The Positive Power of, “Wow, that sucks.”
by: Jeff Walz
Owner: Next Door Counseling
Author: “Walking Bridge – A Novel of Friendship and Redemption”
Positive thinking is the mindset of winners. Don't get mired in self-defeating, negative thoughts that only keep you from reaching your goals. Just avoid negative thoughts and feeling bad. That should be our goal, right? Bad feelings are… bad. (Sorry to be so negative.)
Is this our mindset when we try to talk someone out of feeling hurt or depressed? Do we really believe we can talk someone out of having a broken heart?
I once went to a friend and shared the pain I was feeling as the result of my girlfriend cheating on me. His response? “Well, technically you guys aren't married, so there really isn't anything wrong with what she did.” That was his way of trying to make me feel better. In his mind there wasn't technically a reason for me to feel bad – so I shouldn't feel bad.
Ultimately, his comment made me feel even worse:
1. He invalidated my deeply felt pain because of a simple technicality.
2. His response told me that he couldn't relate to me if I wasn't my usual, affable self.
Not only did I have a cheating girlfriend, I also had a friend who technically didn't want to be my friend.
I have to wonder, if my girlfriend had poured gasoline on my hand and set it on fire, would my friend have empathized with me then? Or would he show some consistency by saying, “Well, technically you have another hand you can use while that one heals up. So, is it such a big deal?”
I'm guessing that my seared flesh would not have been disregarded on a technicality. He may have even driven me to the hospital. So why was it so easy for him to disregard my broken heart?
Someone else's emotional pain has a way of making us very uncomfortable.
Emotions are for the most part, invisible. This makes emotional pain easier to ignore. Emotional pain can be faked compared to a compound fracture. Some people fake emotional pain, which desensitizes the rest of us. We wonder to ourselves, do they really feel that bad, or are they exaggerating to get my sympathy?
Sometimes I think we've let the culture of positive thinking get the best of us. The power of positive thought is a good tool, but it won't fix everything. Think of using a screwdriver to pound a nail. That's similar to the idea of using positive thinking to circumvent the grieving process.
Perhaps worst of all, others' emotional pain mirrors our own pain back to us. It can trigger us and remind us of the times we've felt just as bad, which we don't like to be reminded of. This causes us to interact with someone based on our needs, not theirs. A trait that I believe is becoming more and more prevalent in our culture. I hope I'm wrong about this.
So we grope for any tool we can find that helps us push away our discomfort. The easiest thing we try is to convince them that, “It's not that bad.” In other words, “It doesn't matter to me, so it shouldn't matter to you.”
What the hurt person tends to hear is, “You don't matter to me.”
In my life, I've been on both sides of this equation. Regretfully, I've marginalized people's pain, but have also had my pain marginalized. I would bet that most of us identify with both of these, if we're honest with ourselves.
I don't think my friend was evil or had bad intentions. I think my pain made him uncomfortable. He simply wanted me and my problem to go away until I cheered up. It felt like he expected me to say, “Hey, you're right! I guess, technically my heart hasn't been ripped out of my chest and stomped on. I feel fine now.”
You've probably heard the dentist's slogan, “Ignore your teeth and they'll go away!” The same applies to our important relationships. We can ignore our relationships to death, especially when those relationships require more of us than gossiping and shopping, or drinking beer and watching the game. It's in those moments when more is required of us that real relationships are tested, and born.
So what do I wish my friend had said? I would have settled for some version of, “Wow, that sucks.”
With this, he would have acknowledged that my pain was valid. He would have also displayed a willingness to be my friend at a time when I was a little messy.
When someone hurting wants to confide in you, they are generally telling you that they trust you, and that they see you as someone they can lean on. Don't take that lightly. Even if you don't really understand their pain, don't try to talk them out of feeling bad. Just accept that their situation is painful for them.
“Wow, that sucks,” can be a good first step.