Derailing: How not to talk to people who are telling you something sad.

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 gaslightingMartha 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.

162 thoughts on “Derailing: How not to talk to people who are telling you something sad.

  1. I’m at Z. I’ve taken steps A, B, C, and up to X, Y, and Z. And people still can’t believe that bad shit happens. More importantly, they don’t WANT to believe this. And they don’t want to think that maybe going through a years-long process of medical malfeasance AND being expected to be both Mother Theresa and Emily Post is a bit much, but especially when people are brightly offering advice that you’ve already tried—which they’d have known had they listened.

    Some people can’t believe how bad it can get. I’ve had women a social class or two above adopt this really ‘talk-to-a-child’ viewpoint that just infuriates me, which I think is the goal because then they go, “You should calm down.” I stopped asking. I just keep getting worse. I’ve tried everything, and I get a lot of people who can’t understand that, yes, this is REALLY bad, and yes, you CAN do everything right, and still wind up getting screwed in so many different ways. There’s no cavalry. I’ve had people offer help in the guise of treating me like a kid having a tantrum, while they preened and strutted and treated me like a kid having a tantrum—-oh, and totally invalidating me, too, often in the most humiliating way possible, which they probably think makes them look more like a saint, for being so nice to the angry mentally-ill peasant. There’s very often a class bias at work. One stubbed toe on a college-educated person equals a broken leg on a poor blue collar person. Illnesses of any sort are supposed to make you—-if female—delicate and fragile and more ladylike, not angry. It’s supposed to be a sort of martyrdom after which you recover and make everybody feel like they’ve watched a real-life after school special. For adults. Above all else, you have to be grateful.

    The worse part is losing faith in reasonable people. They always have a limit in terms of how long they’re willing to care. Then they turn really fast and the stuff about, “Why didn’t you?” or “Calm down,” starts. If you point out that ‘calm down’ is, in itself, labeling you as over-reacting, then they smugly use that as proof that you’re over-reacting—to something that they’re not facing and know nothing about. And more importantly, if they hadn’t shut you up, they might have come really close to finding out, and they’d never have their precious ignorance back again.

    One thing you didn’t mention was how people want to get the label of being kind and helpful and understanding…..they just don’t want to do squat. I’ve had people offer all manner of things…..but when I took them up on it, it took a while before it dawned on me that the promise was just that: a promise, never intended to be kept. More fool me, I thought it was just bad timing, but after the first couple of times I learned not to ask again. It cost me a lot of money, and I just don’t have it to throw around.

    It’s always astonishing to me how people don’t realize how these things are little betrayals, and how you can only get kicked so often while you’re down before it really starts to do some damage. I’ve had my fill of many nice people now. Once you snap back at being told to ‘calm down’ for something the speaker hasn’t gone through, they’re gunning for you, and their safe reality means more to them than whatever harm they cause you. You’re already damaged, after all. There’s a newer, shinier model out there somewhere.

    1. Well, obviously, I’m sorry you’re dealing with whatever that is, and I believe you that it sucks exactly as bad as you say it does.

      You’re very smart when you point out how often it is about social class. I can’t afford to make any mistakes – I don’t have a margin of error. One illness? One semester when the enrollment is down and I can get fired the night before classes start even though I did the months of prep work and have great evals? One automatic payment comes out earlier than scheduled and creates a round robin of NSF fees that leaves me $200 in the hole and unable to pay other bills? Everything costs a little bit more when you are poor, every choice must be weighed and weighed again and if you need help every choice will be third-guessed by others.

      What you said about little betrayals resonates. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and every opportunity to be cool, but sometimes it gets really, really hard and I walk into conversations with my dukes already up and my chip affixed firmly to my shoulder.

      1. I’m an Iraq war vet, a blue-collar feminist, and somebody whose resume looks like Sybil wrote it. I was a ballet dancer before I joined the Army. I’m a feminist, but of a type that gets no recognition. I speak two other languages fluently and a couple others in a colloquial vulgar kind of way. I’ve been to thirty or more different countries. I did a lot of convoys in Iraq. I was in combat—-the sort of combat, where you hunker down at a quiet moment in a day-long battle where you’re outnumbered forty-to-one and the ammo is running out and wonder about suicide and gang rape and torture. I’ve seen people die. I read every book I can lay my hands on—–when I can find a corner to shove myself into to get away from the feeling that snipers are training once again aiming at me and there’s no cover. There’s no feeling like a bullet slicing through the air during the one minute you lifted your helmet to wipe the rivers of sweat down. On a convoy going north to Baghdad with me in the gun turret, my driver thought she saw an IED. The NCO who’d tried to sexually assault me had sabotaged my weapon and the gun shield broke loose, knocked my belt-fed .249 machine gun off the pin, and whipped around and tried to throw me to the ground rushing past at sixty miles per hour. Eighty pounds of metal and that was way more than half my body weight, and the next morning I woke up covered with bruises from the waist down and my roomie had to get me out of bed while I screamed in pain and came close to blacking out. Something’s happened recently and the injury—which the VA has described as ‘arthritis’—-has gotten just that bad again. I’ve been doing a lot of screaming lately. Sometimes I black out. I once walked around for an hour on a leg that felt ‘funny’. I’d broken it in three places. I made the ER staff hold off while I took off my favorite jeans so they could cast the leg. It flopped around like a Twizzler. I thought pain was a temporary thing before I got diagnosed—-unwillingly—-with PTSD.
        I started having panic attacks in vehicles when I got home. (We rolled over bombs and they malfunctioned. They blew up before we got there. We spotted them before they could be detonated. Once, they hit the patrol ahead of us. One guy limped away.) I started throwing up and not being able to eat for hours before I had to go to the hospital. Then days. Then I started having headaches so bad they made me black out and lose my vision for hours, if I didn’t pass out entirely. I collapsed at the VA hospital one day…… and they told me to keep a headache diary. I’m still having the headaches, sometimes every day, hours every day. No pain relief. The VA doesn’t believe what veterans tell them. They believe women veterans even less. I have friends who have migraines. They’re kind of horrified.
        The first therapy group I got put in, I was the only woman, and the rest were men. Sex offenders. They were trying to get their sentences reduces. MY therapist (a woman) said, “Well, there’s jerks everywhere.” It’s four am now, you know why I’m up? Because I have such horrible nightmares at night that I wake up with scratches and split lips and once, a black eye. My lower lip is split open right now. I can’t sleep like this.
        Recently, I had a prominent feminist ask me patronizingly, “How do you want us to react to you when you’re having a PTSD (something or other, I don’t remember.)” How about you don’t patronize me like that, you arrogant **********(fill in your own blanks) She went on at great length, in front of a crowd of MRAs and the sort of young feminists who find older bitches like me to be tiresome and ‘refuse to like anything.’ That’s on top of people who offer to help and then…..don’t. I have agoraphobia now and I never leave the house. Never. I go to the hospital and then only when I’m bleeding. I cut my arms open to keep from killing myself, which I’ve tried four times, because when you’re this depressed, you realize that killing yourself makes perfect sense. When you get this depressed, this exhausted by lack of sleep, you realize you’re a burden on your friends. (My family, staunch Republicans all, called me a traitor when I spoke out against torture, while in uniform and on active duty.) I don’t sleep, thanks to nightmares, and when I do sleep, it’s with knives under my bed. The Army finds new reasons to bill me for shit that happened years ago when I was actively trying to kill myself and…..I get women who are college-educated calling me angry and making fun of my anger. And I’m left trying to articulate how one of the worst things was being confronted with Iraqis and having them treat me better than my fellow Americans, without pretense or motive, just one human being to another. I just found out my doctor blatantly falsified her notes, and I’m so exhausted from insomnia that I find myself down in my basement, stuffing quilting in my mouth when I scream till I’m exhausted. Nobody cares. I have some friends, but it sometimes seems like I have more stalkers and people who want to talk shit about me. PTSD only happens to upper class college-educated white women who are Oprah-ready. Angry old peasant bitches like me? Forget it. PTSD is delicate and tragic when it happens to college women and girls who have the vocab. When it’s an angry peasant bitch like me…..She’s so angry!
        All I want is for them to fix me. I was a workaholic once. I want to build little houses and shelters for homeless people. I want to travel as I once did, tens of thousands a mile a year, and sleep in piles of winter leaves if I have to, so I can listen to some people and amplify their voice. I could serve again. I’m tough. All they have to do is patch me up. But everywhere I go, I get confronted with people who go, “Have you tried A, B, C?”

        1. It’s amazing that through so much pain you are able to tell your story so well. Keep telling it, expanding on it, enriching it, as long as you are able. That’s not “advice” – I just know I’m glad I read your post and I bet more people would benefit from reading it.

          Sounds like things are bleak. I hope you make it. I’m cheering you on.

          1. You get it from the Army when you’re a woman—and from everybody else. Women aren’t in combat, didn’t you know? It’s like they think listening to a woman will be a loss or something. What you get from other people is, “Oh, you didn’t have it that bad.” People are really invested in making sure that you know you don’t matter to them.

            Of course the VA is horrible to soldiers in general, but you always run into these types who go, “Well….I’ve never experienced that.” The implication is you MUST be oversensitive and that feeds into so many stereotypes about women.

            I’m on the phone with the hospital director and the State Medical Board. My doctor, it turns out, did not put in her notes that I requested a change of treatment—and doctor. What she wrote was that I agreed to the course of treatment. No mention of two years’ worth of requests to have a new doctor. And then there’s the fact that they’ve cut off my medication repeatedly, even though I have agoraphobia and without meds….I can’t come in to the hospital to get medication. But if I don’t come in to the hospital they don’t give me meds. I had seizures the last time they pulled this stuff.

            They’re way more eager to offer me PAP smears and mammograms than they are to deal with the PTSD. It’s like, “Hello, you’re a woman, you’re just tits and ovaries to us.”

        2. Wow. Now I REALLY believe you. I’m not going to offer to help, because I can’t, and I can’t think of a goddamn thing that would help. But you can tell your story here, and I’m glad you did, and I’m really, really sorry.

          When you talk about the possibility of building houses for homeless people, that seems like a beautiful, worthy dream. You seem like someone who was made to serve, who is aching to serve, and I hope you will serve again.

          1. I could do it, too. Even though I was injured fairly seriously—-nothing like other people, though—-I’m still very strong. And there’s lots of homeless vets, and amongst them, homeless female veterans, who nobody wants to talk about because nobody wants to deal with the fact that women come home from war to piles of waiting laundry and housework to do.

            I’ve got my state reps, my senator and my state’s governor on speed dial. When you’ve had to bring those guys in, it’s a sign that shit is just not that ordinary, yet when I talked to a counselor recently, he wound up flailing and asking me if I’d tried….painting something. With that? Of what? He didn’t know. He had no clue.

            There’s the other thing, too. If you offer any suggestion at all, no matter how stupid, and the person you’re ‘advising’ looks at you strangely because it’s inappropriate and stupid, then you have a great reason to wash your hands of them and then later call them an uncooperative whiner.

        3. Wow is right. Thanks for taking the time to share all of that. I am so sorry for what you have been through, and that people who patronize you in a million big and small ways. I am just someone out there on the internet but you have greatly affected me with your story this morning.

