LA Times: “How not to say the wrong thing.”

Movie is in the can (and about to be on its way to the lab in LA for processing)! So I will be back to being a blogger soon.

In the meantime, a friend (and friend of the blog) posted this piece by Susanna Silk and Barry Goldman on Facebook today, and despite some ableist wording in the opening line I think it’s a very, very helpful way to think about how to treat people who have undergone trauma or who are in crisis. What do you think?




153 thoughts on “LA Times: “How not to say the wrong thing.”

  1. Hmm. I like the idea for a crisis situation… but I think it might have problems long-term. Over a long-term relationship it’s important to have two-way complaining, otherwise things get weird and imbalanced and resentment creeps in.

    Maybe the “kvetching order” could be the “kvetching about the Crisis Thing” order? So you could still talk about your bad day at work to someone on an inner ring, but you couldn’t talk about how exhausting hospital visits were?

    1. I think of it as spreading the shit around, and so you have to make sure not to pile shit on the same shit. You don’t pile your shit about their illness on their shit about their illness if you can help it (although if you’re partners some of that will probably happen anyway).

      Your work shit is a different shit from your partner’s health shit, so spreading it is okay. But people also have a finite capacity for handling shit, and if your partner is overwhelmed with shit, then changing the variety isn’t going to help.

      Choose your moment, and also hopefully your partner’s got more than just you to kvetch to, because if you’re their only outlet that’s gonna get old fast.

    2. I read the “Kvetching Order” as intended for the immediate time of the crisis, not until the end of time. As the crisis either resolves or everyone starts to get comfortable with whatever “new normal” that the crisis caused, kvetching becomes a two-way street again. Your mileage may vary, of course, but in most cases it’s not really okay to complain about your work stress to someone in the hospital undergoing urgent medical care or a person in the midst of bereavement.

      1. Right, and as a short-term crisis response I think it sounds great. When there’s someone dead or in the hospital or what have you, everything else can take a back seat.

      2. I dunno, I think it depends largely on the crisis-haver. Sometimes it can be sort of oddly comforting to hear/think about some normal bullshit instead of your own overwhelming bullshit for a bit. The first moment of something like comfort I experienced after my brother died was when I got frustrated with my other brother’s laptop, which I was borrowing at the time. It was a normal frustration and a welcome distraction. YMMV, of course.

        1. This is so me. It’s nice to hear that others react similarly at times. 🙂

        2. I think occasionally when you’re in a situation where you keep feeling very bad and needing a lot of help and support, especially when it’s over a longer period of time, it can be a comfort and a good feeling to get to be ‘the strong one’ a little bit for a change.

          There needs to be good enough communication and negotiation in a relationship to know if and when and how this is the case and when it’s just added stress, of course, but I think sometimes there are moments when it can be a good thing.

    3. I wondered about that as well. I have a partner with a chronic illness, and while I wouldn’t complain to her about her illness, it gets rough feeling like I can never complain to her about anything in my life ever, because her pain is so much worse than anything I have going on. And, you know, it is…but sometimes I still want sympathy for my bad day.

      1. I think that, long-term, dealing with a chronic illness in a relationship context absolutely, one hundred percent requires that the “well” partner be able to complain about the things that suck in her life, too. This isn’t an Olympics of suffering. Your partner’s suffering and pain might be worse than yours, but that doesn’t invalidate your pain or make it unimportant.

  2. Hey! That’s me! (I think.) I was irritated all day yesterday when I got *yet another* “Tell me all about your stay at the hospital and what it’s been like for the last three years” FB message by a tangential friend who could have easily have flipped through FB/LJ and read for himself how I’ve been doing. There are plenty of unlocked posts and my FB is wide-open.

    Plus, this didn’t happen too much with me, hmmm…okay, yeah it did especially when I looked a little rough around the edges, but people to tell you how terrible they have it when you, in fact, are trying not to die. It’s both comical and enraging all at the same time.

    It’s a good article, yep!

  3. I think what Baytree says is true. I like the idea of the circle, and it’s definately worth keeping in mind for true crisis situations like sudden illness/trauma/bereavement, but can’t work so well in a long term relationship.
    For relationships that began long before trauma-onset I think there needs to be a bit of give and take in terms of allowing moans/freak-outs, particularly if the trauma continues on some level into the long-term.

    However, in the example given with the brain anurysm, the friend behaved insensitively and should absolutely have saved up her shock and dismay for a “larger circle person”. However, in the case of visiting a dear friend in hospital, having been the visiting friend myself, nothing really prepares you for the shock of seeing someone you love in a hospital bed. And in that situation, anyone could act inappropriately in their shock and I don’t think any of us have the right to pull the “what a moron!” card. We’d probably be the same.

    And when does the time come that the 2 sides of the relationship become more equal again? Yes, personA with trauma is completely allowed to be vulnerable and needy, but their needs don’t necessarily trump personB who happens to have a relationship with personA. Of course, personB will step up and do what they can for personA, but they have a right to be able to share their responses with personA if they need to. Surely that’s the very definition of a give and take relationship.
    For personB to say “I’m sorry you’re feeling really ill with your *illness*, it makes me really sad to see you looking so weak*… For me there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s 2-way, open, honest.

    1. I think this is all situational. You draw the circle for a given person related to a given situation. They aren’t in the center of all circles forever, and of course there is give-and-take over the long term.

      The overriding concept is: Yes, your feelings are important, but is this person the right audience for those feelings right now? How can you get what you need but make sure you are not overwhelming someone or unintentionally crapping on them when they are in a rough spot?

  4. Oh that is spot-on. I am on the second ring out from someone who got hit with a surprise super-badness — and I expect, for certain flavors of related pain, I’ll be ground zero, but that’s in the future — and it is so right. When I walk into the House of Fuck Cancer, I square my shoulders, pull out my emergency spoons, and do everything I can to carry some shit out the door with me when I leave.

    Then I go to everyone else in my life and distribute the load of my increased depression, my fears, my pain, my exhaustion, and also the burdens of doing what I can as secondary caregiver. The center of the circle has been reading about cancer and caregiving and is all worried about burning out her support people, and I’m like “I really appreciate your concern and I am all good” on the same day that I call in backup because I’m running thin.

    Because I have backup, I am all good and not burning out — and ground zero of Fuck Cancer is not my backup person!

    Drawing on a network of people is hard, sometimes, and not everyone knows how to do it. You sort of want to give back in the same direction it came from, but that’s not how it works. If I draw from five people, who draw from five people, who draw from five people, then the strain of dealing with whatever it is is distributed over like 125 people. It’s harder on me and the first five people, but it’s a whole lot easier than if I draw on five people who all can’t deal and reflect it back, and now I’m carrying everything plus whatever those people added on.

    If this circles metaphor works, yay! If my network metaphor works, yay! If the carrying shit away metaphor works, yay! I can make you a World of Goo metaphor if you want, probably, or cake frosting maybe. Gravity wells are better, but not too many people get the metaphor, maybe?

    Anyway, it’s a good model for people who like bulls-eyes and need a hard and fast rule to shut someone up who’s dropping shit in the wrong direction. I like that people are talking about it.

    1. “When I walk into the House of Fuck Cancer, I square my shoulders, pull out my emergency spoons, and do everything I can to carry some shit out the door with me when I leave. ”

      YES THIS.

  5. I think this is perfect. It would have really come in handy to explain to my mother-in-law why “I’m so disappointed, I was so looking forward to being a grandmother” is not a good thing to say to your daughter-in-law… while she’s in the hospital… having the miscarriage you’re so sad about. =/

    It’s fine for her to feel those things… just not ok for her to tell me about feeling those things, and especially not right then. I still have a hard time reminding myself that she’s not actually that self-absorbed.

    1. I’m so sorry that happened to you. You should not have to console your MIL in that situation or manage her grief.

    2. I’m so sorry. What an insensitive thing to tell you at any time, but right then? Yeesh.

    3. I am so sorry for your loss, and for the fact your MiL was a terrible, awful person at that moment.

      1. Thank you. It was, and it is certainly a demonstration of her continued penchant for reacting to bad news in exactly the most unhelpful way. But I survived, and that’s the important part. It was one of those awful things you live through that you then look back on and say, “I’m kind of glad it happened that way.” I would be so screwed if I had a kid right now… so it’s truly for the best.

  6. This is helpful. This article doesn’t invalidate the feelings themselves; it explains that it matters to whom it is said. Of /course/ people will have feelings about their own life when they see someone going through something; of /course/, just, talk about it elsewhere.

    What’s helpful: Say something kind. Think about what I might want to hear if it were me. If I have a feeling, then if needed, I can talk about it later with someone in an ‘outer circle’.

    This is especially helpful because a family member has some health issues coming up, and the people I’d normally talk with are closer inside the circles. I was starting to feel really lost because I /knew/ I shouldn’t burden them with the things it brings up in me – but then I thought, ugh, does that mean I need to somehow just not feel these things or I am a Big Jerk? And that is my quickest path to feeling worthless & horrible. But no, jerkbrain – I can talk with a friend who is not part of this crisis. I had literally not even thought about that option.

