This post is brought to you by this description of “help-rejecting complainers“, Derailing for Dummies, Holly’s two recent posts about de-escalation, Melissa McEwan’s the terrible bargain we have regretfully struck, Lauren’s recent posts on gaslighting, Martha Marcy May Marlene, a horror movie about what it is like to have PTSD (and deal with someone who has PTSD) that I have been thinking about for weeks, and a recurring conversation from my own life where everyone is well-intentioned and doing their best and everyone loves everyone else, but everyone feels scarred and hurt and I leave the conversation feeling like an eight-year-old who doesn’t know how to use her words.
We talk about derailing a lot in social justice conversations and blog comments, which boils down to the fallacy that if less privileged people would just present a perfect argument for why they deserve compassion and justice, OF COURSE more privileged people would help! It’s just that you haven’t asked us in exactly the right way yet, and in fact, when you raised your voice or pointed out that we were wrong, you kind of hurt our feelings and maybe you should apologize to us for using that tone when we just want to help you? Could you start over and explain again from the beginning?
It’s closely related to victim-blaming, which is where you take something bad that happened to someone else and scan their life for every mistake they’ve ever made so that you can satisfy yourself that it was their fault and that you don’t really have to care, or god forbid, change anything.
At the root of both of these is a kind of wounded narcissism. Someone who points out our privilege or frankly discusses their own pain at the hands of a system that is benefitting us reminds us that we are not perfect, that things are not perfect, and that we are vulnerable to having the same thing happen to us and perhaps complicit in what is happening to them. When we derail or blame victims, we’re taking the pain of other people and making it something that is happening to us.
Even when it’s not a specific question of sexism, racism, able-ism, I think people derail each other all the time without meaning to. When someone you like and consider to be a generally intelligent, capable person is telling you something bad that they are going through or that happened to them, here are four well-intentioned, totally normal, understandable, routine things you can do or say that will derail them and probably make them feel crappy (+ one bonus dick move).
1. “But I thought things were going well/That’s not what you told me before/That can’t be true.”
You may have in fact thought things were different! The person may have in fact told you that things were going well! It’s understandable that bad news might take you aback! Or you may have heard wrong or had bad assumptions!
Things are often going well…until they aren’t. People don’t always tell you all the ups and downs of a relationship, for example, and if you talked the person when things were better (or they were trying to convince themselves that things were better, or working hard to solve a problem) you may have gotten the rosier picture. But saying this to someone who is trying to tell you what’s going on with them forces the person to leave their own experience and deal with your perception of it. Before they can get any comfort or help they’re in the position of having to now construct a case for their own reality so that you will accept the new reality. Conversation = derailed.
2. “But why didn’t you…..”
+ (a bunch of advice about what they should have done to avoid this bad situation) + (a prosecutorial grilling about the facts). This is victim-blaming. This is the consultant side of our brains doing an analysis of how the situation can be avoided, partially to help them, but mostly to help us understand how we could avoid it happening to us or to get all the facts.
Maybe the person did make a bunch of bad decisions! Maybe they could have totally avoided the situation! Maybe they are leaving out some things in the telling of this tale. Maybe some of those things aren’t your business or aren’t actually relevant. Are you Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy and is your friend on the witness stand? Are we getting in your time machine to go back in time and change history? No? Then lay off and stop cross-examining. Trust that the facts will emerge in time. Advice about what someone should have done differently in the past reeks of “I told you so,” and is extremely unkind even if it is true.
3. “Well, you could just…./Have you tried?”
Someone telling you their problem does not automatically equal them asking for advice. If they ask for advice, by all means give it if you can think of some concrete steps or resources that would help them in the future. If they don’t ask, and you can think of a few steps, once you’ve listened all the way through (and not before) you can say “Are you looking for advice?” and if they say yes, lay it on them or better yet, ask a lot of questions like “What do you think you’ll do about that?” Not all problems are immediately fixable. Even if the problems can be fixed, it’s not always on you to fix it. Maybe your loved ones don’t need you to outsmart their problems for them, they just need you to hang out.
If you jump in immediately with advice, it’s abusive and patronizing. It derails the conversation because you’ve set yourself up as the “I will fix you” authority, and since you are not the expert on this person’s life and you don’t know what they’ve tried or are trying you’re a half-cocked, annoying authority.
