Dear Captain Awkward
I am currently going through the tail end of a massive crisis involving my Dad having an affair, leaving our state and moving across country, effectively running off and abandoning us for his now girlfriend. This has left my family and I stuck up financial poop creek without a paddle. As you can imagine there is much aftermath to be dealing with, and I am admittedly not coping well.
Before this happened I always tried to be there as much as I could with my friends, helping them and listening to their problems, offering advice and alcohol where appropriate and they have always expressed their gratitude in my doing so. However now I feel I cannot always bring my best self when helping friends.
A few of my friends are going through crisis themselves at the moment and they are turning to me for this continued advice and support. Before I would be more than happy to help, but I don’t know what to say, it is really hard to muster sincerity about looking for the opportunity in something when you feel your life as you know it is crashing around your ears.
They are aware of things that I am going through, but I cannot let them know how badly it has affected me as they have all expressed disdain at the notion of depression and they have said I am strong, however it is only because I have been able to hide my pain from other people so well.
I don’t know if this is crappy friend behavior, I want to support them like I used to – like they need me to now – but I don’t know how to say I’m not sure I can help you at the moment without it being like I have abandoned them.
Exhausted and Disappointing Friend
Oh, Exhausted, look what you made me do. You made me write two answers in one day.
When I was a child, I learned the prayer of St. Francis in the form of a (bad) song, and part of it went like this:
“grant that I may never seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love with all my soul”
And I’d like to say that not only is that an impossible standard, it is a bad wrong incorrect standard that harms people and makes them write sentences like yours, here:
“They are aware of things that I am going through, but I cannot let them know how badly it has affected me as they have all expressed disdain at the notion of depression and they have said I am strong, however it is only because I have been able to hide my pain from other people so well.”
I don’t think it’s a virtue or an accomplishment to hide or deny your pain so that you can take care of others. We tell people they are “strong” when we are uncomfortable with their pain and would prefer that they shut up and not bother us with it. To say “but you are strong” is telling someone “I don’t think you should feel that way,” and it’s not a compliment. I don’t think that strength means being invulnerable, or pretending that you are. The belief that silence and stoicism are inherently good qualities is how you end up dressed up like a bat punching criminals in an alley – it’s not a good road to emotional health.
I think your father has handed you a really raw deal and has caused you and your family grief and pain and distress, and all of that stuff is real. You don’t owe it to your friends to be the “strong” one. Just because you have always been the good listener and the shoulder to cry on, doesn’t mean you have to maintain that role now when you need a good listener and a shoulder to cry on.
Be sad. Be angry. Let your heart break – in the diner, on someone’s futon, in the park, on the way to the zoo, at brunch, over drinks, in the therapist’s office, on the bus – Wherever it breaks, let it break all the way open, let it run out and down and spread out in a soggy puddle at your feet. Say, “I’m sorry, I can’t listen to you today, my heart is broken. Will you sit with me a while and I’ll tell you about it?”
Say, “I can’t take care of you today, but you can take care of me, and maybe tomorrow I will take care of you, and we can trade off like that for a while, okay?”
Say, “I love you, and I love that you think I’m strong, but I don’t feel like being strong today. I feel like being angry and crazy and sad. Can we go to the movies or just sit here quietly or take a walk or talk about it or not talk about it?”
Your friends may get scared when you do this. If you, the “strong” one can break, what does that say about them? That’s why they push back at you and try to remind you of your strength, when what you need is for them to stand by you in your pain and weakness. They don’t have to solve that pain, they just have to bear witness to it. Maybe they don’t know how – a lot of people don’t know what to do in the face of other people’s pain. They want to fix everything, and if they can’t fix it they feel inadequate. As the “strong” one you can help them out with this by saying “You don’t have to fix it. You don’t have to do anything. Just be with me, and listen, and love me, and I’ll love you back. That’s all I need – to know that you love me, even when I’m sad and scared and don’t know what to do next.”
To ask for help is strength.
To admit you don’t know is strength.
To tell the truth about what’s happening is strength.
To be imperfect and to trust that imperfect people will love you despite those imperfections (albeit imperfectly) is strength.
To let the people you love see how you really feel – without trying to hide or stage manage their perception of you – is strength.
Here’s a better song about being blown wide open by pain and then telling people about it. I hope things get better real soon, and that you can help your friends take care of you the way you deserve. St. Francis and Batman, you can shut the heck up and stay out of this one.