    And, omg, do I really need detailed mental scripts like this? Yes, yes, I really do.

    1. Actually, I think most people would benefit by having detailed mental scripts like this, and more people should make the effort to have/obtain detailed mental scripts, so that they don’t blurt out something inappropriate to the wrong person. Working out what to say beforehand – or even how you might feel about something beforehand – makes a person less likely to spill unexpected feels all over the people around them.

      I’ve always liked to pre-script my life: it means I’m less likely to say the wrong thing. On the other hand, when other people go too far off-script, I’m sometimes left scrambling to adjust.

  7. Ha, I may send this link to the spouse with a note that says, “And this is why, when you need to discuss the stress that you have about the fact that I am job-hunting, you need to discuss it with someone other than me!

  8. I think it works definitely in the short term, crisis mode mindset. You would think it’s common sense. You don’t tell the person who is in bed with a life threatening injury how it harms YOU. You don’t tell her spouse when you are a just a friend.

    I have noticed this common sense becomes lack of sense especially with mental and emotional disorders. Like the person who is in serious depression tell them “well there are starving kids in Africa, your life is so much better”. Or “what do you have to be upset about? My XYZ stopped working!” Or those people who guilt the suicidal, because guilting them to stay alive won’t make the situation worse.

    I do think for the long term, it’s good to communicate feelings, especially those in closer proximity to each other. Such as spouses. When I was in a downward spiral or having bad episodes, my husband was very supportive. But when I was back to a stable mindset, it helped him to express his feelings of how difficult it was for him. It helped me, too, because it helped put things in perspective for me.

  9. LOVE this article, but with one slight caveat. I think that it’s often okay to say some version of “I’m sorry for what you’re going through, but I am overwhelmed and can’t deal with this right now” to someone in the yet-smaller ring. The trick is to do this is a matter-of-fact way, without expecting the person in crises to take care of you and your feelings.

    Maybe it’s just that I have no poker face, so hiding strong emotions is just not an open. But I think there are situations where saying “I am having FEELNGS about your situation and I need some space/reassurance/hugs” is the kindest thing I can do for a loved one in crises.

    1. Yeah, I think this is particularly apt in the case when someone in an inner ring is asking explicitly for help and support and you’re not able to give it because of your own feelings.

      Then rather than asking for support back, you’re opting out of the network, which sounds like a shitty thing to do to someone, but I think it’s better than saying that you’re there for them and then panicking every time they need something because you can’t face the trauma yourself. It lets them tap someone who’s better able to help them.

    2. I don’t think you need to say anything about how you can’t deal with it. Why would you do that? Just say how sorry you are and leave your own situation out of it.

      1. It depends on the situation I think! My partner has mental health issues (which manifest as a series of short-term crises) and sometimes I just need to get away from all that and shore up my own well-being.

        I think “I’m so sorry you’re hurting right now, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need to go read my book” is kinder than just leaving without explanation. At least if I express my feelings honestly, my partner knows that I still care, it’s not personal, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.

        Similarly, if I’m feeling bad about something, my partner will probably notice. I’d rather say “I’m feeling a little stressed out by everything that’s going on with you. How about a hug and some bad TV?” then leave him to wonder why I’m upset and if I’m angry with him.

        It’s a tough balance. They key thing, I think, is to be honest about your feelings while also making it clear that those feelings are yours to manage.

        1. Yes, this for sure. I think it’s important to keep communications open. My family has been having some rough times with my Dad’s failing health and I am very tired of my brother being “busy.” If he could just say, “This is very upsetting, I’m not handling this well, I am not ready or able or willing to be a support in this,” it would be so much easier to take than, “I’m busy.” As it stands the excuse has worn very thin if excuse is what it is. If it’s actually a literal statement then he’s just an insensitive jerk who can’t find the time to have anything to do with his family in a really rough situation and can’t be bothered to communicate either.
          I think there is a difference between “I am not handling this well, I’m sorry,” and removing yourself from the situation, and saying “I’m not handling this well” and expecting the person to provide you with support. Communicating your feelings doesn’t necessarily mean dumping your feelings for the other person to sort out.

      2. I think it depends what circle you’re in. If you are popping by for a quick hospital visit, don’t say anything. If you’re the second or third circle person who will be expected to front up every day with game face on, supporting ground zero or spouse from here on until eternity, then an explanation could be better than just dropping out, though I’d follow it up with a call a day or so later, offering any help I could- ie food delivery, washing, dog walking etc if sitting-and-listening-to-long-tear jerking-stories is on in my can do list right then

        1. I like this suggestion! The offer of manageable, concrete help is such a good idea.

    3. *nods* To me that doesn’t really violate the rules because it’s not kvetching? I mean, there’s a difference between not being able to offer support on a certain subject and wanting them to act as your emotional support. It’s one thing to go “I’m sorry, I’m really overwhelmed and can’t help you with this right now, I’m going for a walk.” It’s another to tell them in detail how their problems are making you overwhelmed and exhausted and asking them to be a sympathetic listener/shoulder to cry on for that subject matter, and I feel as if that’s the kind of thing the article is trying to get at?

      1. That’s right Kaz, there’s a huge difference between saying honestly “sorry, having a breakdown moment, I’ll be back tomorrow” and squeezing an inner ring person for emotional support for yourself. I don’t think concealing your emotions entirely is what’s asked for here, just making sure they don’t become an additional burden on an inner circle. Venting at a helpless audience is a burden, incidentally, in case anyone has a doubt :-).

  10. That article was very helpful, but could I just ask what you meant by “ableist wording in the opening line”? I’m not being delibaretely obtuse, I genuinely can’t see it. (I’m only asking so I can learn)

  11. I know when I had my miscarriage I was not in any sort of emotional state to listen to other people complain about their problems. I could not do it; I had nothing to give. As my primary support person, Spouse couldn’t do it, either, he barely had it in him to be there for me because he was grieving, too. I spent about two months sitting in one place watching Scrubs reruns while crying because fictional drama with a hefty portion of comedy was all I could handle. People unloading their real world shit onto me, however minuscule, was not something I could take.

    I got pretty mad at my mom when she decided not to tell anyone she had breast cancer until months after she was through surgery and into remission because she has a history of leaving people out of the loop and being really weird about trying to control/dictate other people’s feelings. I did not tell my mom that! I told my sister because we were going through the same thing, we were in the same ring, as it were. For my mom, support, support. No matter how I felt about her cancer, how she felt was primary.

    1. Wow. You are so strong and smart for being able to not get mad at your mom about that. I don’t think I could have managed that; I think I would have flipped my biscuit at her, or at least felt incredibly resentful in a way that would leak out of me in bits of snark.

      An acquaintance was telling me the other day about how a friend from her hometown recently started taking antidepressants, and on a home visit she went up to him and demanded ‘Hey dickhead, why the hell did I have to find out you’re on antidepressants from Third Party?’ That just. Boggled me. I called her on it, and one friend agreed with me that she was way out of line, but another sided with her, and together they claimed that they’d had a right to know about his meds because he’d always made his depression ‘their problem’ back in the day. The amount of WTF contained therein just staggered me. Ring Theory is now on my FB page!

      1. My mom and I have a really tentative relationship. Let’s just say she’s not very good with boundaries when it comes to her religion, and she really cannot handle other people having feelings, like at all. Nothing I said to her would have helped anyway, and I’d just have hurt her when she was already weak and exhausted. Helped being 2500 miles away. Nothing I can do from here but let her live her life, her way. Pissed, yes, but saying so to her wouldn’t have accomplished anything but drive a bigger wedge. Good thing I have my sister.

        1. “she really cannot handle other people having feelings, like at all”

          That is an excellent description of my mom’s issues. 🙂 I might use that.

    2. I got pretty mad at my father when he waited a week to tell me my Mom had had a massive stroke. (He also waited this long to tell my sister who LIVED IN THE HOUSE.) Neither of us knew she was seriously ill.

      And I did tell my Dad about it, which was maybe wrong, but at the same time, what he did was also deeply uncool. (Now he’ll call and be all “You told my I am obligated to tell you when people are in the hospital, so your aunt is in the hospital, she had a heart attack. ” Like I’m somehow asking him to do something totally abnormal. But whatever, goal achieved.) I didn’t bother Mom with it though. She already feels down all the time.

      We did have an issue with people who apparently thought we were all horrible monsters though. We got a lot of lectures and rude comments about being “nice” to our mother. Recently a friend of the family pulled me aside after taking Mom with her on a trip and was all “I had no IDEA how much she couldn’t do for herself.” So I guess there was a lot of outside of the circle not very nice commentary about how cruel we are to our poor mother. (Not that we are always nice, if you could pick 3 people to never deal with anyone with disabilities it would be us.)

      On the other hand it is pretty much precisely because we push her constantly to do stuff for herself, that she’s able to go out in public and have a fairly normal social life, such that people don’t realize who ties her shoes.

      1. I don’t think it’s wrong of you to be angry with your father over that at ALL. The two of you are in the same circle: close family, so you should have access to the same information where your mom’s health is concerned!

