There are some kind words I just can’t hear. It’s as if they’re being broadcast on an inaudible frequency that affects me the way sonic fences affect dogs. Suddenly, I am a teeth-gritting, fist clenching, curled up ball of prickly defense. The hard truth I’ve had to face is this: a well-intentioned attempt at comfort can send me into despair-filled rage.
This is not the fault of the kindness-giver. It is not you, compassionate friend. It is most definitely me. I know that much. I’m wired the way I am, and though I’m tempted to throw labels at myself like “ungrateful” and “stubborn,” I’ve decided that’s a colossal waste of time and annoying to boot (note: add “annoying time-waster” to list of personal flaws). Instead, when I can remember, I put on my helpful alien observer spectacles, and take notice of symptoms: “Hmmm. Rising stress levels, increased desire to hermit, and a sharp drop in patience reserves. Fascinating.”
Maybe I am alone in my struggle. Or maybe you will read this, punch the air victoriously, and break into a “Me, too!” dance of validation. Maybe this will make sense of weird reactions you’ve experienced in yourself or seen in others. Maybe your eyes will roll right out of your head.
The following are a list of kind comments I simply cannot receive when I am struggling. I’d like to say up front that I have been guilty of saying every one of these, and that I am very likely to re-offend. I’m making this list as much to sort myself out as to hold myself accountable.
I cannot hear: “How can I help?”
This is pretty innocuous, right? What kind of bitch-waffle is triggered by a question like this? Answer: me. When I am overwhelmed, tired, and filled with self-loathing, the very last thing I can do is take a mental inventory of my needs and make them known by using, like, words and stuff. I don’t know how you can help. I don’t know what kind of help I need, and I’m terrible at accepting help that is offered. Just really abysmal. You could show up at my door and attempt to spoon-feed me delicious pudding, and I’d just stare at the spoon, like, “What is this? Am I supposed to greet it? Are you attacking me with a gloopy weapon? WHAT?”
What I can hear: “I love you.”
That’s it. No action required. Just let me know that you see and love my miserable self. You can maybe leave the pudding on the doorstep.
I cannot hear: “Let me know if you want to talk or hang out.”
Suggesting human connection? Are you MAD? Why not just sprinkle salt all over my squishy, slug-like soul and watch it shrivel? Here’s the sad fact: if you aren’t my husband or my bestiest bestie, I am probably not going to hit you up. I’m just not. I’m no more capable of that when I am in struggle-mode than I am of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. I react to pain like a wounded critter. I want to crawl off into my smelly den and hibernate. Yes, light and air would be much better for the healing process, but let’s not sully this with logic.
What I can hear: “I’m thinking of you. No need to respond unless you feel able.”
The “no need to respond” is like a sweet, sweet balm to my chapped ass. I know you care, and you’ve taken the pressure off me so I don’t have to also hate myself for being unable to accept your thoughtful offer.
I cannot hear: “Everything happens for a reason.”
I’ve said this to people. Like a total asshole. I don’t know why! I think because some hurts are so horrible or insurmountable that the only comfort I can scrabble for is the hope that there is some kind of master plan. But what I know in my bones is that reasons don’t matter. Not to me, not when I am in the depths of my ache. Maybe later, I’ll want perspective. Right now, I’m just trying not to drown, and it’s taking all of my energy to stay afloat.
What I can hear: “This just sucks.”
It’s incredibly affirming to have the suckiness acknowledged. No attempts to fix or mitigate – just simple confirmation. “Yup. This is the shits. You are correct in your assessment.” Thank you for helping me to feel sane. Validation is powerful.
I cannot hear: “You are so strong/amazing/beautiful.”
In this moment, I feel like a weathered turd. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to reflect my goodness back to me. I am caught in a swirling shitnado, and I can neither hear nor see clearly through the debris. This message will not penetrate. I wish it could. But it won’t. Later, maybe. Definitely. Just not now.
What I can hear: “I see that you are hurting.”
You can’t take my pain any more than I can take yours. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that, though? Whoever is most up to it carries the load? We could take turns. Instead, we remain surgically attached to our special, individually tailored pain. Observation theory in physics tells us that the behavior of particles changes when they are observed. When I know that you see my pain, it is changed somehow. It becomes microscopically more bearable.
I cannot hear: “You got this.”
Really, me? You selfish twit. Encouragement hurts? I don’t know what to tell you. It just does. Because sometimes, I DON’T got this. I got nothing. I’m hanging on by my dirty little fingernails, and when you tell me I got this, all I can think is, “Wow, do you need new glasses.”
What I can hear: “I’m going to keep checking on you.”
I may be doing an awful job at this human being stuff, but knowing that someone is going to keep peering over the edge of the cliff to see if I’m still clinging to the branch is nice. You’re not giving up on me. I’ll try not to give up on me.
Before I go, I’d like to note that I read an early version of this piece to my husband and found out that he would love to hear these words. The very ones that send me right up a tree. He thinks they are just dandy. So, you can either chuck everything you’ve just read or keep in mind that our receivers are all tuned differently. What really matters is figuring out how to give and get what we need in the way that is most nourishing.