        4. Wow, you’re right, you’ve been through more than I can imagine. I’m so sorry. I wish I knew how to help you get the help you’re looking for. The life you described in your closing paragraph sounds wonderful, and you deserve to be able to live it.

          1. I could be doing so much. That’s the thing. I have no life. And I’m just one of fuck only knows how many veterans, especially women veterans, that this happens to.

            Oh, and how much fun is it when people whip out some variation of the “Bitches be crazy/she’s just nuts/she’s unreasonable/she’s cray cray(the modern new slang makes it so much less bigoted!/she’s hormonal/she’s unsteady/” all those stereotypes that hinge on women being nuts, inherently flawed, weak, emotional, unreasonble, etc., etc. PTSD is like a godsend to them. It’s just the same thing other women get. It’s just intensified.

        5. I am so sorry that you are going through not only a world of physical and emotional pain, but that there are so many people in the world making things as difficult as possible for you.

          You sound like an interesting and inspiring person and I hope that this crap improves for you as soon as possible.

          Thank you for sharing your story and for hanging on. I think the world needs more people like you.

          1. You’re very kind. I’ve just come off a long argument with a complete asshole while other people let me flail around against this guy, who employed every derailing tactic there is, only to have some other asshole say, “Calm down.” I’m really interested in the motives behind what people say, and this topic really touched a nerve, not least because I was an interrogator, and this kind of language is just as revealing in war zones as it is in the civilian world. I tend to see this kind of thing—-the derailing and all that—-as being revealing, but that might be my training. Or mabye it’s the lack of sleep. I have no idea if I’m making any sense at all right now, so I should probably just shut up and stagger off for a couple of hours’ sleep.

          2. @ginmar: Being that you worked as an interrogator, I’m sure this is not news to you but from a completely civilian perspective I have found that most of these derailing things people do or just generally unhelpful comments come from one place: people are uncomfortable and they want to stop being uncomfortable as quickly as possible. In my own experience for example, I thought I was some kind of monster because I didn’t like people specifically comforting me when I was upset about something. Like who turns away someone who wants to make it better? But I’ve come to realize that for some people it isn’t that they want to make things better, it is that they want me to stop (as this post so nicely put it) “having feelings at them.” They are uncomfortable seeing me upset, it upsets them and they want it to stop now and for everything to go back to normal. And obviously that is not helpful to me at all.

            You have life experiences that few people have and that few people could handle as well as you have (I know you have struggled, but you are still alive and fighting to care for yourself every day and that is a HUGE accomplishment in my eyes). As I’m sure you see, most people cannot even handle thinking about it. They don’t like the questions it makes them ask. They don’t like the way it disrupts the basic assumptions they have made about life. I think that’s why people are always on a special mission to find the “reason” why something bad happened to someone… so they can convince themselves that it won’t happen to them because they won’t do x thing that “caused” it. It is unsettling to think that anything can happen to you (the general you, not you ginmar) and that you don’t necessarily have control over it, so people find ways to pretend control. At least, that’s my theory.

            So in short, I think you are making sense. People telling others to calm down or to have tact (for this, I must headdesk), it all definitely has a motivation. And I suspect that motivation is for people to stay comfortable, no matter the cost, because the cost doesn’t effect them at least not in ways they are acknowledging.

            I know you are in a dysfunctional health care system and I hope you are able to find better help soon. I won’t pretend to know what you have experienced, but even as terrible as I am sure it was, I know there are therapists and even regular folks out there who can handle it and process it without these sort of garbage reactions. I’m just a random internet stranger, so this probably doesn’t have the weight I wish it did, but if we ever cross paths in the world, I hope I could be one of them. Either way, I hope a whole slew of them are right around your next corner.

          3. @ginmar

            Even though I have never been close to a war situation, everything you are saying makes so much sense to me. I have to believe that the people who advocate for torture are either willfully ignorant or some worse alternative because I think in that short paragraph you laid it all out clearly and concisely.

            I agree with you completely, the scariest monsters are the most human ones. The might be a silly comparison, but if you have ever watched the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there were these monsters featured in one episode called The Gentlemen. They were still clearly not human, but they resembled human beings more than most. And they wear nice suits and do terrible things with a smile on their face. Apparently, they are consistently voted as the scariest monsters in the series and the creator says he thinks that a big part of the reason is that they seem so human. People are capable of doing terrible things and sadly all you have to do is turn on the news to hear about it 😦 I am so sorry that you experienced it first hand. I wish that these things were like physical bags so that the rest of us could help you carry them.

            You said in another comment that you needed to shut up, but I have to say that I hope you keep talking about your experiences and thoughts on this as long as you feel you can, not just here but anywhere you feel comfortable doing so. I think your voice is very important and I am angry on your behalf that people have tried to silence you.

            This may have only been a few comments on the internet, but I know already I will carry the things you have shared with me for a very long time.

        6. Adding a “thank you” here. That sounds so awful to deal with. I wish you luck, and if having someone to listen helps, I’m glad and able to do that.

          1. This is about as far as I get. I don’t want to inflict some of the stuff I saw on people who then would have to have it in their heads. My shrink doesn’t even know half of what happened in Iraq. I keep trying to bring it up and she….somehow changes the subject.

            Ironically, she put me in a therapy group with housewives and told me to be tactful. I….yeah. Because, you know, they have vaginas, I have one, we must have lots to chat about, except for the stuff that she doesn’t hink I should talk about which is what’s causing the problem.

          2. OMG, that’s an HBO original series right there. “Iraq vet with PTSD joins group therapy of housewives.”

            In my experience, therapy is not where we go to be our most “tactful” selves. What a shit sandwich.

          3. The first group I was in was….sex offenders. Therapy consisted of watching them whine about what bitches their victims, girlfriends, and wives were. I kept calling them on it while the (male) therapist sat there in his leather-elbowed tweed jacket and cowboy boots (hello, midlife crisis) and nodded thoughtfully. That one was kind of therapeutic in that I kept nailing these guys mercilessly, b ut damn, it’s hard to be the only one in a group that’s fighting back.

            The medical staff used to cringe at my questions while they tried to push stupid shit on us. “How would you like some art therapy?” “I’d like some relief from my fuckin’ nightmares!’ (And a lot of that kind of crap is driven not by the desire to help vets but to profit contractors.) It’s a very depressing thing to ask your therapist if something was peer reviewed and watch them cringe. Every now and then I’d put on my uniform and watch those guys suddenly look at me different. it was shocking. Same people, same place, and they knew—-but the uniform made them sharpen right up.

            If they could just give me therapy where I slapped Bill O’Reilly around every time he said stupid, vicious crap, I’d be fine in no time. And the housewives, I think, could have benefited from Basic and a good dose of the confidence that stuff gives you.

          4. Jae, one thing I learned as an interrogator, was that everything I’d been told about the Middle East and the people in it were lies. And that a lot of people from my country use many of the methods I saw in guilty people when I was interviewing them. And can I just say that no good interrogator thinks, ever, of using torture? People want to talk. They can’t help themselves. Even bombers who’ve killed dozens of people feel twinges in their conscience—although I did run into a few who were beyond that. People with something to hide, well, or something they want that they know they can’t rightfully ask for—-from one side of the world to the other, they try and get away with it. They use the same methods. And it doesn’t if somebody is Muslim or Catholic or American or whatever….we all carry pictures of our kids and our family and maybe even our pets in our wallet.

            If you want to get a person to admit to something they really shouldn’t, you have to look at them and see them as a human being. Otherwise, you’ll stop being a human being yourself. Unfortunately, it’s like taking off your body armour. You’ve got two choices: distrust everybody, see everybody different as non-human, or go the other way.

            My shrink used to tell me that the horror movies I love so much are the cause of my nightmares. Yeah, zombies are a walk in the park for me. Real monsters have human faces, and the worst thing is having to realize that some of the worst wear the uniform of your country.

            One of the worst things was coming home and realizing I no longer could stand so many people and things I hadn’t thought anything about before. I cannot believe how blatantly we were lied to for eight years.

          5. @ginmarL

            “My shrink used to tell me that the horror movies I love so much are the cause of my nightmares. Yeah, zombies are a walk in the park for me. Real monsters have human faces, and the worst thing is having to realize that some of the worst wear the uniform of your country”

            Ah, this! I LOVE horror movies. I also have some serious sleep problems. When I finally realized my sleep wasn’t normal and I should get help, I told every doctor I saw, “I was abused by my parents and my spouse and this abuse primarily happened at night with a lot of instant terrifying wake-ups, so I’m pretty sure that’s the issue here.” But noooooooo they for sure lobbed the horror movie thing at me, plus medication, plus tests and tests and tests, before finally giving me some goddamn anxiety-reducing therapy, which, WHADDYA KNOW, worked.

            The thing is, I work in a field that deals with abused kids and abusers. And we all have our weird little coping mechanisms for dealing with it. On days where a spectacularly bad case comes through, I usually go home and watch a horror movie to relax. I didn’t notice that connection before the doctors started hounding on the horror movies, but it makes sense — I can’t show my fear or horror or disgust when I’m working with a kid who needs help and compassion and understanding, but I can go home and freak the fuck out about ju-ons and let all those feelings out. I explained that to the doctors during my whole no-sleep fiasco, and they just tried to get me to stop watching horror movies so I wouldn’t feel all that anxiety-producing terror. Look, no, look at the moon, not my finger pointing at the moon. How about you work with me to stop child abuse instead of stopping me from watching horror movies? Because I am pretty sure that is the bullseye source here.

            Summary: my coping mechanisms are not my problem. Neither is changing them the solution to my problem. They are the shield I use to keep my problem from killing me. Give me a better shield, or solve my problem, but don’t point at the people with shields and say, “Ah ha! I found the problem.”

          6. I told my shrink, about the human monsters I’ve seen—in my country, in my Army—-and how with storybook monsters, there’s always rules and there’s always silver bullets. I have a real silver bullet that I carry around as a lucky charm. But they just don’t get it.

            I remember being in this battle, and it was bad. There were a few dozen of us: there were hundreds of them, and unlike us, they had unlimited ammo. It went on through the day and then into the night. And my body knew before I did, that I was going to die. It was just after the incident on Fallujah Bridge, where those contractors were attacked, killed, mutilated, and their bodies dragged through the streets and hung on the bridge. It’s a news story to people in the US. To me, it looked like that was what I had to look forward to when the sun came up. For hours upon hours we fought and had to fall back, and our ammo was getting used up, and there was no end to the enemy. There was no way out. We were going to die. That was it. We were going to die. People talk about that near-death experience? When it’s every second of every minute of every hour, what is that? I wondered if I should save a bullet for myself, if I’d even get that chance. We’re supposed to fight to the end. I wondered how that would work; there were hundreds of them, and if they’d just beat us to death when we finally used up the last of our ammo. I wondered if it would hurt, if it would take long. And the worst thing about it was that we were less than a mile from our base, within sight of the gate. It was just thirty days after I’d gotten there. Nothing we did that day affected our fate in any way. We just got lucky and escaped. Well, we didn’t get lucky, exactly. We didn’t have Army radios in our hummers, but we finagled a deal with another unit and got some. We used those to get a hold of Command and they sent in air cover from Babylon when they could, but the whole country was blowing up in every major city at the time. I think nearly two hundred soldiers were killed that month, in those battles. We should have been amongst them. And at some point during or after that day, I just kind of lost every emotion I had. It didn’t happen to me, it didn’t happen, it’s all a dream. It just does not seem real. There’s parts of it I don’t remember at all—like when I got knocked out of my boots by a mortar that hit maybe fifty or sixty feet in front of me. Knocked me out. Don’t remember it at all.