        I too have a standing thing with my mom where she is supposed to tell me right away about anything serious that happens in the family. This is because of her pulling the same stuff in the past that your dad did, repeatedly. I gave her a pass when it came to her cancer though (not that I wasn’t pissed) because that’s about her and her needs, not about me and mine. Plus, her stepdad was dying when she was diagnosed. She said she didn’t want to add to family worry. My mom does NOT like it when people fuss over her. She does not like the fact that other people have feelings or opinions she didn’t give them permission to have, about, well, anything, but still, when it came to her decisions about her illness, it was her right. Thus the processing with my sister rather than at my mom. She was trying to live, not my prerogative to feelingsdump on her.

        1. I think having someone in my family who likes to save me from worrying actually results in me worrying WAY MORE. (They decided to do a random visit in December and my sister and I were sure they were getting divorced or someone had cancer. We were wrong, fortunately.)

          1. My mom and I have a deal that we swear we will tell one another about any significant or even quasi-significant health or life-altering issues that crop up (e.g., the doctor wants a follow up mammogram; job has gone wobbly). Because that way you have to worry from time to time about something specific, that is real, and you can inform yourself and really focus on it. And then (one hopes) it is over, and you can go back to not worrying. Whereas if you can’t count on the other person to tell you, you have to worry all the time, about All Possible Illnesses.

            I know that kind of mutual vow wouldn’t work for a lot of people — it has to be grounded in a good relationship and the knowledge that the other person won’t wig out and make things worse when there is an issue. But when it does work, it’s a lot less stressful.

      2. Hello, are you in my family? This has been a HUGE problem in my family, and it’s one we’re….I don’t know. I’m hoping we won’t have to deal with it again any time soon, but finding out your grandmother is dying because your uncle emails a round-robin update is pretty horrific, so I’d like not to repeat that. How did you get your mom to cooperate?!

        1. We had something like that happen when my dad had emergency by-pass surgery, and neither of my parents let my brother or me know until after it was over. Their reasoning was that they didn’t want us to worry.

          What broke through that reasoning was us pointing out that, as their children, it was our right to be allowed to worry over such things, and one of their friends noting that as hard as it was to tell us about the surgery, telling us cold with no preparation about what might have happened if things went wrong would have been much much worse.

          When they realized that we were more likely to be upset not knowing than knowing, and that they might have to break _really_ bad news out of the blue if they didn’t keep us informed, they got a lot better about telling us about the serious stuff.

          It’s hard though. I’m like my parents, and don’t like to share that sort of medical thing with people either, because I worry about having to deal with their emotions as well as my own. So that also makes me compassionate when they do this stuff.

        2. I don’t know if I can really advise using the approach I took but I basically just said it was unacceptable to make the decision for other people what information they could handle and what they couldn’t, that I was a big girl and could decide for myself how I felt about a thing. I sort of angry-stated it, so not yelling, but really, really firm. I told her that she didn’t have the right to decide for me what I should know, what I should worry about, and what I shouldn’t. That I was the sort of person who’d rather know something when it’s happening so that I can be prepared if it goes sideways. Frankly I was surprised that she acquiesced, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover I’m still only getting some of the info, but some is better than almost none.

          Not that my mom is the greatest bad news delivery person or anything. I mean, when she called to tell me my uncle’s ex wife had died, she was practically giddy. So being in the loop comes with a whole other set of baggage. Sigh.

    3. You must be my long-lost sister or something.

      Dad failed to tell my brother that mom had had a heart attack. For years. Until I said something about it and he said, “What heart attack?” “The one she had 4 years ago- wait, they never told you?”

      I knew because I was living at home at the time. They told me not to say anything to him if he called, because Dad would be the one to break it to him. I did not know they’d never told him. That was a fun conversation. Not to mention Dad getting mad at me for spilling beans that I didn’t know existed. Sigh.

  12. A friend of mine shared this on a social networking site this morning, and the moment I read it I thought “Captain Awkward would love this!” As someone who has to work very hard to make sure her brain keeps up with her mouth (especially in moments of strong emotion) this is an incredibly helpful visual to keep top-of-mind. Even if there are caveats to the implementation of it, it’s definitely a good tool to help me slow down and evaluate the effect my words will have on the people I’m speaking to. Thanks for spreading it around.

  13. I think it’s also good to remember that there are always lots and lots of circles going on in the world. Someone may be farther from the center in terms of the crisis that is dominating your thoughts, but be at the painful heart of another one. People in the first couple of circles of big life crises should get a pass on all your complaining, not just complaining related to their issue.

  14. This is incredibly (as in, really incredible, I can’t quite believe how much so) timely.

    My 17-year-old sister has a good friend who also happens to be the brother of her abusive ex-boyfriend. Today, she visited that friend with a group of people and arsehole ex was there, too, and apparently they cooked and listened to music together. It’s also the first time my sister was in close proximity to abusive ex after her breakup with the absolutely-not-abusive boyfriend she had after abusive ex, so she’s still really vulnerable in general.

    And my mum, upon hearing that my sister was at arsehole’s house, went into a fit of rage which ultimately came down to a teary “I’m so afraid he’ll do something to her again. Or something even worse than what he already did to her.” Which I can absolutely relate to. However, I explained to her how this is not about her and her fear and panic but about my sister and what she thinks she has to do to cope; I said she can talk to me (although I admit it can get kind of strenuous for me, too) or to her mother about it but not to my sister who needn’t know about our mum’s fear on top of all the shit she went through with her ex. I’m always afraid I’m not doing the right thing when it comes to this topic but articles like this one help me stay focussed; I will definitely suggest trying the Ring Technique to my mum, I can imagine it would be helpful.

  15. This is especially timely for me as well, thank you for linking to this! I wasn’t sure I had acted okay in a similar situation and have been running this through my mind for the last 36 hours.

    My brother has a host of medical problems and all of the siblings had been getting updates via email from the last that visited him. This past weekend I went to visit, and hoo-boy was I not prepared to see my brother in his condition! And I cracked. I started sobbing uncontrollably (not in front of him, thankfully). And his awesome wife came over to comfort me and hugged my tightly. I blurted out, I’m so sorry! And she said that’s okay, we all mourn our own way. And I felt so crappy that it had turned into my problem. So I said, I’m so sorry you have to go through this.

    I hope I was able to turn my initial reaction from being about me and how “I hate seeing my brother this way” to “I’m sorry you have to go through this.”

    Then when leaving with another brother, we both confirmed that he was a lot worse than we were expecting. I’m so glad we kept that to ourselves instead blabbing about it in front of his wife and kids. So, thank you again for the link, I have been thinking a lot about this.

    1. He’s your brother, it’s not like he’s your cousin’s ex girlfriend’s former roommate or something. You are also going through this.

      I don’t think crying when you see a sick family member is making it about you. Sometimes you just can’t help that stuff, and it sounds like your your sister in law understands. (I am the person most likely to pass out in the hospital room, so, unless it’s immediate family I don’t go, because it will immediately become ABOUT ME.)

      My sympathies your brother and your whole family and I hope you guys all get through this together.

      1. Thank you for your reply. I just have so many feelings and emotions I’m trying to sort through all this, and I keep doubting myself with everything (thanks, Jerkbrain!).

    2. I think you may be hitting on the limitations of the Ring Theory : that witnessing crises *does* cause emotions that are not always easy to control. When my mother called me a couple of years ago to tell me that my father (a healthy, very active man who had completely quit smoking for over 6 months) had had a heart attack, I went through the five stages of grief right there and then on the phone with her.
      According to this theory, I was wrong to do that because she was my father’s primary caregiver, and I was in the circle outside that. But I was in no state to observe good manners, and I spent a good part of the conversation ranting and raving on how statistically impossible it was for my Dad to have a heart attack (and in fact, it turned out to be a nasty side effect to a diet supplement he was taking and he’s perfectly fine now).
      She took it well and she really acted like a mother, but it probably wasn’t an easy phonecall for her to make, and I doubt I made it easy on her. However, the idea that I should have remained composed and coolly have offered support seems really disturbing to me. The entire family spent the night emoting on the phone, and I think that our spontaneity was better for everyone’s mental health (and our capacity to be supportive) than if we’d headed Miss Manners.
      I think the article is very good, and works very well in most cases, but I think that when you’re hit with a very nasty surprise (like you were when you saw your brother for the first time in the hospital), I don’t think you should be required to keep your cool. I think it would have been good if the article had included that caveat.

      1. Yes, I think I had high expectations of how I was going to show my support in helping with the crises, and then ended up being the one that needed comforting. But you’re right, it was in the middle of seeing him the first time and my brain is trying to process everything. Thank you for your reply. I’m glad to hear your dad is okay now!

        1. And massive Jedi hugs to you. I hope your brother will be okay. And if the doctor ever recommends tryptophane, please make sure that the doctor knows that heart attacks are a side effect before anybody actually buys the damn stuff and takes it.

      2. Yeah, I think this kind of thing is *always* going to have limitations. A good analogy is going to give you a sensible framework, and you have to use common (ha) sense and discretion on how to apply it.

        I often think this kind of thing is useful primarily (a) to give completely clueless people a framework to actually be able to grasp an issue if they really want to and sometimes (b) a angle to a familiar concept that can “click” better than previous ways of looking at it.

