Quick! I just told you a story about something bad that once happened to me or a problem I’m having in my life. What do you do?
A. Tell me about a similar bad thing that once happened to you
B. Tell me how sorry you feel for me
C. Tell me things could have been worse
D. Tell me how to fix it
If your answer is any of the above, then congratulations! You’re doing it all wrong.
Recently, I’ve been talking a lot about my upcoming back surgery, because people are very fond of asking soon-to-be college graduates what their future plans are, and mine involve having my spine fused. When people ask me, “So how are the grad school applications coming?” I usually say something along the lines of, “They’re not, because I’ve decided to take a year off.” Which is true.
But usually, that answer doesn’t suffice, and the person talking to me will continue to ask questions like, “Oh, so you’re going to travel? You’re going to have lots of fun? You don’t know what you want to do with your life yet? You felt like taking a year-long vacation?” At this point, I have a few options. I can lie and say that I’m just taking a year off for the hell of it (possibly making me look like some directionless schmuck who is finally regretting her B.A. in English and forcing her parents to coddle me for a bit longer). Or I can give some vague, half-assed answer about how I’m taking time to myself. But here’s the thing — why should I have to lie if I don’t want to? Maybe the person asking me about my plans is a relative or a friend, and maybe I want them to know the truth.
So I say, “I’m taking a year off to have back surgery and to recover,” and then come the questions about what’s wrong with my spine. I have kyphosis, I say, and I have to explain what it is, which is OK, but then usually the person I’m talking to knows someone with scoliosis or has scoliosis and then goes on a five-minute discussion of their own back issues, etc. Here’s the thing — scoliosis is a fairly common thing, and it is not the reason I am having back surgery. Most people with scoliosis do not need any type of treatment. I have scoliosis myself, and it gives me zero problems ever. However, I also have a rare disease called Scheuermann’s, the cause of which is unknown, and my upper back is severely deformed. (I could write an entirely separate post on how many times I’ve been told, “But you’re so pretty!” when I talk about having a severe deformity. What am I supposed to say? Um, thanks? So deformities are only for ugly people? And mine must not be as serious as my doctor says it is because I’m too pretty for serious health problems? WTF??)
There should be a way for me to talk about what I’m going through without engaging in what I like to refer to as a “problems-having contest.” Here’s an (extreme) example (t.w.): You were raped? That’s awful, I had a friend who was gang-raped! At knife-point! Twice! You’re so lucky — it could have been soooooooo much worse!! There are many reasons that these kinds of contests are idiotic, but here’s the basic reason I have zero tolerance for them: you asked me about my life, and I gave you an honest answer which happened to contain a brief explanation of this problem that I have. But why, for the love of God, can’t you understand that this is just one aspect of my life, and that the reason I started talking about it is because you asked and I thought you wanted an answer.
Maybe you didn’t start comparing my problem to yours, or telling me all about your own surgery experiences. Maybe you said something like, “Oh my God! You poor, poor thing! I feel so bad for you!” And honestly, I understand this reaction and I’ve said similar things to people in the past when I just didn’t know what to say. But here’s the thing: believe it or not, not everyone wants your pity. Some of us actually cringe at the thought of being felt sorry for — it makes us feel weak, or worse, pathetic.
If I’m telling you about some shitty thing I’ve gone through, it’s probably in an attempt to help you avoid the same shitty thing, or to maybe try to help you understand why I’m acting the way I am. Or maybe it’s an attempt to make myself known to another human being. At any rate, it is not an invitation for you to tell me what to do (You should try X treatment! You should do yoga! You should pray!), to feel sorry for me, or worst of all, to try to one-up my problem with some other problem that you’ve gone through or heard about.
I’m grateful that I don’t have AIDS, I’m grateful that I don’t have untreatable cancer, and I’m aware that things could always be worse. But the truth is, I am about to undergo a very dangerous, life-threatening surgery, and there are zero guarantees that “everything’s going to be fine.” LITERALLY EVERYONE HAS PROBLEMS. I KNOW THIS, AND I NEVER CLAIMED TO HAVE THE MOST SERIOUS PROBLEMS EVER. I CAN ACKNOWLEDGE MY PROBLEMS WITHOUT THROWING THE WORLD’S BIGGEST PITY PARTY. PERIOD.
This isn’t about me. It’s about the way we talk to people going through problems. Before you tell a problem-haver something like, “At least you don’t have X problem,” remember all the times you have whined about some minor inconvenience in your daily life and ask yourself: ‘Since when am I the Master of Perspective?’ It’s always uncomfortable to listen to someone else’s problems, but sometimes listening is all that the other person needs you to do. █