I have a problem with knowing what to say when people ask about my life.
For some background, I am 25, have completed a Bachelors degree, but I have ended up living with my parents again. Originally I was only going to live with my parents for a summer before finding a place of my own to live. Unfortunately, I have chronic pain and it has gotten so bad that I can not work. Not being able to work in a problem for several reasons, though the financial side is being taken care of as I am receiving aid while I await an official diagnosis. My main problem is that all of my peers are moving on from school into their careers and I keep getting asked when I will move on.
I know that mostly everyone is coming from a good place when they ask me what my life plans are, but I’m having trouble coming up with a short, polite way of saying “I am terrified for the future so I think about it as little as possible and instead focus on trying to figure out how to live my daily life with limited mobility”. Another issue is that the disease the doctors think I might have tends to be thought of as causing mild pain even though it can be completely debilitating. I am at my wits end trying to shut these conversations down and it’s to the point where I avoid talking to people and I almost cry when they do start asking me things. Any ideas on things I can say?
Pained and Tired
Hi Pained & Tired,
I get a lot of questions like this: “How can I preemptively get people to stop doing an incredibly common/but also incredibly annoying behavior?” The answer is always: You probably can’t. You can’t get other people to do anything. What you can do is change how you react to it so that there’s less friction for you.
People are always going to ask you about the future, what your plans are, what’s new in your life, what the next steps are, when that dissertation will be finished, etc. They just are.
That doesn’t mean you owe them a “satisfying” answer (in United States culture that would be a short & optimistic answer that completes the social circuit, like, “How are you?” “Good, and you?” “Great!”). We in the Etiquette Industrial Complex can point out reasons that seemingly innocuous “small talk” questions might be really upsetting to certain people all the livelong day, and yet people who are interested in how you are doing and what you might be doing next are still going to ask you about it. You can’t control what other people will do, so can you get some more control over how you react and interact?
Right now, you’re in pain. You’re ashamed because you see yourself as falling behind your peers. You’re not where you wanted to be at this stage of your life. You’re adjusting to a new normal, trying to figure out what that looks like for you. You’re exhausted and scared from being in so much pain. You know that these questions aren’t designed deliberately to torture you and that they are coming from a good place, so the final step here is about finding a way to answer them that doesn’t cause you so much anxiety and shame.
May I suggest short, honest answers followed by a question?
- “I’d love to get my own place and start working soon, but until I have a diagnosis and a treatment plan in place, I’m pretty grateful that my parents can put me up. What’s new with you?”
- “I wish I had better news, but I’m still waiting on a definite diagnosis. Are you doing anything good this summer?”
- “Aw, thanks for asking, but I’d rather talk about anything but that. But you, what are you working on lately?”
- “It’s really hard for me to think about the future right now, I’m just trying to get through the day with as little pain as possible. Thanks for asking, though. Can we talk about what you’re up to?”
- “I wish I had a fun answer to that, but I’m having some very serious and very boring health issues and living with my parents while we figure everything out. Thanks for asking, though. Can we talk about you? Anything new and exciting?”
- “Yikes, that’s a kind question, but honestly it makes me want to cry. Things are still really up in the air for me, and I’m pretty stressed about it. Can we talk about something else? What are you doing this weekend?”
The question part at the end is essential. By adding this, you are giving the person a safe, face-saving conversational out that lets them follow your lead. Without it, you feel shame for being probed about an uncertain future, and they also feel social shame for inadvertently upsetting you, and unfortunately it is possible to create an ouroboros of shame that can drown the whole conversation. Asking them a question that gives them a safe subject change can be like throwing them a life preserver.
There’s also a double-bind for the askers, especially askers who know that all is not well with you. If they ask about it, they risk being intrusive or reminding you of upsetting stuff. If they don’t ask about it because they don’t have exactly the right words or they’re afraid of upsetting you, it seems like they don’t care. With really close friends I think you can set boundaries, like, “please don’t ask me about TROUBLING THING unless I bring it first up please,” but with acquaintances/colleagues/more distant friends or family I think it’s a good habit to look at “asking about x” as a way of “showing interest and care about x” (unless you know for a fact the person is some kind of nosy asshole).
You can also shift the conversation to other things you are doing, as in:
Person Who Hasn’t Seen You In A While: “Hey, good to see you! What’s new? Where are you working these days?”
You: “Good to see you too! My illness is keeping me at home these days, so I don’t have any career updates for you, but I did just read the greatest book, let me tell you all about it…”
You’ll be able to tell a lot about people from how they handle your answers and your suggested subject changes. You’ll be surprised how many people will be grateful to follow your lead in a culture that doesn’t have a lot of language for talking directly and honestly about illness, hardship, and other vulnerable things. You’ll also probably be surprised by how many people will confide in you about their own anxieties about the future and health and other vulnerable stuff if you give them the opening to be honest in return. That can be exhausting and weird in its own right, but it can also be a reminder that a lot of people are putting a brave face on things just to get through the day.
Yeah, you will probably encounter people who insist on “cheering you up,” people who can’t stop reassuring you that “it can’t be that bad,” people who won’t let it go and insist on hearing every medical detail, and people who drown you in annoying advice about yoga and supplements and some tangentially related thing they scrolled by during their daily poop. You’re allowed to avoid well-meaning people if they annoy you, you’re allowed to give them the bare minimum of information and politeness. You don’t owe anyone a happy answer to their questions, you don’t owe them having the expected amount of pain for your possible diagnosis, you don’t owe anyone living your life on a certain schedule. You also don’t have to avoid all conversation until you have some upbeat comfortable story to tell about your life.
Hopefully these scripts can help you navigate this very routine part of social interaction with much less anxiety. I hope you get answers and a workable treatment plan very soon.