        Personally, I tend to be excessively calm in major crises and I think that people breaking down when first faced with something gets one pass. We’re all human. After that I expect you to be mindful though – if that makes any sense?

      3. I guess I think there can be more than one person in the inner ring. When my grandfather was ill, my father dealt with his medical needs and my aunt dealt with his social/financial needs. Then I was in the next ring. But if my father or aunt needed some time off, I moved into the inner ring. It helped that we were all in agreement with one another.

        I guess the Ring Theory is a good argument for having a well developed Team You. That way, no one person is over-extended and there are enough people to address different needs.

        I went through a pretty big crisis two years ago and I was SHOCKED at how many people were affected. I was also stunned and gratified by how many people stepped up to help–even people who were new acquaintances or strangers. About a year later, my boss was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I told her, “There will be people there to help you that you don’t even know yet.” And that turned out to be true.

      4. Yes, this.

        I also think the “Rings” are a little more complicated sometimes than a simple diagram of concentric circles. When my grandmother died a few years ago, according to a simple diagram, my dad and my uncle would have been the innermost ring, followed by my mom, my sister and me, as well as my uncle’s wife and kids. I had a really hard time dealing with it, because my grandma and I had been close and (due to other family circumstances) the people present with her when she died ended up being my dad, my uncle, and me. My dad was lovely and supportive to me and never made me feel like I had to hide my feelings from him, just because he’d lost his mom and I’d “only” lost my grandma. He was still my daddy through that and was happy to let me lean on him a little at the same time that I supported him the best I could (my dad does not do showing emotion to anyone, so me supporting him ended up being things like helping him clean out his mom’s house while him supporting me ended up being things like giving me a hug while I cried).

        Basically, I think the ring theory is excellent overall, but it might need a little tweaking for the ways that the innermost circles sometimes overlap and the relationships between the people in those circles.

    3. The comforting thing, though, is that while you were worried about that feeling intrusive, perhaps to your sister-in-law it just felt like understanding. I remember when my dad was in the hospital before he died and some teaching colleagues came to see him, longtime colleagues and close friends. One of them just lost it in the hallway outside the room, and I ended up being the one hugging her and telling her it was OK to be sad, etc, instead of the other way around. But there is a kind of hospitable kind of role closest family members sometimes take on in that situation, where it feels weirdly soothing to be the comforter. Grief is horrible, but sharing it can help make it bearable.

      I also remember as a teenager when one of my cousins was diagnosed with cancer (she is happily now in remission) and while waiting for news from the hospital, a bunch of us were sitting around the table at my uncle’s house talking things over and kind of out of nowhere, I started to cry. I felt like an idiot — like my uncle needed that on top of everything else — but instead he said “Thank you.” At least he knew someone else was feeling even a little bit of what he was feeling, I guess.

  16. For crises, yeah, for sure. The person who just got diagnosed with cancer is not the person who’s going to help you process your feelings about their having been diagnosed with cancer.

    Pitching in my own examples: (1) one of my best friends telling me her boyfriend was jealous and offended that she came to stay with while my dad was dying, and (2) being told that another relative was mad at me for not calling everyone to say my dad was dying in hospice; I outsourced this to my cousin, who had said me to, “OMG that is horrible. Is there anything I can do to help?” and it was really, really helpful to have my cousin do that instead, because I was not up to making a couple dozen phone calls of “Hey, how’s it going? By the way, my dad’s dying in hospice right now.”

    People can be angry but I wish it hadn’t gotten back to me because it just made me think less of them.

    1. ” another relative was mad at me for not calling everyone to say my dad was dying in hospice”

      OMG THIS. My mother suffered a stroke a few years back, my dad was primary support to my mum, and I was secondary support to my mum and primary support to my dad. I took on responsibility for contacting all Mum’s siblings to let them know – which I did! – and a few days later, my dad got an email from Mum’s oldest sister, demanding to know why he wasn’t keeping her better informed. She lives abroad, so I sent her an email in which I basically lost my shit at her for harassing my dad while he was in the middle of managing a crisis, and I haven’t spoken to her since (I’ve never been close with Mum’s siblings anyway). I mean seriously, how insensitive do you have to be!!?

      1. Indeed. When people have been assigned the telling-everyone job (which is a hard job), then you-who-have-been-informed are not allowed to complain that the wrong person did the informing.

        However, when some rando tells you about Crisis because nobody bothered to tell anyone to tell you, then you get to kvetch. You have to wait until after the crisis, but you definitely get to kvetch.

        (The context of this is, I dropped by to say hi to my dad+his wife+their kid, and found that they’d gone off on a family visit to another city without telling me. Okay, fine, whatever, they do that a lot, so I grabbed some string cheese and was about to leave when the house sitter came by to make sure none of the pipes had burst or whatever, and she said oh, hey, I hope your dad’s okay, and I was all “WTF something’s wrong with my dad?”

        Turns out he and my five-year-old brother had been on antibiotic drips for pneumonia for three days and nobody told me. When you have to go to the hospital and get antibiotics in drips, things have gotten really bad. They could have died. I wouldn’t have had a chance to see them. We [me and dad’s wife, not dad, obviously] had a discussion about this, but only after everybody was safe at home.)

        1. Indeed. While I was briefly surprised that it was my sister giving the news when my grandmother passed I just felt bad that she had to do it. I did not demand to know why my father didn’t immediately start making phone calls after watching her pass on.

          My mother has the worst story of not being kept in the loop I’ve ever heard: she didn’t find out a relative she was fond of had died for *months*. Even then she had to ask someone else how they were doing to find out; the information was never volunteered.

  17. I think it depends, really. I mean, things like “It’s not just about you” are always out of line, yes. But “Kvetching”? That I think really depends on the person in the crisis. Some people, including me, want people to kvetch with us instead of comfort us *because* it is comforting to us. The traditional ways of ‘comforting’ actually make me feel like I’m being patronized and that stresses me out way more than saying “I’m so sorry, I just wasn’t expecting to be hit by this, this hard.”

    1. How about instead of “kvetching” being wrong, it’s something like “person in inner circle gets to decide what kind of support they need”? I think comfort-in, complaining-out is too simple, but I do think that if *you* were the person nearer the ground-zero of the crisis, you get to decide that mutual bitching about the situation is the sort of support and help you want. The person further out doesn’t get to override you on that just because in their head support means patting your hand and stroking your hair.

      1. I like this.

        Right now I’m trying to be supportive to my mom who’s having bigtime health issues. The kind of support she needs is not “talk it to death”, it’s “treat me like I’m normal and be matter of fact about things.” It’s hard, but I’m doing it. And kvetching in my locked LJ if I need to.

        1. I think this is very important.
          Some time ago my partner died under circumstances I don’t want to go into. Afterwards, although I could see some friends and family and found being with them comforting, there were other people who had been in my life before and wanted to be there for me, who I found I couldn’t see for a long time afterwards. It was mostly people who never did anything deliberately insensitive or hurtful, but who maybe were needy or pushy or slightly intrusive. I know that I hurt some of these people by shutting them out, but really it was an instinctive thing on my part. I’m glad you put this into words – I see now that we have the right to choose the support we need when we are in the centre of the circle.

  18. I like this idea a lot, especially for crisis situations (as people have said); but I am not sure how it plays out when it comes to mental illness. I’ve been hospitalized for depression/suicidality three or four times over the last six months, have had to leave my Ph.D. program because of it and am having a terrible time finding another job. I keep thinking I’m going to pull out of it and keep falling right back in. According to this model, I “can say anything [I] want to [to] anyone, anywhere.” In reality, I can say anything I want to to my therapist. My husband and other close supports are incredible, but are close to burning out completely on this, and I am pretty careful not to wear them out by vocalizing too much of the jerkbrain thinking.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I can’t tell whether this is a reasonable standpoint or not. If my crisis consists precisely of overwhelming FEELINGS, is it fair to say that I have a responsibility to try not to drag everyone else down with me? Or is this just the jerkbrain telling me that I don’t deserve to have people take care of me?

    1. This is really complicated and I don’t have an answer, but I just wanted to send jedi hugs your way. I’m sorry you’re going through this and I hope things find an even keel.

    2. I see this concept as not a carte blanche to be uncaring but as an illustration as to who carries the most pain. Being in a close relationship over time calls for caring and understanding from all sides of course.

  19. I like the idea of not complaining to people in the smaller circles. I am sure I have been guilty of complaining to the wrong audience at some point or another. I agree the model does not work so well for couples in their communication with each other, over the long-term. But these are good guidelines for many situations!

    Why don’t we have a Basic Social Skills course in high school or college with all sorts of tips like this? It’s a lot to expect every human to learn this stuff along the way. Captain Awkward is really helpful for How to Be a Human with Good Boundaries and Social Appropriateness. Probably the people who need the Social Skills course the most are not seeking out this information!

    We would have a much nicer society if people received basic training in: Boundaries, seeking help, being a supportive friend/family member, evaluating and managing friendships and romantic relationships, supporting your friends/family in crisis, interacting with aquaintances, etc. I think I have the outline of a curriculum here! Did I miss anything?