It’s like when I have to call tech support for something (an activity I dread like few others). If I’m calling tech support on the phone, it’s because I have exhausted every online FAQ and resource and tried every known step to resolve a problem and this is my last resort. So when I say “this is the problem, I have tried x, y, and z, what do you suggest now?” it’s totally annoying to have to run through all the steps from the beginning again to satisfy the person that my problem is a real problem. I give tech support some leeway because (having worked tech support) I know that many people are clueless. But I don’t want to treat my friends and family like they are clueless about their own lives and make them run through the gauntlet of obvious questions.
I say this as an advice-giver with an advice blog who had to be taught directly by more emotionally and socially ept friends not to jump in with advice and to not treat the times where other people are talking as the times I get to think up what I’m going to say next, because maybe people don’t just want me to be smart at them? Apparently the things I know as thoughts, other people experience as emotions and those emotions are real? Weird.
4. “But why didn’t you tell me (sooner)?”
Because they didn’t want to have to undergo interrogation and and drown in a sea of obvious advice? Because they were embarrassed? Because they thought they could handle it on their own? Because it wasn’t a problem until suddenly it was? Because it’s private stuff that doesn’t get casually talked about? Because they haven’t talked to you in a while and the last time they saw you it was at a funeral or a birthday party and really wasn’t the time to go into their own problems?
Again, this is a question that makes something that is happening to them into something that is happening to you. It’s not about their bad experience anymore, it’s about your hurt feelings that they didn’t tell you sooner. It’s you taking the temperature of your relationship, using a bad thing that happened to the other person. THEY ARE TELLING YOU NOW, GO WITH IT.
When you engage in these behaviors, you are basically telling someone who is having a problem that there is a right way to have that problem, and a right way to tell you about it, and most of those right ways happen in the past where they should have behaved differently. It’s not the most comforting comfort in the world, I’ve got to tell you.
These questions are pretty much guaranteed to leave the person more upset and defensive, which may prompt you to ask :
5. “Why are you so defensive, I am only trying to help!”
Congratulations. You’ve now completely derailed this conversation. It is now completely about you and your help and how this person is rejecting it. It is now their own fault they are sad. This is what is known as a dick move.
So, what should you do when someone tells you sad news?
May I suggest that when someone you care about tells you a problem, your first step is to shut up and listen.
Then listen more.
Your next step is to believe them. Just believe. Don’t interrogate. If there is more to the story, trust that the facts will emerge in time, and the more the person trusts you the more likely they are to tell you the whole truth. Don’t expect someone who is in the middle of a bad situation to have a perfect perspective on that situation and to be able to talk about it in a logical, enlightened way that completely satisfies you! Assume that they are not having their problems AT you.
Your third step is to say something like “I’m so sorry you are going through that, that is terrible.”
Your fourth step is to ask “How do you want to handle this?” or “What do you think you’ll do?” At this juncture, it may be time to listen some more. Maybe they don’t know what they’ll do. Cool. Whatever.
If you sense that some advice would be helpful, ask “Are you asking for advice?” There’s no rule that you have to give all the advice that is possible to give, or that you have to give it right now.
Remind the person that you like them, and that you’re there to listen, to offer advice, to distract them, whatever.
Also, keep in mind that a person is not defined by their problem. Good questions to ask are “Do you want to talk about it?” People don’t owe you all the details of their sad story, and they don’t owe it to you on your schedule.
This is where we circle back to boundaries. You don’t have to fix your friends and families, or fix their lives. You can decide how far you want to get involved in their problems and what, if anything, you want to do. You don’t have to agree with everything they say. You can disagree with their perspective and conclusions. You can decide that you can’t help. Especially when we’re talking about interpersonal problems (and not matters of social justice, voting, policy, etc.) simply listening doesn’t obligate you to do anything, and even if you feel like you *should* do something, it may be that you can’t. For instance, I’ve known some manipulative people, junkies, and chronic complainers where my boundary is set at “Wow, I’m sorry you’re going through all that, please tell someone else.” It’s not pretty, but it’s honest, and saves me from faking compassion or being drained.
I want to say again that it is completely human and understandable to want to know more information, to be curious, to want to offer any help you can, to want to reconcile this news with your own picture of reality – It’s just not something you need to put on your friend or expect them to provide right now. Have a little faith and trust.
When someone is in the middle of telling you their bad news, the kindest, best thing you can do is to treat the other person like they are an expert – in fact, the sole expert- on their own experiences. Even if they messed up. Even if they messed up bad. Even if the story is all over the place at first. Even if they don’t have perspective (that you think you do have). Even if this is just like all the other times. Even if they are crying and irrational. Even if they are in the middle of a panic attack or stuck in an anxiety loop. Even if there is an easy way to solve it. Even if you privately disagree. I think you will never go wrong by doing this, and that this can be what a suffering person most needs from other people.