talk about stuff until you felt a bit better. And when you felt badly again, I’d do it again. I’m good at that sort of thing. I’m not sure how to do that from a distance though.

    1. You are very cool and very helpful, both.
      I didn’t mean this post as a criticism of any of my acquaintances, friends, or relatives; I should have disclaimed it. I was trying more to be analytical. Sorry.

      1. No, no worries… I wasn’t really taking it incredibly personally. I think it’s important to think about how what one says is perceived though, even if it’s not necessarily directed at you. That’s how I learn what to do, ya know?

  4. I’m guilty of anger at the unfortunate. Sometimes it’s because I care and I find their behaviour self-defeating. Other times it’s a bit strategic. In my own case I think stimps did me a big favor by being unsympathetic at crucial moments. I think of it as being pushed sideways out of a downward spiral.
    I mean, if one is disappointed in oneself, seeking parental style comfort is not a good idea. You won’t get it from many; and when you do, you despise yourself all the more for being that weak, and ultimately despise the person who condescended to comfort you.
    Now I get the most angry at people who are intelligent enough to examine their problem, but use that knowledge to prejudge, belittle, dismiss, or otherwise close off all potential avenues of escape.
    It’s a sort of vanity really, to suppose that one’s judgment is computerlike and unconnected with the problem. I’m not sure if you had the child-prodigy experience — where at core, you retreat into absolute faith in your own smarticity — but that was definitely a stumbling block for me.
    This comment reflects my mild success with cognitive therapy, but hell, this is all I know, and that’s what you’re getting.

  5. I rarely know what to say to you when you are in pain except that I am here for you if you need it.
    I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have written a comment and then decided to erase it because it seemed trite.
    I hate your pain, I hate it for you and I wish I could make it go away. I cannot. I do not have the first clue how you should or could go about making yourself happy. I wish I did though.

    1. Oddly, this has turned out to be an example of the sort of missed communication I meant. I do appreciate you personally quite a lot. The bit I wrote above was a general analysis of the problem rather than a particular criticism of anyone. Oh well.

      1. Hah! Rule one on this and similar media must be, I think, “everything is personal”. Why? Because more than most other media of public communication, it appears to be one-to-one. When things are vaguely targeted, the suspicion is still that the writer is targeting you in particular. As with any such power, it can be used for good or evil. I suspect the best path to tread is one where you assume that peeople will feel that you are talking directly to them — it really is a power or a tool that you are given, and only a drawback if you’re not aware of it. I doubt it’s something that the readership can modulate, so you have to do it.

      2. It’s worth pointing out that that was the lamest answer to the question “why?” ever written. Today I am too much coffee man. The real answer is “I have no idea” and then more discussion.

      3. Really? I know I have to be very deliberate in order to read most LJ posters in any way other than personal. It seems to be entirely visceral and not something I can just choose not to do (Sartre can choke). Obviously this experience doesn’t automatically extrapolate to everyone — I suspect it has a lot to do with ones initial contact with LiveJournal and how one decided at that point to internalise this data. “Decided” being decidedly not a conscious decision.

      4. Double your missed communication with double mint gum….
        Actually, I completely understood the point of your post. Just two things happened on my way to comment:
        First, I wanted to offer another response to your posts, which are the ones that get erased, or never said (that probably fall into one of the catagories that you did list above were they to have been posted).
        Secondly, it was a nice segue into saying something that I often choose not to say when you do post something about your hurting.

  6. Dittoing Kennfusion’s comment and adding to it
    Since some of our issues are similar, I have previously valued your perspective during some of my rough points. Unfortunately I end up feeling that I have nothing of value to contribute to you, therefore as my moniker implies I remain silent and instead hope that things become better for you.

  7. I swear and are channeling my thought processes. I only wish I could somehow manage by myself to get those words into electrons on a screen without help.
    Thanks guys, and, well, yes, I know I should just STFU, but nobody’s ever accused me of doing anything I should.

  8. There have been several times that I have written out a good two paragraph response to one of your posts to then look it over and come to realize that it is:
    1. going to come across the wrong way
    2. create a circular argument
    3. sound patronizing
    4. sound like Dr. Phil or worse, mean and demeaning like Dr. Laura on KFI
    So, I just erase it.
    People like to hang out with people that are happy and that they can easily relate to. The wife and I were having this conversation last night. Her mom and her sister like to complain about everything that is going wrong with a game of “top this problem!” and if the wife tries to change the subject by talking about something positive, it comes across like she is gloating or bragging.
    So, it is a catch-22. People who are having a hard time can their friends away and attract people that are having their own hard time. When in actuality, the people that are having a hard time should hang out people that are not. But, when the unhappy person tries to hang out with the happy people, the threat is that the unhappy person will make everyone else unhappy. Hmmm, I wish I would use a better word than “happy people”. Hence why I feel that my posts can be like #3- patronizing.

    1. unknown
      That’s the other side of the problem with being emotionally needy, I think, is that it reduces us to the level of tots in tantrums who want something but only know we’re not getting it. Good times.

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