    1. WORD. I love this idea. This is some of the most important stuff about being a human being. We should be teaching it!

      1. It seems like the most important things about life are left for us to learn on our own.

        1. Well, yes– it’s called life. Getting spoon-fed by an authority figure doesn’t actually help anyone learn how to live. You might try reading great literature, if you need a guidebook. Shakespeare is a good place to start.

          1. IMHO, this much snark in response to Ve’s innocuous comment tends to support the theory that teaching social skills and empathy would be a good thing.

          2. Really? Because my parents and grandparents are the ones who taught me to say please and thank you, to think about others’ feelings, to be tactful as needed. You know, “authority figures”. And I guess them spelling it out at times could be construed as “spoon feeding.”
            We are not born automatically knowing such things, and an acceptable human behavior class would be a lot more relatable than a lot of Shakespeare, which is full of dysfunction and tragedy. And I say that as an English major who has also worked in Shakespeare companies!

          3. Agreeing with alphakitty here. Not everyone has sterling fantastic polite and considerate people to model behavior off of in their lives. Some people do need these things “spoon fed” because nobody ever taught them how to cultivate empathy and consideration for other people’s problems. I’m not even going to touch how ableist it is to assume that life and social skills are something that everyone should know automagically or else should be able to pick up from a book.

            P.S: Great literature is often based around terrible people doing terrible things and making bad choices because it’s fun to read. Why the hell would you want anyone to use that as a guide to life, even as examples of what not to do?

          4. It’s a process, socialization. We learn from our parents, our peers, and experience. When it’s lacking from the home, it would be helpful if there was such a course available elsewhere, don’t you think?

          5. Uhhh….wow. Welp, I’m off to learn everything I need to know about interpersonal relationships by reading some Hemingway! This will not end badly! Maybe I’ll try to reenact Titus Andronicus at my next family reunion!
            Look, I have dual degrees in English and read voraciously, and I still needed help with very basic things like expressing affection and asking for it as an adult, because I was raised by a refrigerator mother. This comment is neither helpful, nor does it really make that much sense.

          6. (It probably does not need to be said, but just in case: It’s not a good idea to try to solve life problems by committing faux-suicide as a trick, dressing up as someone else, being generally deceitful, or certain other Shakespeare themes.)

          7. I want to add my support for Ve and Alphakitty too. I think that most people who feel that they just learned this sort of behaviour themselves (and this includes me) were often actually just lucky enough to have good rolemodels around.

            Its tremendously facetious to order people to pick things up from literature, in part because literature does not exist to teach people social skills (which everyone else has already explained much more wittily than I can) but also because its hard to learn things that way.

            I’ve struggled a lot with learning good social skills even with good support from my family and friends, even though I’m fairly clever and I don’t usually struggle to learn other things, even though I’m well educated and well read. If you don’t learn social graces intuitively, they are immensely difficult to pick up and there are very few resources available to help you (although the Captain is amazingly helpful).

            Every single person who dismisses or makes fun of you when you’re struggling makes it that much harder and more humiliating to try and learn and that much easier to just convince yourself that you’re just inherently deficient somehow. So if you aren’t willing to be helpful, please try to avoid doing damage.

          8. There are classes in this—Sunday school for one. But I greatly dislike the idea that one needs to have these vital life lessons taught by a government approved teacher in a curricula. Sorry that doesn’t meet with the approval here.

          9. Thank you for this brief but highly illustrative example of why more social skills training might be helpful. Specifically, for YOU.

            P.S. Your Libertarian straw man argument is adorable.

          10. Agreed, CA, agreed.

            There is research that shows that social skills training is helpful for kids. We could do a study with a
            control group that involves reading literature. I would bet that those getting the social skills training would have better outcomes in terms of peer relationships!

            For those who don’t like the idea of teaching this stuff in high school (so much suffering would be prevented!) how about a totally optional college course? What would be wrong with that?!

          11. Actually, aren’t we pretty much the literature control group?

            Anyway, like most things, we can act like we’re too cool for anyone to teach us anything, and have to learn everything by trial and error — which will take some decades, at the cost of a lot hurt to ourselves and innocent bystanders. Or we can learn from other people who have figured some stuff out and get better at it a lot sooner.

            It’s smart to learn from your mistakes. It’s even smarter to learn from other people’s.

          12. The school system I attended actually had a mandatory class that, in theory, taught basic life skills but in practice was a waste of time for all involved. I’d love it if someone would whip it into shape and give it to everyone because it had so much potential in terms of teaching things like budgeting and meal planning to people who couldn’t necessarily get them at home. Sadly it had no social skills component.

          13. Clearly Belindie, you could have greatly benefitted from such a class. I was merely trying to demonstrate the point that many people, such as yourself, have no idea how to act with a modicum of grace or social know-how in any given situation. I was fortunate to naturally be a compassionate, empathetic, personable human being despite an utter lack of role models…I essentially just aimed to be the opposite of people like you.

            Also, I’m quite well-read in multiple languages. Frankly, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, etc., don’t demonstrate the type of social etiquette that is applicable to the masses.

          14. “It’s smart to learn from your mistakes. It’s even smarter to learn from other people’s.”

            Another great theme for a needlepoint pillow :-)!

          15. Quite so, belindie: as useful as resources such as this one run by the Captain are, one cannot hope to adequately learn social interaction in theory alone – some practice is needed! In my experience, other people, by virtue of not being ourselves and therefore not thinking like ourselves, can responds to us in ways that we could not possible have anticipated.

            The idea of literature to improve oneself is common, but upon reflection I find it surprising that people so rarely speak of its help in understanding other people. Myself, I see it as a window into the lives and minds of others: in non-fiction this is most obvious, but in the majority of fiction I find characters drawn from life and personal experience. And of course, there is the omnipresent moral judgement of the author, overtly or subtly expressed – one can learn a lot from reading about people who never technically existed. The most recent example I read was Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘Gaudy Night’, should anyone want an example.

            (And if we’re putting in our recommendations for Improving Literature, so to speak, I must recommend Les Miserables. Between 1200-1400 pages in small type, I know, and of such a heft that it should probably be classed as an offensive weapon – but it changed my life irrevocably, and if you make the necessary commitment, I hope that it will change yours too).

          16. Belindie’s comment is SO atypical to what you normally see in this blog that I had a Mean Girls moment when I saw all these comments this morning: She doesn’t even go here!!

            On that note, popular cinema such as Mean Girls would actually be a much better demonstration of social dos and don’ts than any given work of Shakespeare. As others have said, many works of literature display a lot of behavior that is neither worth emulating nor worth reading in an attempt to teach yourself what not to emulate. On the other hand, the aforementioned movie showcases realistic social situations, conflict, and resolutions regarding friendships, family, and romance alike, and is modern enough to be inherently relatable to many people.

            Regarding other “life” issues, I personally have researched books, blogs, and other resources because I don’t know anyone personally who could teach me certain things, such as financial matters (I know a lot of what NOT to do, courtesy of my family, but no proactive positive measures to attempt to improve my financial or prepare me for the future, I literally couldn’t conceptualize it prior to reading “Debt-Free Forever”). I’d prefer an “authority figure’s” “spoon-fed” instructions over grave error, especially if such travesty could have been prevented.

          17. Y’all have covered how this is ableist but the assumption that everyone has access to the same resources is classist too, right? Also, why would teens who want to learn social skills turn to Shakespeare of all things? What makes you think teens would think that’s a good idea at all much less come up with it on their own?

            I don’t even know where to begin with your assertion that teaching people doesn’t help them learn. Seriously?

          18. In addition to being ableist and classist, by suggesting Shakespeare of all authors, she’s assuming that most people are 1) educated enough to comprehend such work, 2) a native English speaker, who is more likely to be exposed to Shakespeare in the first place. I imagine were someone to advise, “read some Julio Cortázar” people here would be scratching their heads that much more.

            I mean…this comment was an all-around fail. Like I said, you must be new to this blog. And hopefully you’ll put at least a sliver of thought into your next comment, here or elsewhere.

  20. Like others have said, I agree with the article — loved it, in fact — when it comes to crises. The rules seems to be trickier when it comes to non-urgent or chronic situations.

    My family has been going through some tough financial times that, I think, put us in a smaller ring than many of my girlfriends. That doesn’t mean I never want to hear kvetching, even when it comes to finances. In fact, I would feel bad if my friends felt they could never grouse around me. We all go through tough times, I am not a special snowflake.

    However, using one’s judgment when complaining is helpful. I have a friend who has gone through rough financial spots in the past, and I don’t mind if she complains about how much her upcoming trip to France will cost. I’m happy for her! However, another friend just bought an expensive house in an upscale neighborhood… and then complained that all her neighbors are rich. Not feeling the sympathy in that case.

    1. I think it comes down to everyone being the centre of the circle for their crisis. Some crises are bigger than others, and crises can have different durations. When it comes to finances, it sounds like you have the inner circle when it comes to your social group. Perhaps when it comes to anxiety your France-trip friend has the inner circle? (Perhaps she was just insensitive with regards to your own issues, but I’m an anxious person about to travel alone for the first time, and I am complaining about the weirdest things to my friends because I don’t want them to know how terrified I am, but at the same time I can’t keep it all bottled up or else I’ll have a meltdown.)