            I miss feeling fear. My shrink used to tell me that I had so much bravado—odd for somebody who flinches at things that aren’t there. The smell of smoke and burning asphalt makes my heart race, and I couldn’t figure out why. (I don’t do self help books, or Oprah, or any of that stuff, so I couldn’t understand what was happening to me.) The first Fourth of July and sheer and complete hell. And Memorial Day—-the best way to honor troops during a war where the signiture weapon is the Improvised Explosive Device is to fire up the grill and roast meat. If you get too close to an IED explosion that’s often what you smell.

            The idea that zombies make me have nightmares is just a way of denying how bad the war was. The VA is really into that for all soldiers, but some of the women staffers are just as or more sexist than the men are. One of the nicest doctors was a young Pakistani doctor. One of the worst, most cruelest was a white Xtian middle-class woman. One young male doctor spontaneously brought up how Hillary Clinton got treated during the 2008 election when I tried to talk about the sexism I was facing—-from some of the female nurses. So when the VA issues a press release saying they have a fresh new approach to military sexual trauma, it’s probably because they’ve found a new way to make it even worse thanks to their uneducated staffers.

            YOu know what the worst thing is? I’m still better off than so many ordinary Americans. Why? The VA provides health care for profit, or to at least stay within budget; treating veterans till they’re well is NOT the goal. Meeting the budget is. What are Americans go through?

            If somebody like me has PTSD, now that I’m safe and home…..what about the Iraqis? They are home.

            I need to shut up.

          7. I’ve been in class this morning so not really focused on this, but let me tell you lady:

            If you want to hijack this entire thread to tell us your story, and leave 8,000 comments about what happened to you, know that I am riveted and I am reading. If I lived within 50 miles of you (do I live within 50 miles of you?) I’d be at your house with a video camera and we would make a fucking documentary. You are not boring me, you are not dumping on me, you are not off-topic.

            One of my top 5 favorite films is Silence of the Lambs. Horror movies, fairy tales, they help us process the world and tell cautionary tales to each other.

          8. Long before there was “therapy” there were scary stories by the firelight.

            Have you read Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, or anything by Marina Werner? We need stories that help us process the world.

        7. @ginmar Ensign Obvious has to point out here that your therapists sound abysmal. Yes, you’ve seen real, horrible things. Things we’d like to pretend can’t happen in real life. How the hell do your therapists think you’re going to be able to process this stuff if they can’t go through it with you/provide you with group sessions where you can process. This is criminal, right here.

          1. I’m trying to get the State Medical Board to investigate. They keep telling women that there’s no need for programs for women. Then they issue press statements as to how they’re treating womens’ issues in new and exciting ways By not….treating them. To that extent, my experience with them is probably better than what civilian women go through.

            I dream of winning the lottery and designing a therapy program for vets, which involves kind but stern drill sergeants, therapy animals of all types, working on some idealistic projects (because so many vets are so idealistic) and having lots of peace and quiet. And ponies. And maybe camping, because I used to love that. Kind of like a Peace Corps. And…apparently I’m rambling like mad and I haven’t even taken any pain pills yet.

          2. This doesn’t sound like rambling to me, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of really awful experiences bottled up in you that it would be really great if you could…you know…find someone to help you process them. That you can still think of the Iraqis so generously when you’d been through so much over there…wow, hats off to you lady.

            I know Internet ears aren’t as good as real person ears, and I kind of just “met” you yesterday, which is a pretty shallow level of meeting someone and I’m super sorry about that, but I hear you, I am listening to you, for whatever that’s worth. I also think you’re pretty incredible.

          3. Gah! “Incredible” as in awesome, not as in “unbelievable”. Wow, poor choice of words there given your situation. Holy crikes.

        8. Your story moved me, though it’s really making me second-guess joining the Air Guard…

          There’s nothing I can say to make it better but I’ll think of you and cheer you on.

        9. Of course you are angry! Why the hell should you not be after all you have been through, is being angry supposed to be some sort of insult or something? What is wrong with those people?

          As for “How do you want us to react to you when you’re having a PTSD?” How about a much less jargon filled question:

          What is a helpful or failing that, an inoffensive response? I am familiar with being called anti-American, pro-terror, a traitor etc for being anti-torture. It sucks and after you have served your country it sucks even more to do that to you than it does for me.

          Dealing with that sounds horrible. I feel for you. I wish I could help and that everyone would deal with it better and treat you well. The last thing you need if for people at home to be abusive after all you have already gone through.

          1. I know I’m late to this thread, and I know that one intent of the original post was to remind people that sometimes we need to overrule that instinct to try to “fix” things if that’s not what the person is looking for. And yet…if I didn’t provide the following pieces of information to Ginmar, I’d feel worse than if I stayed quiet, because I do think that this is new information that could be helpful. If this is the wrong place for that, I apologize.

            1. The American military has an Employee Assistance Program, Military OneSource, reachable at 1-800-342-9647. One of the programs housed there is the Wounded Warrior Resource Center, whose mission statement is about getting any injured soldier (from active duty to years-long veterans) connected with care. The main phone number is staffed 24/7, but that specific program is staffed M-F 8:30 – 5:00 pm ET; if you call within those times (not sure if they’ll be there on President’s Day), you should be able to be transferred directly to a person who can speak to you, after answering a few demographic questions about yourself and your military service. If you’ve never used that before, they may be helpful.

            2. When you talk about your therapist, it sounds a lot like you’re discussing talk therapy. You’ve mentioned that you have a PTSD diagnosis; has anyone told you about EMDR? There has been a lot of research around the ability of EMDR to help people recover from PTSD. Basically, the theoretical framework there is that in PTSD, mechanisms of creating and storing memories were disrupted, so the traumatic memories feel a whole lot more immediate than memories otherwise should, and the EMDR techniques help rewire the brain to get these traumatic memories moved over to where memories are supposed to be, so that they’re filed under “past” and not “present.” It’s not something most therapists can do–it’s a fairly recent technique that requires specific equipment (nothing daunting, just a panel you would hold in each hand while sitting in a normal office somewhere) and special training, and therapists who haven’t been trained in it cannot do it. It sounds like your own therapist is pretty frustrating to talk to, and from what you’ve said about yourself, EMDR might really be helpful here. If you’re interested in exploring this, you can either contact your insurance and ask for their help in finding an in-network provider who uses EMDR, or go to and then the “find a therapist” link (bottom left of the page, under “featured links”).

            Beyond all this, count me among the people who think that what has happened to you, and the ways that you’ve been treated around it since, profoundly suck. I hope that something, somewhere, will help you with this soon.

          2. It’s funny you should mention them. During a suicidal episode I called for help from them, and they refused to do anything until I supplied by dates of service and if I was active duty or not. (I had just been medically retired.) Upon hearing the latter, they refused to do anything. I really don’t want to talk about how bad that was.

            However, a woman veteran I met recently in the waiting room asked me for help and returned the favor she put me in touch with a group called Sister Assister which may have branches elsewhere. The leader of that group called me and we talked for two hours. We’ve had some of the same doctors, but all of us have had different jobs, and yet strangely, we have all received the same treatment. She was injured during a mortar attack when the mortar knocked the building down on top of her. The VA’s diagnosis? Arthritis. I was injured when my equipment was tampered with, then malfunctioned on the wrong side of an IED. Diagnosis? Arthritis. All of us have arthritis. All of us have been treated like crap. All of us have had the same problems. It was stunning to get that kind of confirmation that it wasn’t just me. They all spoke of being dismissed, being ignored, being given the wrong medication, treated cavalierly by the same doctors over and over again. What they’ve done, though, is form a network that seeks out assistance for female veterans and shares it with other veterans. They’ve put me in touch with a chiropractor and a pain management clinic. A friend finally jogged my memory enough times to that I called Social Security and found myself a real doctor. (When I was talking to his receptionist and detailing some of my experiences with the VA, she kept gasping and going, “Oh, that’s horrible! They shouldn’t have done that.Or that. That’s…..that is dangerous. That could have killed you!” She was horrified.

            That doctor is also a GP….so he can help me with the physical injuries.

            Thank you for thinking of me. I have to say….hope is kind of scary. I haven’t felt like this in years. Some of the women go horse back riding, or camping together. They also told me that I’m entitled to several benefits the VA did not inform me out—–for example, my VA ID card with “Service Connected” on it means I’m entitled to transportation assistance and can use public transportation—-if I get that much more better—for free. I didn’t know that. The VA loses nothing by telling me this, but they didn’t.

            There’s also the Yellow Ribbon, which might be local to Minnesota, but they’re trying to branch out.

            I’m so grateful you thought of me. I hope something I said is something you could pass onto another veteran as well.

    2. I really really REALLY hate being told to calm down. I don’t have any good reason for having problems, but sometimes I can’t handle things and I get upset.

      My friends tell me to calm down, which is infuriating, and I’ve finally been able to control myself enough to explain that being told to calm down doesn’t help. I feel more worthless and angry than before.

      Then they like to launch into an explanation of how calm down is supposed to be helpful and blah blah blah and they know better because their sister has bipolar and I’m not nearly as bad as her and oh, they though I was doing so well, I hadn’t done this in so long and don’t take this the wrong way but when I get upset they are very worried.

      And oh I’m making the wrong decisions but they won’t tell me what the right ones are and they ask me what I want and say they’ll do whatever but no that’s not ok.

      And I say that I feel so bad because I can only do 4 hours of work per day and that’s if I DON’T cook or clean or entertain or shop and then they go off on how that’s so wonderful that I’m trying to hard and their on the 16th hour of labwork and haven’t slept more than 2 hours a night in a week and oh this is so hard.

      1. Nothing is guaranteed to make someone’s shoulders go up around their ears like being told to calm down. Good call.

        1. And then the virtuous calmer downer person can feel justified and smug. I just had some dude say that to me, while dismissing the guy in the argument, Bill O’Reilly like, as being beyond help. But that basically amounts to giving the jerk off permission to be a jerk off and leaves people navigating around him, especially women. God, I hate that tactic SO much.

          1. If he is beyond help to act like a civilized person then he ought not to be allowed to speak in public and should live somewhere with no interaction with the outside world.

          1. Well in my case I think people say it as more of a defense mechanism. Once I’m red-faced, adrenaline-pumped, and filled with righteous anger people start looking at me the way people look at an escaped Bengal tiger. It’s more a “the wish is father to the thought” thing than condescension.

            Still doesn’t work, though.

