Hello! First, a reminder from Kate in Bristol:
Hi all – just a quick reminder that Bristol UK is meeting up at The Canteen on Stokes Croft this Saturday, from 11am to 3pm. I will be wearing a rainbow tie. For further info please see the original announcement:http://captainawkward.com/2013/09/30/bristol-uk-is-meeting-up/
Hope to see you there!
Second, there is a Washington, DC-area Meetup in the works:
Hi! I’d like to announce the next DC-area meetup:
Date: Tuesday, 5 November 2013
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Place: Busboys & Poets @ 14th & V (2021 14th St. NW) http://www.busboysandpoets.com/
The venue is accessible by metrorail, metrobus, Circulator bus, and Bikeshare; seehttp://www.busboysandpoets.com/about/14th-v for details. Street parking may be scarce; there are a couple of garages within a block of the restaurant where you can expect to pay $6-10 for the evening.
Busboys & Poets has a variety of well-labeled vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items, and it’s wheelchair-accessible.
Find our group by looking for the red balloon I’ll bring with me. So I can ask for the right size table, please e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org you’re planning on coming or have any questions or suggestions.
Eat, drink, and be awkward.
Next, a question.
You are slowly changing the way this relationship works by setting boundaries and speaking up for your own needs and preferences. This is about roles. You have pretty set ones, where she self-identifies as The Picky One and you self-identify as The Easygoing One. Your role within the relationship is changing and your friend is needing to adapt, which causes some predictable but fixable friction.
Let’s talk about “picky” vs. “easygoing” as interaction styles, with 10,000 caveats about everything being relative and also about these not being fixed, binary states.
“Picky,” when you’re not picky, is often not used as a compliment. We use expressions like discerning, knowledgeable, “has high standards,” exacting, assertive, direct, detailed, “knows what she wants,” “no nonsense”, strict, etc. when we mean the good kind of picky, and “picky” when we mean “WHY AREN’T YOU MARRIED YET HERE LET ME FIX YOU UP WITH MY LOSER COUSIN WHO SMELLS LIKE OLD SOCKS.” Ms. Picky is The Princess and the Frog. Ms. Picky is The Princess and the Pea. What, are you some kind of special unique snowflake? Why are you so sensitive? Picky, when you are picky, is armor. “I may have these quirks and needs that make me vulnerable and easy to laugh at, but you wouldn’t want to disappoint me.”
“Easygoing,” on the other hand, has pleasant overtones. Easy to please, pleasant, nice, polite, relaxed, team player, sunny, sanguine; Mr. Easygoing is the youngest son in all the fairy tales who wins the kingdom and the heart of that picky, picky princess by being basically the most chill dude ever. The easygoing coin has its flip side, with words like naive, spineless, “a follower,” wishy-washy, passive, doormat, etc., but the trope “Uptight serious person is transformed for the better by meeting laid-back fun-loving person” shows how deep these archetypes run.
Before about the age of 30, I thought I was an easygoing person, because which would you rather be – someone whose sleep can be ruined by a single legume, or the person who makes friends with talking animals? In my personal relationships, I set out merrily down the Path of Least Resistance and strove to be easygoing in all things. I would prove my worth to people by being super-accommodating. They would be happy, and I would be happy because they were happy, and if at any point anyone was unhappy, I would use the power vested in me as a middle child to entertain and smile and cheerlead and mollify until everything was chill again.
A couple of problems with that:
1. I am not actually relaxed. Like, at all.
2. When you need stuff from others (and you will need stuff from others eventually), being super relaxed all the time doesn’t exactly work as the quid-pro-quo the aggressively-relaxed person thinks it does. “When you need x, I just go with it, so obviously the reverse is true!” Nope. Weirdly, other people are not mind readers, so they can neither suss out your wants nor give you the credit for the robust emotional work you were doing in prioritizing their wants over your own. You haven’t built up a favor reserve that you can draw on at need, you’ve just taught them that it’s normal for you to always go along with whatever they want, so when you do speak up it comes across as you being uncharacteristically difficult.
3. When you’re not in the habit of asking for anything, the thought of bringing up the topic is wicked scary. You don’t want to risk negative reaction from the other person, so you avoid it. And the longer you avoid it, the bigger the problem grows. And the bigger the problem grows, the more likely your expression will come in the form of passive-aggressive behavior or a FEELINGSBOMB vs. a reasonable conversation.