      For a long time I owned the inner circle on family crisis in my social group, even though I was more than willing to give it up. I had a parent die, and even now year on, when people are reminded (or find out) I’m thrust back into the circle and have to push my way back out of it so that someone else can be in the crisis zone. I know my friends are being sensitive about my loss, but I am really over the ‘fragile: handle with care’ stage. So yeah, navigating circles that interacts is tricky.

    2. I recently ended up writing off a relationship when I was talking to someone I’ve known for years about my inability to find work or a volunteer position. She told me that she resented the fact that when I couldn’t find work, I could still eat (which was pretty much the first time she’d mentioned money problems to me in months); I said that was part of why I’d been avoiding discussing it (since my household has a higher income than hers and I feel guilty about having problems around anyone I’m better off than in some regard, which is a whole different ball of wax I know); and she said she appreciated that.

      That’s basically been it. I can’t see it as something other than “you don’t have money problems like I do, and if you come to me to talk about something that’s not money-related, it’s important that you understand that I resent you and that I appreciate you *not* telling me about your problems, rich girl.”

      We don’t talk much anymore, although I think we were starting to drift apart anyway. Mostly I tell myself that when I have high-stress or scary problems (which have been tagging each other in for nearly four months now), I am better off talking to people who don’t feel the urge to drop “hey, I really like it when you keep your mouth shut because your household has more money than mine” into the conversation.

      Ugh. That got away from me. I’m not saying you did this; the whole thing about being in a smaller circle for money just reminded me.

      (I’m kind of curious about why your friend would complain about having rich neighbours. Mean neighbours, yes, but… is this a “I just sunk a lot of money into a hard-to-reverse decision and went through moving into a new place and now I think I don’t fit in here and it’s scaring me?” thing?)

  21. How do you think it works if there are multiple people in the centre circle? There have been a lot of deaths in my extended social group lately, and I know from my own experiences when my dad died that everyone is the centre of their own grief circle. My brother thought that I was in the second circle for his grief, and I needed him to be in the second circle for mine. We muddled our way through it, but our relationship as siblings is definitely the worse off for those conflicts of circle hierarchy.

    As another example, and friend’s mother has recently died after a year of illness, and she is getting a LOT of pressure from her family to look after her dad. The extended family are asserting that her father is the inner circle of the crisis, but very few people are allowing her a space in which she can be the inner circle. I guess, using this framework, the problem is that the extended family aren’t respecting the ‘don’t dump in’ premise irrespective of the issue of ‘her centre’ vs ‘her dad’s centre’. Hm.

    I think the Kvetching Circle is a pretty good model, and I think it’s applicable to most crisis circumstances in one way or another. I’ve just been thinking specifically about grieving processes of late, and how messy they get because of the social aspects and obligations of grief.

    1. I’m struggling with the same thing. Overall I think this is a really great idea. But what do you do when there are several people in the innermost circle(s), and where do you draw those lines? When my father died, I recognized that my mother was on the innermost circle (even though she treated him pretty badly much of my life, but that’s a story for another post). I offered her nothing but support, and reached out to my sister (same circle) and friends (outer circles) for my own support. But a year later, she still had not once so much as asked how I was doing, nor had I heard her ask how my sister how she was doing. Even though we both made a point to contact her and offer support on important dates (his birthday, their anniversary, anniversary of his death, etc.). So I finally got frustrated and made a comment about how we missed him, too.

      I guess, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. On its own, I don’t think I would have. But fit into the larger pattern of my mother being very self-absorbed (again, story for another post), this pushed my buttons one too many times.

      1. It’s a tricky thing! I don’t think the issues my brother and I had were JUST about the grief, and it sounds like there were multiple factors shaping the grieving experiences of you, and your sister, and your mother. Using the Kvetching circle, people who could be identified being a centre (though they may not be THE centre) shouldn’t be dumped on. But then, using some Captain Awkward logic, sometimes when people are hurting you with your actions you should let them know and find ways to remove yourself from that cycle.

        I think someone above mentioned that the circle works during the “omg crisis” stage, but that once the crisis state becomes the normal state then the circle model needs to shift because relationships need to be reciprocal for them to benefit all parties. But then I guess that gets tricky with grief because you can’t go through it according someone else’s schedule – some people are going to get out of the “omg crisis” stage before others, but understanding your new normal doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a stable social object for inner-circle people to dump on.

        I found grief to be something that had to be performed as well as experienced – there were things that I had to say and express for other people to feel at ease with my mourning period, regardless of where I was at internally. I think that also confuses understandings of where people fit in the circle – I might be performing as if I were one ring out from the centre (or two or three) while still internally being very much at the centre in terms of my own experience of the crisis.

      2. One of the things I am still incredibly grateful for is that my whole family all treated each other as innermost circle during my mum’s terminal cancer. Everyone was going, “this sucks, I hate it, but how are YOU? How’s Dad? How are the boys? How’s Mum? How’s Grandma?” It took a huge amount of trust and respect for each other that I didn’t know we had, but in that inner circle of five of us, nobody treated themselves or each other as “more worthy” of special consideration except Mum herself.

        For me, spouse/partner and adult children are probably on the same level, and spouse would come second to minor children. It definitely isn’t obvious to me that as an adult child you are required to treat your mother as inner circle and yourself as further out.

        1. That’s great, I’m so glad your family was able to come together at a difficult time like that. It really helps. My sister and I were like that with and for each other, each supporting and leaning on the other, and it got us through – and brought us even closer.

          And, see, that’s exactly what I was thinking – I felt like children (especially adult children) belong in the innermost circle as well. Certainly my mother placed herself in the innermost circle when her parents died. But, well, that’s not the way my family [mother] works.

          Ultimately, I think it comes down to this: this diagram works most of the time, but take it with a grain of salt when you’re dealing with dysfunctional people.

    2. Yeah, I’m stuck in this sort of situation, too. It’s been a rough couple of years for my family. My brother and his wife lost their first child (at 30 weeks, he was stillborn) right after I found out I was pregnant. It was devastating for them. I had a hard time coping with their loss in terms of my own situation, but I totally got that they weren’t the people to talk to about that (and that, just generally, I wasn’t going to get support/excitement/anything from them or my parents for my first pregnancy, which sucked, but it wasn’t about me). It wasn’t about me and it just was what it was and I found a therapist to dump all of my pregnancy FEELINGS onto.

      But then I had a traumatic birth. Like, still physically recovering from it 16 months later, not to mention psychologically. Was diagnosed with PTSD and PPD. So, you know, I maybe need to be in the middle of a circle for awhile, right? Well, no. My brother and his wife were still grieving terribly (and I honestly don’t know at what point it becomes ok to “dump” anything related to pregnancy/motherhood on babyloss parents, so I try not to, ever), and at the same time, my aunt was diagnosed with ALS and is declining rapidly (which my mother “dumped out” on me about the week after my daughter was born, when I was). So I keep struggling, made worse because I basically don’t have a support network because they’re all in crises of their own (or in the inner circles of them), then my brother and his wife are pregnant again, then lose their TWINS late in pregnancy, and it is just all kinds of awful. (Seriously, to lose 3 children in less than 2 years like that? I just…no. No no no. I want to punch the universe on their behalf.)

      So while I’m struggling to hang on in the midst of depression (and a flareup of chronic health problems), I still need to be “dumped out” to, and that’s fine, I love my brother and he needs me – but some of the “dumping out” is awfully hard to hear as a struggling parent. So I try talking to my mother about how I’m doing – she’s in my inner circle, right, so I can dump out to her? No, that’s not ok either, because she’s in my brother’s inner circle too, and any talk of struggling with parenthood isn’t something she can handle hearing from me while she’s being there for my brother (“Don’t you know he’d do anything to struggle like you are?” sort of response) and dealing with her sister’s illness (and its implications for our family, since we apparently carry “the gene”). So…where do I dump? (I don’t have much of a support-network – probably a factor in the PPD in the first place!)

      It kind of seems like maybe my mom’s doing a crap job of balancing the comforting/dumping (she’s my mom, after all, and should be there for me at some level in this) but I don’t even want to say that – we’re all just coping with too much, you know? I don’t feel like I’ve been treated well in all of this, but I don’t even really see how it could be otherwise, given the circumstances.

      I don’t even know what I’m trying to say here, but it seems like it’s hard to know whose trauma trumps whose and who’s in whose circles and at what level and all that when basically your whole inner circle is going through hell, and some of the trauma is of a chronic or ongoing nature, and your mere existence is a trauma-trigger for the people you love.

      1. I’m thinking you’re trying to say “pretty please, can I have just one hug?” So here are all the virtual hugs you want.