          2. Guys always say that to me—and to other women, I’d bet—when we ARE perfectly calm. We’re just not backing down and quite probably have reached the point where the guy we’re fighting looks like the asshole he is. I’ve argued with guys who were using multiple exclamation points and other fanboy-like grammar and some dude has demanded that I calm down. Yeah, I was calm, asshole, now I’m pissed off at you. It’s one step above asking a woman if she’s on the rag.

      2. They’re not your friends if they tell you that. Sometimes BEING upset is the only reasonable response to unbearable things. If you weren’t upset you wouldn’t be human. Don’t let them screw with you.

  2. These are all excellent suggestions. A lot of them are corollaries to the fundamental principle that–no matter what someone else is telling you and no matter what you are feeling about hearing it–it is almost *never* about you.

  3. Thank you for this post, Captain. I’m really sorry to hear that things have been hard lately.

    Could I suggest a #6 – Don’t pretend to understand if you really don’t. There’s nothing that makes a sad person feel less unheard and unacknowledged than having the listener “empathise” by changing the subject to their own, unrelated experience. Eg “Your brother committed suicide? How awful. A girl two years below me at school (whose name I can’t remember) killed herself and we were all so upset!”. This really, really doesn’t help, and at its worst I think it is nothing more than the listener preferring to talk about their own life. Classic derail.

    Of course, it’s completely different when a friend shares a truly similar experience to let you know that you’re not alone, or that bad times pass. It’s a subtle line, but if I’m tempted to share a story about myself with a friend who’s telling me their problems I try to pause and ask myself whether I’m really doing it for them, or just making some asinine remark that popped into my head.

    1. Ah, so true. “That reminds me of….” is not a good direction to go in. I and everyone else do that all the time, and we mean so well, but it’s so unhelpful!

    2. “There’s nothing that makes a sad person feel less unheard and unacknowledged than having the listener “empathise” by changing the subject to their own, unrelated experience.”

      God, this is my pet peeve. A few of my close friends have narcissism issues (quiet, please :-D) and they do this ALL THE TIME. Once one of them tried to empathize with a woman whose husband just died by changing the subject to her husband who divorced her and how that was just the same because grief. I have never wanted to badly to crawl into a deep dark hole as that moment.

    3. Oh goodness yes! My mother in law was a dear woman, but no matter what the story she would always say “I know what you mean.” Sometimes, it was probably true; some sucky experiences are pretty universal, and you don’t have to have gone through exactly the same thing to understand. But there were other times when it was absurd. It made me feel less understood, not more so, because if she had really been listening she’d have known that what I was describing was *not* just “one of those things. Some horrors you can’t honestly empathize with if you haven’t been there. Like how absurd it would be for me to say to ginmar “I know what you mean.” Uh, no. Haven’t been through that and hope never to.

  4. When I dared to ague with MRAs, a noted feminist responded to my anger thusly:
    Ginmar:I know you’ve had problems with me. I don’t want to presume by assuming you remember our argument on pandagon from a couple of years ago, but in case you do, I continue to apologize for writing something unclearly enough for you to take the meaning you did from it. It was sincerely not my intended meaning.I’ve read your comments for a few years now and I read your livejournal for a while (and I thought you had some intense and important things to say). I respect you, your blogging, and your commenting.I apologize if this is not the right question to ask, but from my limited perspective, it seems like the most important thing to know–how would you like other blog readers and commenters to respond to you when you get really angry?Sometimes you don’t seem receptive when people try to disengage or to explain their positions. Sometimes people genuinely do seem to be trying to say one thing where you’re responding very angrily to another. It does sometimes seem to get personal. It’s hard for me, at least, to know how to respond to that. I’m not trying to discount your arguments; as I said, I think you have intense and important things to say, and I admire how fearlessly you continue to say them even when there’s heat in response. Personally, I have a kind of cat-scratch-then-cower response to conflict (No! Get away from me! Now I will hide behind the couch which is clearly very productive! ), and I admire people who can take heat in stride.Just sometimes, when the anger seems to get high, I think there’s a strangeness that happens in the communication.I have my own mental illness, and I know that it totally creates its own strangenesses in communication. I have really appreciated it when people take the time and effort to respect that while some of my emotional responses may differ from the template of what’s considered normal, that doesn’t mean there’s no way to incorporate them into mutually respectful relationships. It can just take a bit of willingness to adapt strategies for dealing with anger or sadness or whatever.Ableism models only certain kinds of interactions, and encourages people to disregard anything that’s outside the range deemed normal. And this sucks–primarily because of the stigma it attaches to people who aren’t in the deemed-normal range. But secondarily because people genuinely don’t have strategies for adapting to what’s outside their range of experience–especially because not-deemed-normal people may try to hide the ways they differ from the default template so that most people never understand how common, e.g., depression reactions are, leaving everyone feeling isolated and wrong.From that perspective, I’m wondering what you would like people to do when this happens, so we can be supportive and productive? How would you like people to approach you when you’re angry?
    Cuz, you know, I’m angry and nuts! Real female mental illness is frail and feminine and non-hairy-legged!

    1. Seems like they could have saved themselves a lot of typing by just cutting to the chase and saying, “Your life makes me uncomfortable and I demand you fix this for me!”

  5. I’m reminded of my first girlfriend, who had an extremely shitty childhood. Before I met her I thought I had a shitty childhood, which in some ways I did, but, y’know, perspective is a hell of a thing. Anyway, when she would tell me stories about some of the astoundingly unfair shit she’d been through – for example, the way she as a poor girl had been willfully shut out of educational opportunities that were supposed to be there for everybody, how she had gone to teachers and principals and school counselors whose job was to help their students find those opportunities and take advantage of them and was repeatedly told to go away and stop bothering them – at the end of such stories all I could really do was sit back and say, “Wow, that sucks.” Not in a dismissive way, obviously, but with a tone of, “I believe that events transpired as you describe them, and it is shitty.”

    I’m not trying to paint myself in a perfect light here – I’m certainly guilty of items 1 and 4 on the Cap’n’s list far more often than I’d like to admit – but I’m glad I at least had the presence of mind not to reply with something like, “Oh, you should have done X Y or Z!”

    People are supremely uncomfortable at the notion that life can be that shitty for some people, and their peace of mind and investment in the notion of some cosmic karmic scale, is more important for many people than the actual human beings whose lives disprove the karmic scale theory on a daily basis. But I suppose that being able to cling to your comforting delusions in the face of such people, by simply waving your hand and saying, “Eh, they’re probably in this situation because they did/failed to do X” is one of the benefits that privilege is designed to confer upon the privileged.

    1. I fall into these traps all the time. All the time. We all do, and it takes a conscious effort to remind myself “Hey, it’s not about me, SHUT UP, Jennifer, SHUT UP.”

      The obvious follow-up post is what to do when someone is derailing you, but I don’t quite know what to do.

      1. I used to have a friend who seemed really compelled to share when I was feeling down—Have a break up? She had a great new boyfriend! Got fired? She had a great new job! It’s like…have some tact, dude. It was absolutely fascinating.

        1. OMG, I have a friend like this RIGHT NOW! And when nothing fabulous is happening to her, she has to “one-up” me with sad stories. My cat just died? Well, TWO of her cats just died!

  6. Somebody who works with a lot of survivors of domestic violence once taught me a super helpful trick. If somebody is telling you something difficult, and you start to feel that itch to be THE MOST SUPPORTIVE and THE AWESOMEST FRIEND and help Help HELP them like you were born to do it — basically, when you start feeling the warning signs that a derailing takeover of ultra good intentions is coming, say nothing but variations of this (whichever is most appropriate):

    “It’s not your fault”


    “You didn’t deserve that.”

    I find saying one or the other of those fulfills my itch to be the super supporting-ist person alive without being overbearing and disruptive to the person talking, so I can get through what they’re saying to me without derailing with a lot of my own opinions. Good-intentioned opinions, no doubt! But opinions that nobody needs right now.

    1. It’s really threatening for people to hear this stuff. This is because once you hear you realize that the world is unfair and even if you’ve been lucky, even if you’ve been good, it could happen to you. It’s the just world hypothesis. If the world’s fair bad things only happen to bad people, so if something bad happens to you, then you must be bad.

      1. It carries over into so much political debate, and so much of it is based on the old Puritan fallacy that wealthy, healthy happy people are that way because they are more favored by god which makes them more deserving and shit.

        1. Well, obviously, if they only tried hard enough, they wouldn’t be poor! Christ, I hate that positive thinking shit. Also, good poor people should wear sackcloth and ashes. They should have sold all their shit, so that other people can point to them as a virtuous poor person. You cannot have nice things if you’re poor.

          If God doesn’t take care of you because you’re good, it kind of makes people wonder if there’s a God. So….Yeah.

          1. Argh. Did you know that lots of poor people aren’t really poor ’cause they have “luxuries” like a refrigerator and microwave? I know it’s true, ’cause various news people said so. Sometimes they don’t buy the most efficiently healthy low cost things, because they like thing that taste good or feel good or something. Ridiculous

          2. I still remember vividly two college students high handed telling me that I couldn’t be poor because I had a three-year-old computer and hadn’t sold all my stuff. That was their solution, something they never would have tolerated for themselves. And their poverty, undetaken temporarily for college, was much more superior than my poverty, because not only was I poor, I was angry and refusing to bow down to their superior wisdom. It’s quite a treat being lectured on privilege by the most privileged of all; people who see nothing wrong in appointing themselves judge and jury.

            I was living on two hundred dollars a month, and the help of my friends. I have no idea how I did it. I really don’t. But I was supposed to sell every possession to satisfy people who offered me nothing but their approval, which I’d never asked for. And my possessions make me happy. Sometimes I open this little treasure chest I have with bits and bobs—-tiny victorian perfume bottles and compacts, a little manicure kit, a little sewing kit designed for a chatelaine—and fondle them and marvel at their beauty and that they’re mine.They take me away for a few minutes. If I sold them, not only would I not get much money for them, but I’d have nothing to cheer myself up with. And I got those when I was doing well. The ‘you must sell all!” people never seem to think that. You MUST look poor. It’s stunning. WHY must people look poor?

          3. The “poor people must look poor” thing really struck home. I’ve been, overall, very fortunate, but my mother is a disabled former social worker… not exactly raking in the big bucks. Thanks mostly to a generous grandmother, life turned out much better than it could have, and part of what made things NOT suck is occasionally having a little splurge and owning things that were special to me. Yes, I have a nice computer. Know why? A crazy chain of unlikely events -> free computer worth a month of income for my mother. I LOVE my computer. It makes me SO happy, allows me to do important work and to play, to escape from the world or immerse myself in it. I was incredibly lucky to come by it, and it is one of my most prized possessions, it has a noticeable impact on my quality of life and excuse you if you think I should sell it to by a crappy one to make some money. I’ll take buying used clothing instead.