At both extremes, the dysfunctional kind of easygoing and the overbearing things-can-ONLY-be-my-way sort of picky work as a defense mechanisms against not being listened to or respected. “I don’t trust you to actually believe me and meet my needs, so (choose your own adventure)…
- …I will avoid asserting them unless I absolutely have to, and when I do, it will be with maximum weirdness.”
- …I WILL ASSERT THEM WITH GREAT FORCE AND PREEMPTIVELY DEFEND THEM EVEN IF IT MEANS BULLYING PEOPLE TO GET MY WAY.”
My gut feeling is that both kinds of folks come by it honestly. At one time or other in their lives, I’m betting that someone taught them that they would not be respected or believed when they said they needed something. Some coped by avoiding the issue and shutting down, some coped by fighting harder, and those extreme coping methods helped them survive whatever that situation was but have become maladaptive over time or when applied to other contexts. So one way we can help is to believe our friends and take them seriously when they express a need or try to have constructive conflict with us, even when they do it awkwardly.
In defense of being picky, life is short! Be picky! Use this one precious beautiful life you have the way you want to. Don’t date or hang out with people who you feel “meh” about. It’s okay to ask the restaurant to leave okra out of your stir fry. It’s DEFINITELY ok to speak up for your physical safety and comfort and happiness. Sometimes people are tired of explaining their food allergy to the waiter for the 10,000th time and need to go with “I just really hate tomatoes, thanks.” A lot of what comes across as “picky” is people being good at asserting themselves against cultural or gender or class expectations. And a lot of it is people doing their best to manage difficult, heartbreaking shit that they didn’t choose.
In defense of being easygoing, Letter Writer, you are easygoing in the best possible way. When you don’t have a strong preference, you go with the flow and look for things to enjoy about the experience. When you do, you state it. You’re not mistaking “I don’t have a preference, so whatever works for you is great!” for “I don’t care” or being a doormat. I think you are handling this whole thing very well, and I think it is good that you are scaling up how much you state your own preferences. In a way you are learning from your friend’s example. But a rebalancing is necessary.
When roles & boundaries change inside a relationship, friction is a pretty routine part of the deal. Person A has been puttering along, assuming everything is working just fine and that everyone understands and agrees on what “fine” means. When Person B wants to change things, it can trigger a crisis for Person A. You say “Howabout when I choose the tickets, we’ll sit close, and when you obtain them, I’ll sit wherever you want.” The other person’s brain takes in the information but along the way the Jerkbrain hijacks it and adds a special discomfort and doubt meta-message that says “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW MIGHT BE WRONG AND POSSIBLY THAT MAKES YOU A BAD PERSON.”
The bigger/more active the Jerkbrain, the more disproportionate the response. So people with self-esteem issues, anxiety, fears around abandonment, etc. will have a much larger and more serious response to mild criticism than people who feel more secure. Fun, right?
If the message hits Person A right in the Ol’ Shame Place, what comes back can be a pretty stinky FEELINGSBOMB. Depending on the person’s level of self-awareness, empathy, or coping skills, it can take the form of:
- Blame and deflection. “You made me feel uncomfortable, now I’m going to put that all back on you. Enjoy dodging my FEELINGSCHRAPNEL!”
- Outright refusing to acknowledge there even is a problem. Remember when this Letter Writer said “Spouse, could you cook sometimes?” and got an outright “No!”?
- A really awkward shame-spiral; over-apologizing, over-explaining, over-justifying, panic, emotional outbursts.
The good news and the bad news are the same news: We’re probably all going to be Person A (We’re doing fine!) in some situations and Person B (Let’s change this up!) in others, because a) we don’t all want or like or need the same things and b) you can try to talk yourself out of needing stuff that you need and wanting what you want, but eventually, the level of “easygoing” that allows a person to avoid any and all conflict or change in relationships is called “being dead.”
Conflict is not 100% avoidable, so you might as well speak up for what you want and and try to deal with others directly and constructively. I believe that this is a skill that can be learned and practiced. It may never feel awesome, but it can feel less scary. The more you do it, the less scary it gets. It’s not a magic talisman against assholes and corrupt and unjust systems, but in cases like this, with two friends who like each other and want only good things to happen, you can work on making it safe for each other to express needs constructively, and over time, learn that the passing discomfort of speaking up about mismatched expectations and desires is survivable.