        I wish I could do an intervention with your mom for you. Because yes, she is letting you down. You are totally entitled to be traumatized by your trauma, and to find the first couple of years of your child’s life really exhausting and difficult, regardless of what an awful time your brother and sister-in-law are having, because pain is not relative, and struggle is not easier because someone else is struggling even more. If we’re in a car wreck together and the skin gets scraped off my whole leg, it doesn’t hurt less because your leg got just as badly scraped and you’ve got internal organ damage, too! It would be one thing if you were moaning about how you have had “the worst couple of years!” and acted like your pain was the hardest thing anyone had ever had to cope with — because yeah, given a choice you’d rather be in your situation than theirs. But you’re clearly not doing that, and their pain does not in any way diminish yours. (You’d have to be a really sick person to feel happier because your brother and sister-in-law have lost three children.)

        I hope you can get your mom to see that — that without in any way minimizing what your brother and sister-in-law or aunt are going through, you need to be able to vent occasionally and expect support, instead of being subject to the constant one-upmanship of “their trauma is bigger than yours!”

        If you can’t, though — or maybe even if you can — you might want to talk to your OB/Gyn’s office or hospital or “family center” or church about new mother’s groups, play groups, etc., where you can find other people who don’t think your struggle is insignificant at all. Because it isn’t. Mothering an infant is HARD, even without depression or PTSD. With it, you must feel like you’re hanging on by your fingernails some days.

        Do keep hanging, though — children do get less physically exhausting as they grow up!

        1. Thank you for the virtual hugs! And for the suggestions for folks to talk to. I do have a good therapist, at least! It’s been a strange year – I’m supposed to be finishing my Ph.D and so expected to be moving elsewhere soon but then, you know, life exploded and all that. I wasn’t too surprised when my support network here (almost entirely comprised of fellow grad students) evaporated because that’s what happens when you take forever to finish your degree, but have had a hard time working up the energy to invest in building up a new one from scratch when we probably aren’t staying here long. But I should. Thank you for the reminder.

          1. Wow, all of this *and* finishing up your Ph.D., too? I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Here, let me offer you ALL of the virtual hugs, with a side of It Gets Better.

            I went through a really rough time in the months just before and after my Ph.D. defense last year for $Reasons. Like you, my support network (such as it was) mostly consisted of grad students who’d since dispersed to the far corners of the world. The rest were either part of the problem (breakup with partner) or disappeared when things got rough. Like you, I didn’t see the point in building a new network when I was leaving soon – and, frankly, I was too depressed to make new friends, anyway. That was a rough time that you couldn’t pay me enough to re-live. But I finally got a job, moved to NewCity, and have built a new network here, and it makes Such A Difference!

            So I guess I just want to say hang in there and keep trying to take good care of yourself. It sounds like you’re handling this all well as can be expected, given everything you’re going through. Know that there are virtual people who wish you well, and that (in all likelihood) things will get better!

      2. I wonder if, because your struggles are more mental health and getting-things-done and less dying-babies and debilitating-physical-illness, your mother (and maybe other family members) don’t really understand how serious your pain actually is? They can’t really take your suffering seriously if they don’t understand it.

        I ask because you sound a bit diffident yourself about whether you even deserve that attention, especially what with everything else that is going on. But that’s a jerkbrain thing, that’s a depression thing, and I tell you most people with depression think that they don’t deserve attention and support, even if the people around them are living lives of sunshine and roses. Wouldn’t want to be a burden, you know.

        Only you know your situation, but you might try taking some time for just you and your family. You can also be a little savvy about it and say that you are going to have an angst-free evening of it. Leave your little one with a sitter or something, go out and do something completely fun. When moments of grief or fear or depression come in, let them come, but don’t dwell — get back to the now of being with the people you love.

        This can be “We don’t spend enough time together” or “I think you need a break, let’s get manicures” or whatever. But it’s savvy because actually, that kind of positive, happy-moment contact is something that can really help you resist the jerkbrain yuk you’re churning out.

        I am so, so sorry for your family’s losses, and for your own pain. If punching the universe would help, I’d hold it down for you. I send you all the jedi hugs for you and your family, and little internet particles of strength to sustain you.

        1. I agree. Just finding a support network that you can not only lean on and receive love from, but doesn’t make you feel as if your struggles are nothing, may do you a world of good.

      3. Hi. I had similar with my birth – PTSD and while not PND, I had Post-partum psychosis. I had a great support network, which is why I and my kiddo are still alive and have a good relationship now. Part of that was my mother being available.

        Is it possible to say to individual members of your family, including your mother: “Hey, I’m having struggles, but since XYZ, I’m worried about talking about them. However, this is making the situation worse. I really need help. Can you help me get help from someone else, if you can’t manage it? I’m really in trouble here.”

        My partner had a good analogy for it that he used for the situation, which was: “If Steam had gotten these injuries in a car accident, people would not say ‘You have a great baby, so you need to get over it’. The injuries are going to take a very, very long time to heal, and during that time she has to take care of a very small person too. It’s hard, can you help?’

        (I’m about sixteen months on, and all that’s going to heal has healed. I’m on an anti-anxiety medication which really does help with the PTSD, as I no longer have catastrophic thoughts and obsessively contingency-plan for the ENTIRELY LIKELY possibility of a Donnie Darko style plane engine drop.)

  22. I agree with this for the most part. The main thing I’d take issue with is the idea that you’re not allowed to say that you can’t handle someone’s complaining. I mean yeah, if you specifically go to visit a sick friend in the hospital, it’s best not to say to her husband right then and there that you can’t handle it, but if someone latches onto you for support, and you’re not that close to them, or you really don’t have the reserves to deal with it right then, I think you’re allowed to tell them so.

    Personal story time: I had a recurrent, non-life-threatening, just annoying and icky infection when I was a teenager. I needed to sort out some health insurance stuff before I could continue treatment for it. When I found this out, I didn’t have my insurance card on me, and their customer support line was closed for the weekend. This led to a huge, screaming fight in the car with my mom, who wanted to jump through the automated phone tree over and over again right then and there in the hopes of getting something done, and me, who wanted to go home and get some rest and wait to deal with it during business hours.

    Her justification: “You don’t know how hard it is to have a daughter with an illness!”

    Class act all around.

  23. I really like this, and not just for the obvious reason of keeping social order and being a good friend.

    People panic when things are bad. We tend to throw it outwards to the people around us. We want comfort, and also to spread an alarm…it’s simple social mammalian behaviour. It’s genetic instinct.

    Imagine sitting sown and drawing the first circle, then your circle. Face it…everyone is anious to draw their circle then fill in the rest after. You leave some room between the inner circle and you. You fill in the space between with more circles. You find you haven’t left enough room. You start again. Smaller inner circle. Wider you circle. You try to think of everyone in the middle circle’s life. You’re focused on it. You never really really thought about their other friends and family before.

    So many circles.

    It’s a meditation. It removes you from yourself. You think about the network of people around you…it floats around like connective strands. At the very least, it calms the panic. It can allow you to center.

    I wish I had this tool earlier than now. It would have come in handy. Hopefully I wont need it for awhile.

  24. I don’t know, it seems obvious to me not to dump on the people who are in crisis or the people who immediately support them. Isn’t this covered under don’t do FEELINGSDUMPs on people in general? I think my problem is that I never think it’s OK to dump my feelings on anyone, when I find myself doing it due to some crisis I apologize and shut up. I always think I shouldn’t need to do it, I’m strong, the hell, just soldier. I know this is not healthy, that it means I don’t think I deserve to be able to do it even if I’m the one in the middle of that first circle. I have some issues in feeling like it’s ok for me to do this sort of thing so I’m not resonating with the article. I guess I’m asking for something here so I’m actually going to post this crazy comment and any responses are welcome.

    1. Oh yeah, I so hear you there! I’m embarrassed even to complain to my therapist because it feels too much like self-indulgent whining, and I’m PAYING her to listen! I think we have similar issues. I hope we can both learn to lean on other people more–it’s a lonely way to live.

    2. I hear you. Being somebody who needs support ‘out loud’ is still something I find difficult. I haven’t yet passed the stage of *forcing* myself to do it, which feels awkward and unnatural and like the emotions I’m portraying are fake carbon-copies of my real feelings, rather than the actual feelings themselves. I can only hope it gets to feel more natural with practice? Good luck from one bottler to another! *jedi hugs*

      1. thank you both for the response, nailed it. I used to bottle it all, then after some trauma in 2010 I find myself just sometimes gushing out all the feelings when something triggers me. I just did this yesterday, (the dump, realizing I’d just done it and then the I’m so sorry thing), with by best friend and she was telling me it’s fine, it’s fine, I love you. But I didn’t feel fine about it, so still working on believing that something that happens to me is important enough to be melting down about.

      2. Recognizing difficult feelings, naming them out loud, and asking for support (versus bottling it up and soldiering on until you run out of cope and meltdown/feelingsdump) DOES get easier, feel more “natural” and work more effectively with practice… at least it has done for me. It’s been helpful to my practice to identify particular people and situations that are likely to (be ABLE to) support the skill I’m trying to practice, reinforce me for efforts in the right direction, and not penalize when I fall short.
        ::sympathetic encouragement::
        To drag this back ’round to the original topic, that concentric-circles model could be useful in sorting out who to practice with and howmuch (tentative rule of thumb: process one’s own difficult feelings with people in one’s own ring or the next few out; acknowledge having feelings to the rings beyond that, inside or the outside, with decreasing detail the further they get from your position.)