          4. Oh, God, I still remember two temporarily poor college students lecturing me on how I should sell my stuff and how the fact that I had a (three-year-old) computer made me not poor. I should sell all my stuff, despite the fact that it’s hard to get anything like what they’re worth and then….you have no bed! What do you do without a bed? (This, by the way, came from two supposedly liberal women years before ‘the poor have microwaves and TVS!’ argument from the far right. The belief that people are poor only because of their character flaws—-laziness, in other words—-makes other people feel virtuous. Remember that little douchebag who wrote a book a while back to ‘prove’ that in a year he’d have $5,000 in the bank, a house, and a truck, not to mention a job? He ignored the fact that he was white, able-bodied, educated enough to be that much of a douchebag, had had health care and dental care all his life, and also had Mommy and Daddy’s Platinum card in his back to prevent precisely the kind of emergency that throws so many people into these situations?

            And if you’re a woman, well, you’re supposed to be unobtrusively working in the background, being the Laundry Fairy, the Vacuuming Fairy, the Nurse Fairy, the Dusting Fairy, the Dishwasher Fairy, the Child-Care Fairy, and if you call attention to yourself you’re reminding some dude who can tolerate you only as long as you’re useful that you’re bringing to his attention the fact that you’re human and he’s expecting impossible things of you without the slightest bit of gratitude or recognition? You notice how all the stereotypes of the poor tend to be of women?

            With things as bad as they are for everyone these days, you’d think people would have compassion for the other folks in exactly the same circumstances.

    1. No, there are 2 Holly links and then it’s Melissa McEwan. I’ll do a better job crediting her so it’s not confusing, thanks for pointing it out!

  7. I am going to school now, but it’s like this post was meant for me. I am going to give it a long hard read and a think when I get home.

    1. I agree completely. I have to finish a paper, but I think I want to print this out and give it to every single family member I have.

  8. 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.

    This resonated with me more than I can really express. Thank you for posting this.

    My parents’ way of reacting to me when I am angry or upset is to try and make light of it; it’s also how they’ve won arguments with me and my sister since we were kids, which was probably a good strategy when I was, say, seven, but now just leaves me feeling not just angry but humiliated and like nobody’s listening to me. There is a place for humour in these sorts of discussions, but it’s something to be used carefully, and if it turns out that you’re wrong and the person involved says “it’s not funny”, believe them. More times than I can count I have said that to somebody, only to have them say “oh, but it is” and then end up feeling worse because I came to this person for comfort and now I want to punch them in the face and I feel like I’m not worth listening to, both at the same time.

    I understand how some problems can seem either so complex that it’s like you’re hearing the plot of a real-life soap opera or so small to you that it’s as if you can’t help but laugh, but – well – try to help it? Unless you know it’s okay, that sort of thing just isn’t cool.

    Nothing else to add. Except that I had a look at the film you linked to, and…uh. Creepy.

    1. Nothing like idiotic commands to “cheer up,” or “lighten up,” because “it can only get better from here, right!?” Or bland assurances that “I’m sure things will work out,” when they have no basis for that blithe confidence, they’re just giving themselves permission not to worry about you once the conversation because you are miraculously going to “land on your feet.”

      1. People only say ‘get over it’ when they want you to shut up for their sake. They’re sure not saying it for your sake. You can’t force it. What it does is, it silences people. That’s the whole point. They don’t care if your pain goes away, but it would be nice if they could shut you up so you don’t impinge on their happiness.

  9. All of this, YES. Have I done all of these things? Boy howdy, have I! Do I check myself before doing them now? I sure as fuck try.

    Cap knows, my mom is a Level 70 Helper, and I have both inherited the drive to Help! and also learned from being Help!ed to the nth degree how not to help. Who was it in an earlier post who called what my mom does “Halping”? Genius. But the urge to halp is still there all the time.

    So, like, presented with a friend who is sad, my genes tell me to HALP! YOU WILL FIX ALL THE THINGS WITH YOUR WORDS. My brain has to beat that little halper down, and just listen.

    Just listen.

    And “Do you want advice? Or do you just want to talk about it?” is golden.

    1. I don’t know if that was me, but Halping is what my spouse and I term non-helpful helping. And I am totally guilty of halping more than I can say! I mean, I want to FIX YOU WHY DON’T YOU WANT TO BE FIXED.

      1. Oh, man. You just channeled my mom for a second there.

        “How will you know I love you if I don’t halp!?”

    2. Oh, and I forgot to say that Halping is pronounced “Hall-ping.” Which sounds best if you realize you are offering unwanted advice and need something to say with a sheepish face and a laugh, “Oh, I’m sorry! I’m halping, aren’t I? Please go on. I promise not to try and fix everything again.”

  10. Not too long ago I was in an awkward experience that kind of related to this topic. A close friend had mentioned months ago “Hey, this really bad thing is going on and when we’re face to face, I’d like to talk about it.” Hey, that sucks that you’re going through this bad thing, I replied, but I can wait to talk about it, that’s cool.

    Then we had some time to hang out face to face and the topic didn’t come up. And I was like, no problem, I’ve read the books, I know it will come out when the friend is ready to talk about it. But it never did. And sure, I was curious, but I was happy to respect my friend’s decision not to bring it up. Boundaries, yo, I get ya.


    There was this one nagging little voice in the back of my head, which was that if our positions were reversed, I know that even if I wanted to talk about it, there’s no way in Hell I was going to be the person to bring it up. Fair or unfair, I would have felt like I’d let my friends know that the dialog choice was open when I’d talked online earlier, and I would leave it to their discretion whether they wanted to engage in that topic face to face or not. Was my friend doing the same thing? Was there any good way to find out?

    I don’t know if there’s any “good” way or not, but I ended up basically coming right out and saying, “Hey. Remember a few months ago you said this really bad thing is going on? And you wanted to talk about it? Do you? If not, that’s really, really fine, but I wanted you to know that I’m here to listen if you want to talk.” And we did end up talking about it, but that’s probably beside the point.

    Did I cross a line there? Should I have just let it go and left the onus on my friend to bring it up, forever, if ever? I’m pretty sure that’s what the textbooks would have said, so I still feel kind of bad about it. What do you think?

    1. Sounds like you handled it exactly right. The person told you what they needed and you picked up the ball, and it might have been weirder if you didn’t talk about it given what you knew. Most importantly, you gave them the option.

      What I meant in the post is don’t constantly bring it up and treat that thing like it’s the only thing that’s happening to your friend and they are now under the HELPFUL MICROSCOPE OF ACTIVE LISTENING.

      1. Oh dear, whoops. This wasn’t at all intended to be in response/critique of your post except that the topic was close enough to make me think of it. I completely agree (and fall prey to) all items described above.

        I try to speak. so. carefully. when talking with friends who are going through tough times because you’re absolutely right, it’s a minefield of good intentions.

        Thanks for the feedback!

    2. I think you did fine. A lot of people are afraid of being perceived as self-pitying whiners even though true friends *should* want to know what you’re really going through, so they’ll do what your friend did: put a little bit out there, but share the details only with those who actually encourage them to say more. As long as you keep it about what *they* want and need, and they know you’re asking ’cause you care (not out of schadenfreude), you’re good.

      1. “A lot of people are afraid of being perceived as self-pitying whiners even though true friends *should* want to know what you’re really going through”

        Yeah! This is exactly what would keep me from bringing it up again. (Well that and, contrary to what the dating books say, I really don’t enjoy talking about myself all that much.) No way of knowing if the friend was feeling the same way or not, but I couldn’t think of any other way to at least bring up the option of discussing further.

        Thank you for your thoughts.

        1. I think sometimes you have to gently ask more than once, or give them more than one opportunity to bring it up, especially if you sense/know there is a problem. It’s not like “Well, that was our once chance to talk about it, now the window is closed forever!” (where you make a Pontius Pilate-like handwashing motion for good measure).

          That could be “You seem off your game lately, is everything ok?” or “Last time we talked you brought up ____. Did you want to talk about it more?” As long as the decision and control about whether to talk about it rests with the other person, you’re not fucking it up.

          I was thinking more about what I’ve gone through, where you tell someone a sad thing and then every time you get together it’s the Brunch of Fixing You! and the Friend’s Wedding of Fixing You! and your problem is the background of every interaction, because Fixing You! It’s meant to be caring, but it comes across as second-guessing or treating you like you’re more fragile than you are, or maybe holding a problem over your head, like you screwed up that one thing so now you can’t really be trusted to have a good time or know whether you want to talk about it. It’s another way for the friend to try to feel good and like they are “halping” at your expense.

          You did exactly right, in my opinion, and I never claimed my theories on how to be were airtight.

          1. “I was thinking more about what I’ve gone through, where you tell someone a sad thing and then every time you get together it’s the Brunch of Fixing You! and the Friend’s Wedding of Fixing You!”

            Oh man. That sounds…exhausting to have to manage. “Dear friend, I politely decline to get together for lunch on Tuesday because I’m actually feeling pretty okay and I don’t want to have to talk about Old Bad Thing with you again. Thanks, though!”

          2. Oh dear lord do I have that friend. Any time there is the slightest mention of something that might be bothering me, she will not let it rest until she has pried the whole sad story (and she is certain that there is a whole sad story) out from between my reluctant lips. Whereupon she will set about fixing it for me, whether I wanted her to or not. Right down to buying me plane tickets for a trip I didn’t want to make, so she could take me to see a doctor I didn’t want to see, so that she could take care of me during brain surgery I didn’t want to have! (Thankfully the doctor-I-didn’t-want-to-see turned out to be awesome, and actually listened to me, and nixed the brain surgery thing.) I so wish I were kidding.

            The deep irony is that the whole reason she does this is because she adores me deeply, and wants to repay me for all I’ve done for her, which is mostly – wait for it – listening to her when she’s having problems, taking her and her opinions seriously, and not foisting solutions on her, when that’s all that her very pushy family ever wants to do.

            I love her dearly, but it is massively exhausting to deal with her in I-must-fix-you mode.

        2. Women get a double barrel of that because we’re supposed to take care of other people, not make demands on them.

          1. So true – so we even take care of other people’s feelings around our own pain. Exhausting.

          2. The resentment people feel toward women who actually require care instead of providing it is shocking, because of course, reversing roles brings with it…..thinking. Can’t have that, can we?

      2. “A lot of people are afraid of being perceived as self-pitying whiners”

        Oh crap, yes. And it sure doesn’t help that people (especially if they’re women) get labeled as attention seekers if they want to talk about Bad Thing X. Doubly so if they dont’ take the “brilliant” advice bombs people drop on them.

  11. Thanks for this post! I had the experience of having to tell my friends, who knew me as a competent, dependable person, that I have a mental illness now, and it was… surreal. The most common response was outright denial. Like:

    me: I’m mentally ill

    friend: what? No, you’re fine.

    me: no, I’m mentally ill

    friend: everyone gets a little depressed sometimes

    me: not like this

    friend: but you seem fine

    (5 minutes later)…

    me: OK, you must be right, I must be fine, because you seem so rock-solid in your knowledge that I am fine and after all I have to go on is my own lived experiences, so who am I to argue? (Paraphrased.)

    It took me about 3 months to convince my friends I really had a problem. That was an extremely lonely and crappy few months.

    1. And then your friend is like “Jeez, why so defensive? I’m just trying to understand here.”

      I’m super-sorry that happened to you. Depression is fucking insidious.