You’re doing great with this so far, Letter Writer, but hopefully we can generate some ideas that will help you take this to the next level or at least act with more confidence.
As the Identified Picky One, S. has staked out a little more territory than is exactly fair, and you are allowed to try to put balance and fairness back into the relationship. Your need > my preference, probably, but my preference = your preference, so how do we negotiate matters of preference? Taking turns? Whoever initiates the plan decides the plan? In the case of the concert, she likes to sit far away. You like to sit close. If both of you are similarly-abled*, “far away” and “so close” are not competing moral positions. You both get to like what you like. My friend Dave and I have this exact issue when we go to the movies, and we’ve sort of worked it out where we alternate based on who picked the movie & bought the tickets or stay within a range where “close” starts at 5 rows back, not 2nd row, where he’d like to sit, and “far” = “middle.”
So say you decide to have a discussion about this.
You say: “Hey, let’s make a deal. When I make the plans, I will pick the seats. When you make the plans, you can pick the seats. Once we’re sitting at the actual thing, no complaining. It’s a huge bummer for me when I’d rather just concentrate on hanging out with you and enjoying the show.”
Best case scenario:
She says: “That’s fair.”
Congratulations. You have officially worked this shit out.
Other possible scenarios:
She says: “But I literally can’t enjoy the concert unless I am sitting where I want to sit.”
You have some choices:
- Suck it up. Sitting far away is the Price of Admission for concerts with this friend, and you can do it as a favor to her.
- Find a different partner for concert-going. Sitting far away is the Price of Admission with this friend, and it’s too high. Call her when you can do stuff that you’ll both enjoy equally.
- Continue the discussion and see if you can come up with a fair solution. Make it clear that your dislike of sitting far is just as valid as her dislike of being close, so, what would she suggest?
She says: “That’s fair” but when it comes time for the show she still complains about it. “Ugh, I haaaaaate sitting this close.”
- Call her on it. “Hey, you’re being kind of crappy right now.“
- Appeal to fairness & her sense of absurdity. “I’m confused. When you say ‘I want x,’ you’re just stating a need. But I when I do the same thing, it’s somehow a huge problem? How is that fair?”
- Restate your own preference, neutrally. “Oh? I really like these seats, it means I can see everything.” Advanced move: Once you do this, do your best to give exactly zero of your attention to the question of The Seats, They Are Too Close. Respond normally to other topics, but be a broken record about the seats. “I really like them. I can see.”
This “Huh. Well, I like it,” broken record tactic for dealing with Highly Difficult People can also apply to Mildly Difficult People. It’s the most even-keeled, least hostile way I can think of to communicate “I can live with the prospect of your slight displeasure” without deliberately escalating a conflict.
She says: “Welcome to my shame spiral about how I am the most picky person ever and I worry that makes you secretly hate me but I can’t help being the way I am and I am sorry I suck so much and you are a saint for putting up with me! Please mix your own discomfort at not getting your wishes met with a healthy portion of my own self-loathing!” (Implied: “So pretty please can we sit where I want to sit? Because you don’t want to have awkward emotional conversations like this over theater seating, do you? Surely you are not so petty as that? You’re easygoing! I’m picky! These roles work for us. Don’t ruin it.”)
Unproductive, manipulative, emotionally exhausting arguing makes everything all about a) who you are as a person and/or b) the past. If you say “Can we sit closer sometimes?” and suddenly the argument shifts into the territory of “BUT I AM JUST AN INHERENTLY PICKY PERSON,” or “YOU THINK I AM A TERRIBLE PERSON,” it’s a minefield. You’re not arguing a course of action, you’re arguing with someone’s entire personality. At some point you’re either going to abdicate, or you’re going to get frustrated and agree with their Jerkbrain’s view of themselves, and they will never forget it.
I’m not saying that the past never matters in an interpersonal conflict, but there are at least two ways of invoking it that are big red flags of dysfunction for me. The first is where you say “That thing you did hurt my feelings, could you stop and maybe we can work out a different way of handling that?” and the other person counters with a tale of something bad that happened to them, perhaps as a child, that is the reason they are this way and couldn’t help doing what they did. Suddenly, the conversation about how they upset you turns into one where you are apologizing to and comforting them. It can feel very cathartic and like you are connecting emotionally at the time, but the next day you’re still mad, and when you go back through the discussion it doesn’t add up. “Wait, you borrowed my car without telling me because your dad was never around? I don’t think that’s how it works.”