    3. I tend to be stoic, too, but after having gone through a dramatic experience that everyone knew about, I found that I developed different versions of the story: the five-minute version, the fifteen-minute version, and the full story. I would ask people, “Do you want the brief version or the entire story? Cause the entire story is going to take a while.” That helped me situate people in their relationship to me. I was surprised that some folks, who I had considered casual acquaintances, were considerate and encouraging listeners, and our conversations led to a deeper relationship.

      There was only one person who tried to make it all about her. I still remember her with scorn.

  25. I think this is a great way of looking at things, and useful for most people. Unfortunately, I have run into quite a few people in life who see themselves as being in the middle circle more often than they really are (“It’s terrible about your cancer! I know how you feel…I got in a fender bender this morning!”) Or, more commonly, they see themselves as being part of a closer circle than they really are. “We went to high school together and now occasionally comment on each other’s Facebook pages” turns into “We’ve been friends for 20 years!”

    1. Yeah, I think a lot of problems and faux-pas arise when a crisis hits, and then a friend finds out they weren’t in as close a circle as they thought they were – didn’t hear about it soon enough, didn’t hear about it from the crisis-sufferer in person, etc etc. Which is a totally normal and human reaction. But, taking those feelings to the person in the centre ring, or someone in a smaller ring than you? NOT FREAKING OKAY DUDE!

      1. Sorry, second sentence should have been – ‘and they feel upset and hurt to find out the crisis-sufferer didn’t place more value on their friendship and support, which is a totally normal and human reaction.’ /nod

    2. This exact thing happened to me when my Mom had her stroke. I told possibly 2 people when I found out because I was in college and college students do not want to deal with real shit. I went home and saw her, and when I came back it came up with this girl I’d only been hanging out with for about 3 months. She pitched an absolute fit that I hadn’t told her. She was just so hurt. I think at one point she threatened suicide, and then she basically attributed every negative personality attribute she had to me.

      Fortunately this was about a year after I decided I wasn’t going to stay friends with people who pulled this kind of shit. So our friendship ended in spectacular fashion.

      1. I think in that instance you could say “Well she didn’t have a stroke At you.” I mean….just wow. What the hell, like?

  26. This reminds me a lot of The Silence of the Dying by Sara Douglass, which is sadly not posted online any more (now only available as part of one of her books). It was about how other people, upon finding out she was dying of cancer, wanted to be comforted by her.

    An excerpt that I found on someone else’s website:

    Modern attention spans for the chronically ill are horribly short, probably because chronic or terminal illness in today’s society is horribly tedious. Tedious, because we are all so uncomfortable with it.

    Instead, too often, it is up to the sick and the dying to comfort the well and the un-dying.
    Just take a moment to think about this, take a moment to see if you have ever experienced it yourself. The dying — sweet, stoic, silent — comforting those who are to be left behind. I know I experienced it when first I was diagnosed with cancer. I found myself in the completely unreal situation of having, over and over, to comfort people when I told them I had cancer. In the end I just stopped telling people, because almost invariably I was placed into the bizarre situation of comforting the well by saying everything would be all right (which, of course, it won’t, but that’s what people needed to hear to make them comfortable about me again).

        1. Happy to help! The wayback machine is a wonderful thing.

          And many thanks to you for posting about the article. It’s definitely worthwhile reading and gave me a lot to think about.

  27. Hmm, I think unfortunately I’ve been in the ‘wrong reaction’ situation a couple of times, but I’ve no control over it. The worst was when I visited my mother after facial surgery – I had no idea how much it would bruise or change the contours of my face, and I became shocked and frozen and couldn’t respond properly. I had no control over it at all. I had the whole shock reaction – speeding heart, sweating, everything.

    Actually, I seem to get this when people I am close to get injured. The worst one was forgetting my own address when calling an ambulance for my partner! With strangers, I can do the whole first aid thing dead easily. With people I care about, I become a jibbering wreck.

    What are you supposed to do when this happens? I wasn’t trying to put anything on my mother at all, but it took me several days to come to terms with it and be able to deal with it. I did visit, but I behaved very oddly while there, trying to be reassuring while making the situation worse.

    1. I realize this isn’t exactly a revolutionary suggestion, but I would say the first thing to do in such a situation is recognize that you’re having FEELINGS, and forgive yourself for having them. Panicking or beating yourself up will just make things a thousand times worse, and besides, such situations are legitimately quite upsetting!

      *Jedi hugs.*

    2. Just wanted to say you aren’t at all alone in this reaction, steampunked. People assume that the reason why doctors aren’t supposed to treat their family is so they won’t get tempted to do away with them to cash in on the inheritance :-). But actually it’s because medical professions recognize that this is by far the most common phenomenon, likely to affect absolutely everyone, and you don’t want your heart surgeon to become a sobbing wreck at the sight of Mom’s IV bruises. There isn’t much to do about it.. Just the usual anxiety-controlling things, you know, remember to breathe :-). And remember that it does happen, so you don’t get broadsided as much. And be compassionate when it happens to other people, as they can’t help it either. Awareness helps, in this as in all other matters.

    3. I had some similar experiences when my dad was in hospital. I had a moment of shock, thought to myself “I WILL DEAL WITH THIS LATER” in the loudest thought-voice I could, and then followed the familiar script of “How are you feeling?” until I could fake being normal. I think when you know in advance that you’ll be doing a hard thing, you can prepare for it – look up photos of the surgery online, talk to people who have already visited, think up topics of conversation, visualise how you will behave. I find that all of that helps. But when it’s a sudden shock with no warning? You just do the best you can, and apologise later if you feel that you need to.

      I think that people do understand that we can’t always control our feelings or how we express them when we’re under duress, but at times when I’ve said the wrong thing I tend to facepalm, say “oh shit” as a way to acknowledge that I know that I screwed up just then, and then carry on. I don’t want to risk an immediate and emotional apology then and there, and risk making the moment even more about me. Take the time to turn your attention back to the centre and ask about that person – what they want, what they’re feeling, what they need.

  28. That’s a very good rule, and one that I wish I’d figured out on my own, but there you go.

    One exception I would make would be in the case of two parents getting a divorce. Your kids are the first ring out. Try to bypass that ring completely if the subject of your kvetch is their other parent, either directly or indirectly. Or, if, y’know, they’re still kids.

  29. My grandmother is undergoing chemo right now, and it’s destroying her. My grief is terrible, but my mother’s grief matters most, so my grandmother screams at my mom, because she’s terrified and dying, and my mom comes home and screams at me, because her mother is dying, and I yell at my boyfriend, who tell me he loves me, so I tell my mom I love her, so she tells her mom that she loves her.

    I don’t complain to my mom about anything about my grandmother’s health. My mom is carrying enough of a burden already.

  30. As helpful as I think this advice is, I unfortunately fear that the target audience who needs to hear it most wouldn’t get that it’s meant for them. Someone who can’t respect a sick friend’s wishes to not have company is not suddenly going to understand because he/she read an article in the paper. “It’s not about you” is exactly the thing these people do not get and will never get.

    The day my dad died (a Friday), my mom and I went home that night and talked it over and agreed that we’d have the calling hours Tuesday and the funeral Wednesday, because we were physically and emotionally exhausted after his lengthy hospital stay (or should I say hospitalS stay, in three different states over the course of a month) and couldn’t face it any sooner. Then my mom called her little sister (and yes, I use the word “little” for a 60-plus-year-old woman on purpose), who lives some distance away, to tell her our plans — and in response got a lecture on how having everything in the middle of the week would be really inconvenient for her and her kids who were all coming from out of state.

    Seriously, that happened. I love my aunt, but I must love her while being on guard about how incredibly self-absorbed she can be. Three-plus years later, when I think about that night I still feel a flash of absolute rage at her. And I am absolutely sure that she still does not understand what a clueless and hurtful thing that was to say to my mother in that situation.

  31. This article and gmg’s comment really “clicked” it for me.

    It crystallized for me WHY I still feel some lingering resentment towards a now-distant friend over something she said when I was facing a sudden double bereavement.

    One of my grandfathers died quite suddenly after a brief fight in the hospital. The day of the funeral, an uncle collapsed and spent a harrowing week in the hospital before he, too, passed on.

    I was schooling at that time and having no close friends, kept the gory details to myself though my IRL circle knew the brief outline of what was happening.

    The night of his funeral, I wrote a short blog post where I spilled some of my feelings out away from family whom I knew had to deal with grief in their own ways. The blog entry mainly dealt with my emotional struggles regarding some of the heartbreaking medical decisions my family had to make. I was dumping out, because I knew my parents, aunts & uncles were in a smaller circle.

    This person proceeded to equate my feelings over those decisions and the sudden deaths…to LESS THAN her mother scolding her for not wanting to go to church. Basically “I read what you wrote but you should comfort me over the scolding I got, BOOHOO!”. I was pretty gobsmacked.

    A year or so later, when the acute grief passed somewhat, I eventually talked to her about what she said. She got angry and defensive.

    “It’s not about you” is exactly the thing she did not get and will likely never get.

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