      1. And people get so suspicious if you don’t have Movie mental illness. You’re supposed to be Camille. People sure seem to like writing books and movies about women in glamorous, glorious, character-building pain that gives their men an excuse to look tormented and artistic or something without actually being ill themselves.

    2. Thanks for those responses! It ended on a more positive note, in that some of my friends made a big effort to learn how to listen, and I got better at telling people how I wanted them to listen to me, and started spending more time with the people who were supportive and less time with those who weren’t, and I now have a small group of really amazing supportive friends.

      1. \o/ Small groups of amazing supportive friends are just the best thing ever. Granted, this comes from a semi-introvert.

  12. These are all excellent tips, and I really like the framing of derailing for these situations, which I don’t think I’ve heard before but which is bang on.

    I have two sets of responses I use when people want to tell me about something bad happening to them. One set are for when people are massively overreacting to normal events and/or are frequent whiners about all manner of things. That set to some extent involves actively derailing the conversation (whether by pointing out a minor problem really *isn’t* that bad, or by just trying to avoid getting sucked into the conversation).

    The other set of responses are for the seriously bad stuff that happens, which I think is more in line with this post. I have found that a simple script covers virtually all of those interactions: (1) sincere commiseration (focused on them, not you); (2) check on/wishes for their well-being; and (3) offer to help (where possible, with specific suggestions). So, boss comes to my office to say she’ll be out for a week because her father just passed away: I’m so sorry + offer to handle specific projects during that time. Friend calls me in tears because she just left her live-in boyfriend: I’m so sorry + check on well-being + offer to stay at my place for a few days and to talk about things/drink gin if she wants to.

    I’ve applied that script to being told about the death of people’s loved ones, the loss of a job, bad health news, breakups, and myriad other situations. It has to be tweaked for different situations and different relationships — sometimes it’s clear the person isn’t okay, and they don’t want you asking about it. Sometimes you can’t do anything to help and shouldn’t make offers you have no ability to follow through on. But you never go wrong starting with a simple “I’m so sorry”, and most of the time I want to say something that isn’t on this list I realize that it’s unhelpful and/or derailing.

    1. The thing about “I’m sorry, that sucks, what do you think you’ll do?” is that it also works for people you don’t want to get more involved with.

      This time of year I’m working with stressed out college freshmen whose grandparents and hard drives are dropping like flies. Taking each story of woe very seriously and then asking “So what do you want to do now to make sure you get all your work in?” is the compassionate way to handle both real and fake emergencies and put the focus back on the work.

      1. The way you handle your students sounds awesome, but in general I don’t think it’s always necessary or compassionate to take each story of woe seriously. You’ve given a lot of helpful advice here for dealing with friends/family/acquaintances who have constant stories of woe and who do not react particularly well to the script (because even questions like “what do you think you’ll do?” prompts more freaking out and/or endless repetitive conversations and/or requests for advice that are ignored) or where you just can’t engage one more time with the same issue they keep raising. Some of that advice is probably “derailing” in a sense–in that you’re trying to avoid getting sucked into the latest round of problems when they try to tell you about them–but not necessarily bad for that reason. And sometimes it really is a kindness to try to derail a thought pattern that gets stuck on a loop — it’s obviously tricky knowing when and how to do that, but sometimes being a good friend/family member/general-listening-person is calling people on destructive thought patterns.

        Short version: I think we could all benefit from being more aware of how our responses can be harmfully derailing, and of more constructive ways to deal when someone tells us about something bad that happened to them, but sometimes derailing can be a good.

      2. “whose grandparents and hard drives are dropping like flies”

        I LOLed so hard I woke up the dog.

  13. The one thing that concerns me about how this post has evolved is that it is beginning to sound a little like “here is the one correct way to handle this situation and anyone who fails to respond this way is an insensitive, self-centered jerk” — despite the acknowledgments that even those of us who are trying really hard and thoughtfully fumble this one all the time.

    It is great to make a personal vow to do better when you’re on the listening side of the conversation, and this is good advice on what “better” might consist of.

    What doesn’t seem so great would be to hold people’s responses up to this standard, note every way in which they deviate from it, and write them off as jerks.

    Most people are just thinking “crap, that sounds horrible! — god, I have no idea what to say! — I can’t think of one thing I could do/say to make things better for this person! — I want my friends to be happy (and not just because they’re easier and more fun that way)!”

    That’s when they start asking follow-up questions, spouting suggestions, etc. Not necessarily because they think you’re an incompetent idiot or some of the other self-centered motives ascribed to them, but because they’re feeling hopelessly inadequate to the situation, and blathering dumb advice is the only thing they can think of to do.

    Yeah, that sucks from your side when what you really need is just to know that your friends know what’s really going on with you, so you don’t feel so alone. And yeah, it is kind of self-centered — but in a way we all tend to be. (Like how we look at a group photo and notice first of all how bad we looked that day). But jumping to the conclusion that your friends don’t sincerely care about you and are just trying to get you and your troubles to go away is only going to make you feel more lonely and isolated.

    For your own sake, when you’re the one who has sad-sharing to do, assume your friends are well-intentioned but inept unless you have some particular reason to think they’re worse than that. And while I know it’s problematic to be putting yet another burden on you communication-wise when you’re already under a lot of stress, it might be useful when you’re getting ready to share/expose yourself to be primed to say “Listen, I’m not really asking for advice right now. And I know you’re trying to show you ‘relate’ by telling me your own stories or stories about other people. If I think of anything concrete you can do for me, I promise I’ll tell you. But what I need from you right now is just for you to listen, because I need my friends to know what is really happening in my life, and not feel like I have to pretend everything is great when it really, really isn’t. I’ve tried that, and it’s really lonely.”

    1. These are all very good points, and I think the obvious follow-up is how to handle difficult conversations when you’re the one with the sad news. When I jumped in with questions and advice I was taken aback and wanting to be helpful, and what broke me of my jumping-in-with-advice habit is exactly what you describe – friends saying directly “Hey, I’m not looking for advice right now.” But going back in time, that panicked “what if I’m not helpful? I have to help!” was about me (needing to be helpful) and not my friends (needing me to STFU for a second).

      We don’t really do “There is only one correct way or else you’re a jerk” around here (though that whole “you are flustered so I can totally disregard you” thing is totally jerky, I’m not taking that one back), and I did say at least twice in my post that the derailing questions were all borne of totally human, natural, understandable reflexes by caring people who are trying to care (and that we probably all do them to each other sometimes), but I’d rather say “Here’s a framework I’ve noticed, what do you think” than qualify every statement with “Unless….” “Unless….” “Unless….” and try to speak to every possible exception and eventuality. If you read that and thought “Well, when I do that I don’t mean to be a jerk, I’m just feeling inadequate and like I want to help” then the post is working exactly as intended.

      1. I’m wondering about another possible follow-up post (or maybe it could just be covered by a comment, I’m not sure). Because I don’t want to fault this article (which is fabulous), I just have a related question:

        These things are bad because it’s not about you. But what about when the person makes it about you? What if they go out of their way to invalidate a problem you’re having, in order to make their own problem look that much worse?

        I can think of a few different scenarios. In one, say you told them about your similar problem that really is similar, but they don’t see it and proceed to invalidate it. Maybe you could make a good case to defend yourself, but maybe the answer in that situation is to let it slide, even though they just made you feel like crap. Because if they didn’t see the similarity, you may well have accidentally made them feel like crap, and they’re just lashing out in response. Though they may be horribly crushing in the process.

        But what if you didn’t bring it up first? What if, like I said in the original question, they seem to be going out of their way to invalidate your problem? That’s my second scenario.

        The third scenario is where you don’t bring it up first, but the problem they’re invalidating is one they’re completely unaware you have. A sub-set could be when you come across complaints online. They’re not even talking to you directly, but you happen to read something that grossly misunderstands and misrepresents a huge problem you’ve been struggling with for years. But they do it in passing, to shore up the case for their own problem. (Which may truly be worse, but do they really have to say your problem is so easy as to be nonexistent in order to prove that?) What do you do? Just ignore it? Write yet another blog post explaining reality, to get it off your chest, though you don’t send it to the person in question, or directly reply in any way?

        Maybe that last is a bad example, since someone will always be WRONG on the Internet. But sometimes those things can be very upsetting, even if you think they shouldn’t be.


        1. I’m not sure I have good prescriptions for all of these scenarios, but you asked, so here goes.

          For me, these fall under my own personal rules:

          1) Choose your battles.
          2) Set boundaries – You can’t teach other people how to be, but you can teach them how they get to behave around you. You can also set boundaries for yourself about how much/how often you want to expose yourself to or engage with people who push your buttons.
          3) It’s all about the specifics – what the issue is, who the person is, how I feel about them, what our history is like. There are no general things here.

          The first situation you describe, where they are telling you a problem that is similar to one of yours, but they are not acknowledging the similarity, sounds like a simple case of “Let it go” to me. Do you really want to have a conversation about how it really IS similar? Isn’t it enough that you can see that it is similar? You can’t force insight on other people, so just know inside your head, “Yeah, this is totally similar.” Maybe whatever helped you in that situation will help them. Save that knowledge for the “do you want advice?” part of the conversation.

          If they’re crossing the line, then say “Hey, that’s over the line. Let’s go back to talking about your situation and leave mine off the table.” If they can’t, cut the conversation short. “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that, what do you think you’ll do?” (listen). “Unfortunately I’m going to have to cut this short.” Bail.

          By way of example, I’m a fat person. So someone talking about their diet and body issues might unintentionally intersect with my stuff. I can listen to some of that – everyone is making their own deal with the devil in our diet-obsessed culture, but the second it crosses over into judgment of me or telling me how I should feel or be, I shut it down as cleanly as I can. “Wow, I hope you figure out something that works for you and makes you happy. That’s such a personal topic. Can we change the subject?”

          If this is happening a lot with the same people, that’s a sign that something is unbalanced in the friendship. As a blogger, I personally don’t deal well with people who say “But when you talked about your problems, you left out my problems which are just like your problems, only worse! You’re silencing me!” That’s a derail of a different kind, of the “Your post didn’t specifically help me, so it’s wrong and you are mean!” thing. Then I say “Um, what is your situation? Can we help?” Which is a derail of a derail of a derail? There is no perfect right way, so then I’m back to choosing my battles – how involved do I personally want to get in a given discussion? (Sometimes…not very).

          With internet commenters, I mostly don’t read the comments outside of a few places I know will be constructive and cool, and when I stumble across something horrible I mostly pass it by – it’s a sort of “That’s not really about me, that’s about their own pain/worldview/ignorance/addiction to being totally wrong, it’s not personal” spell that I try to cast around myself. If I tried to engage every jerkstore that said terrible things about fat people on the internet I would very quickly run out of energy. One question before I post is: Am I committed to really engaging in a discussion, or would I just be doing a drive-by of “Have you considered MY issues, jerks?” If it’s the second thing, I refrain most of the time, and choose when I engage based on how likely I am to be heard or when I feel a real obligation to stand up for myself or others. Some people might have a more activist bent and take every opportunity to educate people about how it is.

          That’s my own imperfect process. As always, choose your own adventure.