The other red flag is when the person constantly dredges up old fights and old slights. You don’t have to forgive, and you definitely don’t have to forget, but in an ongoing, mutual relationship, where everyone has apologized, done their best to make amends, and made sure not to repeat the offending behaviors, responding to “I wish you would stop doing x” with “We could try to fix it, but instead, let’s review, in detail, every single time you have ever been wrong” is equivocating. Badly.
Sometimes when people feel threatened and cornered they can’t even help taking it there. They just start throwing stuff out and doing whatever they can to deflect, deflect, deflect. Everyone manipulates sometimes, it’s just a really human thing to do when we’re hurting or scared or ashamed.
I think becoming a better communicator is about getting better at advocating for oneself (more regularly, sooner, when problems are small, more confidently) AND about getting better at detaching during difficult conversations when someone is bringing a conflict to you so that you can heed what the person is actually saying over the shame-y, terrible call of your own Jerkbrain. It’s not about being unemotional and Vulcan; feel your icky uncomfortable feelings! It’s not about reacting perfectly or pretending that you are okay when you’re not okay. Sometimes you gotta cry, or put your foot in your mouth, or walk away and think about it before responding and trust that the bond that you have with this person will survive if you make a mistake. But the skill or habit that you want to develop is the ability to say, “Hey, Jerkbrain, shut up, we’ll deal with you later. Right now, I need to pay attention to what my friend is actually saying” and deal with that.
That’s why when you practice “active listening,” the first thing you do is restate what the other person said back to them. “What I am hearing is that you are upset about x, is that true?” When you restate their points, you demonstrate that you heard them, and you also make a tacit agreement that x is the topic of your discussion.
So, if you feel like you are in an unproductive argument that’s ad hominem or ab antiquo, one thing you can do is try to refocus things on the present/future and on action:
“I don’t hate you, and I’m not actually even angry at you, but I do want us to come up with a fairer way of dealing with stuff like this when our preferences clash. I love hanging out with you, and I want to do it without this being a huge issue between us. Can we work on that?”
“If you are still upset about (past topic), we can try to talk through it again. But right now, I need to talk about (present topic). Could we try (course of action)?”
Reassure the feelings, refocus the discussion on what you can do. Also, make the other person your partner in figuring out a good solution:
“In a perfect world, how would you like this to work from now on?”
You may not agree, or be able to satisfy this vision, but when someone is really stuck on the negative it can help to ask them to articulate a positive. It gives you more information about where they are coming from and what you might possibly be able to agree on. It resets the power balance, especially if you’re the one in the position of auditioning solutions that they keep shooting down.
If you feel like the person is unfairly assigning you responsibility for their feelings, you can be blunt about that:
“I can see that you are genuinely upset about this, but I do not think that I want to do what you are asking me to do. Is there something else I could do right now to make you feel better? Is there a way we could both think about it and talk later?”
It’s okay to disengage from the conversation if you feel like it’s cycling through the same stuff without anything being resolved.
“You’ve given me a lot to think about. Can we take a break from this conversation while I sort through it?”
“I think I have a good handle on what you are saying, but I am feeling overwhelmed/sad/hurt/scared/up in my own Jerkbrain and need a little more time to process. Can we take a break and come back to this later?”
I think people are justified in asking you to schedule a follow-up discussion before tabling the current one, and giving a time-frame is one way of showing that you are serious about resolving things, but someone insisting “NO, WE MUST SOLVE IT NOW” (always especially charming when they’ve been stuck in the past for the entire argument) when you’ve specifically said you need a break is another sign that oof, here lies dysfunction.
Letter Writer, you and this friend are probably going to be just fine overall. Half the battle is treating your own preferences as the equal of hers and recognizing that you’re not responsible for all of her feelings. You’ve clearly nailed that. Now there is just the work of making that the new normal. If you like, think a little bit about the kinds of spaces and activities where your friendship functions well and skew your time together in that direction. She might not be the world’s best concert or exhibition buddy right now, but she might be the world’s best brunch partner. During this time when you’re recalibrating everything, set her and yourself up to succeed by choosing brunch.
*Come on, accommodating a friend’s disability with minimal friction is just the right thing to do.