          1. Seems like a good answer(s) to me, thank you. I especially like your personal rules. This is the first post I’ve read here because I followed a link to this one from facebook, so I apologize if I’ve made you repeat yourself.

            My comment was an attempt to put my finger on something that was bugging me, so I’m not sure I’ve identified all the applicable specific situations even to myself. Still, one that I was thinking of definitely falls under the “set boundaries” rule, and someone crossing the line, as you talked about with the first situation. In fact, I think if I set healthy boundaries in those situations, I’d probably be less sensitive to random ignorant people online. I like your phrasing about the spell you try to cast around yourself, because most of me knows little is to be gained by engaging those people — I suppose what I was really asking there was probably, “How do I deal with my emotions about it?” Which I kind of knew, but sort of forgot I knew in the midst of remembering lots of invalidating scenarios all at once.

            I guess the primary set of situations I’m thinking of involves my job. A friend had it before me, got burned out, quit, and then I was hired. She realized too late that she needed much firmer boundaries, but never could figure out how to build them so late in the game. We’ve discussed the job quite a lot, and I know I need boundaries. Some of the circumstances are easier for me — the people here weren’t my friends before I took the job like they were for her, so there are some automatic boundaries. But the situation is still far from ideal, some of the people here have no concept of what I do and how hard my job is, so I’m sensitive even to the stories she’s told me, things that haven’t happened to me directly. I guess it’s really easy to imagine they DID happen to me, because some of them could be a hairsbreadth away.

            Sorry, that’s still vague, but just in case someone from my work comes across this post somehow, I don’t want to be too specific. Don’t want to speak for my friend, either — I might direct her to this post, I think she’d like it! I guess I probably don’t need to be more specific, I think you answered my question quite well. Thank you.

          2. You’re welcome. It’s obviously not going to be perfect – boundaries aren’t magic “Your feelings will never be hurt and your point of view will never be passed over or belittled” shields, or “your rights will never be voted away by old rich white dudes” kryptonite, and I myself carry a heavy amount of educated, white, cis, able-bodied, straight privilege, but it helps me to take a step back and remind myself that I can choose (some of the time) how I want to engage.

      2. What I meant by “how the post has evolved” meant not the original post, but the direction some of the comments drifted in. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

        I’m not denying the existence of genuine jerks, either! Just sayin’ to give the benefit of the doubt where possible, for your own sake.

        Sometimes I think people (subconsciously) believe that the only way to validate their experience of a dynamic is to get other people to agree they have a right to be angry at the person on the other side. But blaming and fault-finding more often take you further from where you want to be, which is ultimately in harmony with your friends. Lots of bad stuff happens not because anyone is being rotten, but because we’re all bumbling along, dragging our own issues with us from place to place.

        Which I know you know.

    2. “and blathering dumb advice is the only thing they can think of to do.”

      That’s understandable, but what I’ve gathered from the post (and is echoed by my own experiences as well, on both sides of the divide) is that not only is this usually not helpful, it can oftentimes actually be hurtful. This post is just asking all of us to take a step back when a friend comes to us with their sad/bad/tragic event and really think about what will make that person, not you, feel better.

      Personally, I’m really bad at the “you don’t HAVE to empathize” advice and sometimes it’s all I can do to bite my tongue and not turn it into how I reacted to this other situation that’s not really at all like what my friend is talking to me about. When I slip up, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a jerk, but in that situation, I am being a bit jerky & insensitive, and need to apologize and work on not doing it again.

  14. Is there a way to stop other people from doing this? Like, when someone is telling you and another person about something sad and the other person starts with the victim blaming or derailing.

    1. That’s the logical follow-up to this, isn’t it? I have some ideas when it’s other people, but few ideas when it’s me, so that post will likely come in the form of a question and depend heavily on awesome commenters.

      1. I think the easiest one on that list to deal with is people giving advice. Advice Givers are annoying, because a lot of the time their advice is obvious stuff like “have you tried not being sad?”, but most people will respect a “I’m not really looking for a solution, I just wanted to vent/let you know”.

        My parents seems to be incurable Advice Givers, though. My sister and I have asked them repeatedly to stop, both during such situations and outside of them, but they don’t. At some point I think the best thing to do is just to stop telling them things unless you really have to.

    2. I’ve tried to mitigate this by turning back to the sad friend and asking them questions to get them talking again and off the other person’s derail. Think, “And what did you do then?” or “How have you been handling it so far” and not “Well, have you tried X?”

      Never tried this one, but it might work on some people to say something along the lines of “Why don’t we let [friend] finish their story first before we butt in.”

  15. Another facet of the the “I had a vaguely similar experience” unhelpful comment is the “My problem is worse!” unhelpful comment. Or the “don’t worry; it’ll only get worse!” comment. I have never understood why people think they are being helpful when I complain about some health problem and they respond with “Oh, just wait until you’re my age!”. Yes, I’m sure I’ll have *even more* chronic health problems when I’m 60. But meanwhile young people are perfectly capable of having serious health problems even before our various organs hit their warranty limits. It doesn’t fill me with joy to know that there’s a fair chance that my kinda-cruddy current level of health is quite possibly as good as it’s ever going to be.

  16. GUILTY AS CHARGED. I am so sorry to everyone I have done this to! Thank you so much for this post, and thank you for giving us clumsy, derailing invalidators credit for meaning well – I do mean well. (Yes I made it about me but I am working toward self-awareness on this issue and I will endeavor to be a better friend henceforth.)

    1. I am totally guilty of it too! And then on the receiving end, saying “Hey, wait a second…OOOOHHHHHHHH, that’s why I feel so crappy.” People can be totally well-intentioned (or flustered or at a loss for what to say), which is why the post focuses on behaviors and their effects rather than intentions. “Assuming everyone means well and likes each other, how can we make these conversations less exhausting?”

      1. All I can say is despite being possibly the worst derailer since some famous earthquake, my friends still somehow love me. So at least they Do know my INTENT is good, even when I unintentionally shit all over their sharing. But wow, I need to somehow re-read this post every month or two (as I am doing now)!

  17. Ugh – as someone who has been battling depression for a while now, I second all of the frustration. I kind of understand my grandmother telling me to “think positive thoughts,” because, hey, she is not really of a generation that gets the whole depression thing unless it’s capitalized and there’s a “Great” in front of it, but I’ve also had people tell my very earnestly that a good night’s sleep will fix it.

    No. There is something wrong with the way my brain works. When I tell you that, believe me.

    1. Most people who’ve had a mental illness can probably relate to that. I think it’s because people in general can relate to having feelings (as opposed to, say, having symptoms of cancer) and think that what works for dealing with healthy feelings will also work for the feelings that are symptoms of a mental illness. Which tends to become really condescending for someone who isn’t just having a bad day but an actual disease.

      I’m sorry that you have to deal with that on top of your actual problem.

      1. And because it can be a gray area for some people, and so they assume it is for you, too. For example, though I don’t think I have clinical depression, I struggled with depression for most of the first half of this year because my mom was diagnosed with dementia, I’d just started a stressful new job, and then I also went off the birth control pills I’d been on for six years, and my hormones went crazy. (Though at the time the causes didn’t seem nearly as straightforward as that, I slowly identified them one by one, going, “Oh, wait, this is a big deal, isn’t it?”) Anyway, during that time I was way less resilient than normal. Poor diet and lack of sleep could make a huge difference, some days. Of course, there were also days it didn’t matter one bit, I could get as much sleep as I wanted and still feel despair. Not to mention that many of the “helpful” things feel like they require waaaaay too much effort and energy once you’re already depressed.

        All that to say, for some kind of weird mix of healthy and unhealthy feelings (or healthy reactions to unhealthy situations?), those things occasionally work. Every once in a blue moon. So people who think they have some experience of the unhealthy side of things still think they know the answer, though in reality they haven’t a clue.

        I’m sorry, too. Depression sucks.

        1. You know, sometimes being depressed is just a sign that you are a normal person subjected to horrible circumstances. Maybe it’s just normal. Not healthy, but….expected. Maybe if we thought about it that way it would be more understandable. But then we couldn’t blame people for being ill.

          1. That’s a good point. Maybe it’s a bit like a physical injury – if you get one, it’ll hurt, and if you keep getting injured in the same place it won’t stop hurting.

          2. People don’t pass moral judgements on broken legs, for example. They just happen. They’re accidents. Nobody sets out to be mentally ill.

          3. There’s a very important distinction between being depressed, which is a reaction to circumstances, and having depression (or more accurately experiencing a depressive episode) which is a result of a chemical imbalance. It’s complicated because one can segue smoothly into the other with no external change in behaviour, and the former can even trigger the latter.

            I’ve been depressed, but I’ve never experienced depression. Several people I am/have been close to have, though, and learning that difference as a huge eye-opener for me.

          4. Yeah, that makes sense. I have no clue which kind I have, or if it’s possible to have both at once. And then there’s illnesses like Schizophrenia, which comes—from what I understand—-from chemical imbalances in the brain. I’m really out of my depth, so that’s it for me.

        2. Marcy, hugs to you. I fully recognize the irony of doing this on this particular post… but my mom had dementia too, and it’s a hard road. Best of luck to you, and please be forgiving of yourself as you go through it.

  18. There’s a lot of deep, heavy stuff going on in this thread, so I just want to say to everyone: Your stuff is important! I am listening to you and you are being heard.

    But also, puppies in a box:

    Or frolicking kittens, if that’s your thing:

  19. Thank you for this post. I’ve shared it on my facebook wall. I’ve written about point number 3 before on my own blog, in the context of well-intentioned people whom I’ve told that I’m in pain that day (chronic auto-immune disorders ftw! not really). Several people got angry with me for telling them to stop offering unsolicited advice when “they only want to help you!” I called bullshit, they cried or argued with me. I did try to explain that the very passiveness of “did you try?” was pissing me off because it was about their egos, not my health, and I didn’t have the energy to spare to sooth their feelings. I don’t think it really got through to anyone who didn’t already know how I felt from their own experiences dealing with derailment, unfortunately.

    All that said, I’m a house manager in my campus housing, and I’m going to start paying more attention to how I approach issues residents bring to me to try to fix. I’m supposed to be the front-line person for monitoring, among other things, the mental health of my residents. I should make sure I’m not derailing anything they’ve brought to me. I think I’ve handled things well so far, but there’s always room for improvement.

    1. Well yes, much of the time they do want to help. That does not make it helpful or non-annoying. All the more reason to tell people more useful things to do.

      1. Yes, exactly. I did make some suggestions for helpful reactions, as well as asking people to please stop telling me what to do. Suggestions such as, asking what zie can do to help, whether I need company or food, etc.

  20. Wow.

    I recognize almost all of these coming from my own mouth lately — someone I know only through work will occasionally try to dump her personal life on me (and it is quite messed up). I am very sorry she’s going through it, but we aren’t friends and I don’t want to help her with her personal life. I find her hard to work with, and her personal issues are systemic and affect her work constantly.

    But I am going to work on setting better boundaries rather than just derailing her to get her to leave me alone. Just because I prefer to keep my personal life and professional life almost completely separate doesn’t mean everyone does.

  21. This was an excellent article! I’d like to add one to your list though, and I have encountered it a lot and it might be my most hated derailment phrase:

    “I’m sure you’ll be ok.”

    Or some version thereof….way to go relieve yourselves of even bothering to listen, let alone care!

  22. “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.”

    As someone who’s been on the receiving end of this fourth step, I gotta say a big Hell No.
    If feels like you’re being put on the spot, especially since if you already have a solid plan to handle a problem you’re not likely to be venting.

    1. I can see how that’s troubling. I don’t mean “Recite to me your plan, that I might poke holes in it” pop quiz the person, I mean once you’ve fully listened instead of jumping in with advice, err on the side of “I’m respecting you as a person who can solve their own shit most of the time.”

  23. As someone with a chronic fear of failure, whenever someone says “but I thought things were going so well!” it just screams “you had it, then you BLEW IT! Failuuuure!”

    So yeah. 🙂

    I have been guilty of these, though. I’ll be more mindful in the future.

    1. Oh yeah. The brain needs to catch up but the mouth is already going. 🙂 I’ve sooooo been that guy.

  24. Ginmar,

    Here are some thoughts.

    I’ve been depressed and had depression, both.

    When you’re depressed it’s hard to see how anything can be good again and it all seems like it’s just too stacked against you for you to ever win. Everyone gets depressed.

    With depression, you’re really incapable of functioning n any way whatsoever. What you experience in depression is a mix of reality and non-reality which you take as all reality. It’s almost like a dream, a nightmare, state.

    I came to the point where I wanted to die for the un-lofty reason that being alive was just too painful. I can’t describe it any better than that. That’s depression.

    Everyone around me was.. as you say..ultimately all about themselves and just wanting to distance themselves through any and all devices. I never drank or did drugs and this wasn’t about anything other than life experiences. Bad life experiences.

    After the fact, after I recovered, I came to think of my state of mind at that time as my brain working through the very bad things that – over a very extended period of time- had happened in my life. My brain was operating in a way that was not normal because my experiences had been so not-normal.

    The thing is- no one ever asked me if I had a reason to BE depressed. It was like, “oh, you have a disease called major depression, here’s a pill, I hope you get better”. They didn’t want to entertain the idea that there was a causal link between my life experiences and my depression. The root cause for them, for their comfort, had to be medical, not existential.

    About the claim that depression is a chemical imbalance- sure, maybe there’s an underlying extreme chemical state that correlates to extreme states of consciousness and being, but how else could it be? And how does “having a chemical imbalance” somehow supercede the *meaning* of what was bothering me as the root cause of my pain?

    Do we say “you’re hopeful you’ll get the position? It’s just a chemical state. It will pass”. No , it’s about the position you’re hoping to get and what it means to you and your family and your future etc etc.

    People are meat machines, yes it’s true, but even *more* truthfully people are meaning machines. We live every bit of our lives , both sleeping and awake, in a sea of things that all MEAN something to us.

    Our lives, that is, the long trail of our experiences as they intersect with our idea of ourselves and the world MEAN something to us. We live our lives and fight our battles at the level of meaning.

    When our life experience is very very bad, we have to think A LOT and sometimes a LOT differently to process it. To eat it. The standard way of thinking and working through things may not be sufficient to the task we’ve been given by life. Is that surprising? Really, should it be?

    One thing people overlook is bad things happen over and over to the same people for no reason, no fault of their own; no character flaw.

    If I got 10,000 monkeys to roll dice for a week, the record of some of those monkey’s dice rolls would consist of repeated rolls of almost all low numbers only. Why? We know why. Chance. That is, absolutely no reason whatsoever. This is a fact. This is also a fact about human experience. Some people have all the luck, and for no reason. Some people, it’s just the opposite.

    I’m not dispensing advice, but I never took the pills they gave me. I suffered and remembered and processed and thought and very slowly I thought / felt / intuited / lived my way back to myself. It wasn’t dramatic, it wasn’t heroic. It was like long, long crawl.

    I can say this- that will never happen to me again, no matter what. That’s not said with bravado, with some Nietzschean air of what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger; it’s more like … I got inoculated. Or I solved a puzzle. Or I realized something. I know something now, I can’t say what, or rather, I’ve never seen a reason to try to put it in words. I’m different than I was.

    While I was groping my way back, an image from a story I read a few years earlier kept coming to me; the idea of “finding the purple field” from Thom Jones’ short story “The Pugilist At Rest.”

    The purple field as I understood it is a place you get to that bestows on you seemingly superhuman noetic power, sufficient to give you mastery of a totally hopeless situation.

    The protagonist, a combat soldier in Vietnam, talks about finding the purple field. The idea is to get to a place of invulnerability or undefeatability that makes the outcome of the struggle certain, even though any kind of certainty is objectively impossible.

    It’s the mystical power you have available inside yourself when your tank is dry, when you don’t have squat for power or control in the world, when you’re just a thing, an object of no concern in some larger system.

    Here’s a true fact- what you did in Iraq changed the world forever and gave hundreds of millions of people the chance to live authentic lives not just crushed by the rawest forms of despotism. Absolutely nothing, nothing at all except what you did, caused that. That now appears, written in stone in your own personal achievement column where it will live forever, no question.

    Anywhere I go, online, in real life, wherever, I’m always the most liberal person there. Single payer loving, Prius driving, socialist ideal spouting, egalitarian to the core, core, core. But you have to be some kind of asshole to not admit that the fall of Saddam, the sight of him being tried and then hung for his crimes, the sight of Iraqis lined up to vote- totally irrespective of how their politicians act – those events set the course of the entire Middle East on a path none of us thought we would ever see in our lifetimes.

    It’s just a historical fact, and not someone’s opinion or hypothesizing, that the Tunisian revolutionaries were inspired with the hope, the vision, that things could be other than how they had always been by watching the liberation of the Iraqi people.

    The rest is history in the writing. Without you and people like you, today’s headlines would not be what they are.

    Every week, I read about another seemingly thousand year dictator losing power or negotiating his immunity with that country’s revolutionaries. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Summer then the Arab Fall and now the Arab Winter with no end in sight. That’s all and only because real flesh and blood humans like you did what you did and and suffered the things you suffered. Was the price too high? It’s *always* too high. But that’s the human experience. That’s what history IS and that’s what history has always been.

    The thing with all the people who came before us at all times in history and who suffered unspeakable lives and no one cared in the least, the thing with them is, they suffered like that and kept went on.

    We go on. We’re a species that goes on. We keep going because every one of us believes, in fact knows and knows without having to be told, that it’s for a reason, that there’s a meaning to what we do and suffer and that we’re going somewhere, creating something, something better. People are meaning machines.

    Not everyone has to live their lives trying to make the world a better place, O.K. that’s true, but for some people, actually they do have to. It’s mandatory. It’s an unshirkable companion with a voice never sleeps. They know who they are.

    Americans in the early 21st century are a certain kind of people, and all people are worthy. But people in other nations, from other backgrounds know both the weight and value of life in a way most Americans just don’t. You can see it in their faces, in the way they bear themselves, in the choices they make, but especially, in their expressions, in their eyes. I think those are your people now. You’re a true citizen of the world.

    You need to find your purple field. You need to find the knowledge that passes all understanding. That’s the way forward from where you are now.

  25. As a white, able male with no dependents or responsibilities in his early 20’s making 70K+ a year, this post comes off as ridiculous. Take it from me: problems are best dealt with alone, with a head full of steam and a little bit of grit and determination. Silly “others”.

    1. You may be rich, white, and male but that doesn’t mean you don’t have problems. Please get your Extreme Asshole Disease looked at by a specialist, I’m worried about you! It may already be too late!

      1. I think we’re seeing Poe’s law in action. While I am all of those things I’m not actually touting them as superior. I really enjoyed this post and think all “well-meaning” people could do with reading it — twice.

    2. How ironic that you should share that you are white, able, male, young and rich and then claim how certain you are that no one should need any help from anyone…on a post about derailing. Well done, sir! I’m so impressed I even fed you a tidbit. I’ll go back to ignoring you now.

        1. Well, fair enough, everything is relative. But 70K at twenty-something with no dependents to worry about? Yeah, you’re doing alright. Hey, good on ya.

          And yeah, I should have picked up on the irony just by the fact that you had ‘able’ in your vocabulary.

    3. I’m (hopefully) detecting a strong sarcasm with this one, so I’m going to say, YEAH! Getting help for your problems from other people is for losers! And we are proud members of the Loser Brigade around here!

      I know I left my 20lb bag of grit and 60gal barrel of steam around here somewhere…

    4. I detected the sarcasm right away, but sadly this viewpoint is prevalent, especially in the US. Worse, it’s touted as virtuous to think this way. USians are duped into thinking they have such control over every facet of their lives. 😦

  26. It took me YEARS AND YEARS AND PAINFUL YEARS of thinking I was “being a good listener and helping my friends” to figure out on my own what you just wrote out.

    I hope plenty of folks read this article and get a head start on this. It helps all your relationships (friends, family, romantic) so much.

  27. It’s easier to avoid derailing — or at least stop after you realize you’re doing it — for in-person conversations. If you’re face to face with your friend, or on the phone, you can say “Uh huh,” and “That really sucks,” and “Uh huh,” and just listen.

    Where I run into trouble is e-mail. If a friend sends me pages of text about how something triggered a PTSD reaction to extreme abuse in the past, they’re going to feel a little let down if I reply with nothing but, “Wow, that sucks. I’m really sorry that happened to you.” When I actually have to say something of substance, the “It is my responsibility to fix you now!” instinct kicks in, and I don’t always fight it off successfully.

    If anybody knows of good e-mail responses when phoning the person immediately isn’t an option, I am seeking advice, not just venting. 🙂

    1. Oh god, I hear you. I have got a good deal of practice at this, as it happens, and I always feel exactly as you do at first!

      When I get emails like that, I tend to go with “Wow, that sounds really awful; I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through/went through that.” You can pad it out and prove you’ve read the email by referencing specific things they mention, like “Oh, that happening just as you were about to begin that new project must have only made the situation more stressful, you poor thing!” or “I wouldn’t worry about what the people who saw you crying on the train thought; you won’t have to see them again.”

      And then I ask things like “Is there anything I can do, other than be here for you to vent to?” “Are there any specific things I can do or say that would make life easier for you when you’re having an especially bad day?”

      I might, depending on the person and the content of the email, also ask if they were seeing a therapist or someone, though I might word it a bit carefully, like “Do you think it would help you to talk to a professional who could help you deal with the situation? You know I’m there to listen when you need to talk, but they might be able to help beyond that.”

      My responses are usually way shorter than the original email, but those are the tactics I’ve come up with to make them a bit more than “Onoes that sucks” which is still pretty much the core of what I’m saying.

  28. I am so glad you posted this. A young friend just told me that a mutual friend my age (40s) had been molesting her since just before puberty and thanks to this thread I did not say “Why didn’t you tell me” I said. In case it isn’t obvious, of course I believe you and of course he is no longer my friend. I will do anything I can to help you with your legal case and whatever emotional support I can give I am here for you

    I hope this was a good response.

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