Enough about you…

2 02 2012

On my first day in my casework class, back in Narnia social work school, we got right down to business. (After introducing ourselves, and sharing one thing about ourselves that people would never guess. I thought it was too early for serial killer jokes, and that is an opportunity I will never get back.)

We were, for the most part, inexperienced in the field. There are plenty of people who go to social work school while working in what are essentially social work positions, but there didn’t happen to be any of them in this class. Any questions we were answering or thoughts we were sharing were those of unskilled, uneducated do-gooders.

Which, we all know, are the worst.

The professor posed a hypothetical situation–someone comes in to see you, depressed over the death of a relative. What can you say?

We all kind of froze. No one wants to be the idiot who gets the answer wrong, perfectly illustrating that they are in no way suited for the job that they are training for, on the first day of class.

Finally, someone spoke up. I think he called on, actually, because it got that bad, but that’s not the point. He said what was obviously the first thing to pop into his head. “Maybe you could tell them how you can relate? Like, tell them about a relative that you had that died?”

We spent the remaining hour of the class discussing why this should never happen.

Come on, you know you all jumped out of your seats and yelled, “WRONG!” just like Dana Carvey in the old SNL McLaughlin Group skits. (Do yourself a favor and YouTube that shit.)

I can understand why that guy said it, though. It’s what people do.

“I’m so depressed, my cat just died.”
“Oh, I know how you feel, I was a wreck when I lost my hamster.”

“I feel awful, my aunt has cancer.”
“Ugh, it’s the worst, my sister is just recovering from that.”

“My life is over. A hot air balloon landed in my neighbor’s yard, knocking over his fig tree and crushing my foot as I lounged in my hammock.”

Despite being the go-to response in non-therapeutic settings, “I know how you feel, listen to my story” has rarely made anyone feel better.

1.) You can’t relate to everything.

As shown  in our foot-death-by-hot-air-balloon story, not everyone has every experience. You might not have lost a parent, or maybe you hate cats and can’t imagine someone getting so worked up other loss of a pet. (Who the hell are you, you monster?) That doesn’t mean you can’t be empathetic, and listen to someone when they’re in distress. But if, “Hey, me too!” is the only trick in your bag, you’re going to be scrambling when that situation presents itself.

2.) Oh, I’m sorry, let’s talk about you.

See, I thought I was sharing something that I was going through. Apparently, this brought up your need to talk about something that you’ve been dealing with, but had somehow forgotten about until I started talking.

In an effort to be sympathetic, and show that they understand, people often take over the conversation. Next think you know, you’re comforting the friend you called on for support.

“I know, you’ve had those Chucks forever, I can’t believe the sole finally wore through. But…remember when I said I got fired?”

3.) No, you don’t know how I feel.

This is a big one. When you are dealing with something, tragic, unfair, or just sad in your life, no one else understands. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been through the exact same thing. Your feelings are unique, no one has ever felt sadness the way you do.

I’m not saying this sarcastically. This is how people feel, and it’s fine. (For a while.)

When I was in college, a boy I had known for a long time overdosed and died. Not only was I devastated, I was living in a new city with people I hardly knew. Eventually I told them, and one of the people in my house suggested we pray for this boy. I explained that I wasn’t quite there. He smiled and said, “I know how you feel.”

He went on to tell me about his friend who had committed suicide, and how she was burning in hell, just like my friend who had overdosed, so we really ought to be praying for them.

I won’t get into exactly how it all ended, though there were tears, screaming, and locked doors involved. But the entire time he was talking, I just remember thinking, “I wish you would fucking die” “You know how I feel? I don’t know how I feel.”

Keep it to yourself.

Sidenote: telling someone that the person they’re missing is being tortured by fire and pitchforks? Something else you should keep to yourself.

4.) There’s no award for oneupsmanship.

You don’t win for being the most miserable. Unless there was some kind of “Asshole Award,” and now that I think about it, there probably is. I don’t think most people are consciously trying to one up someone who is in distress, but it seems to turn into that.

“My boyfriend is back in rehab.”
“Been there. My dad was always in and out of rehab. When he wasn’t beating the shit out of me.”

You might have it worse than the person you’re talking to. Such things are difficult to quantify, but I think we can all agree that the Baudelaire children had it worse than Goldilocks. But let’s imagine Goldilocks came to them, saying, “Violet, this has been the worst day. I caught a cold from sampling porridge from strangers, my nap was interrupted, and I got chased out of a house by some grizzlies.” A response of, “Well, our parents are dead, everything we own was destroyed in a fire, we’re being chased by an evil madman, and everything we love turns to shit” would not make anyone feel better.

I don’t usually leave it to Craig Ferguson to wrap things up, but in this instance I will. Let’s all ask ourselves:

  1. Does this need to be said?
  2. Does this need to be said by me?
  3. Does this need to be said by me right now?

Happy empathy, everybody.




7 responses

2 02 2012

I can empathize with people who respond with a “me too” story – it’s human nature to show a connection with what someone’s telling you by sharing what similar thing happened to you, and the intention is often good: “OMG I feel bad and I want to help you and so I’ll show you how you can talk to me about your problem because we have a common bond.” Yes, some do it for their own attention-seeking ends or do it from good intent but don’t know how to move on productively from there… but the instinct and intent is often good, they just don’t realize how it’s going to dead-end on them.

2 02 2012

I’m not questioning the intent. I think it depends on how it’s done and I think people need to think carefully about what their motivation is. That’s why I talked about the one-upping or the “I know how you feel.” There’s a difference between, hey, I’ve been through that, let me listen to you, and LISTEN TO MY STORY.

I had this written for a while, but I almost had to be physically restrained when my director pulled this yesterday. If someone is horribly upset about something, taking up all of their time with “Something similar happened when I was at another agency. Was is Brownsville? Well, it was on the border…” Ugh. Useless.

2 02 2012

Sorry to hear about your client that was shot, SJ. Sometime when you are feeling better, perhaps you could tell us about him. (Changing names, ages, genders etc so we don’t really know who you are talking about 🙂 )

Sometimes our jobs suck. Hugs going out to you.

2 02 2012

I totally agree that one-upmanship and I-know-how-you-feel stories don’t do anyone any good. However, when I was “depressed over the death of a relative” I only wanted to be with other people who had experienced a significant loss. My family of course, but others who had lost siblings, a teacher whose father committed suicide when she was in high school, and some older, distant relatives who lost their daughter before I was born. None of these people had experienced my loss, but because they had their own losses they knew (really knew) grief and that grief is individual. My close friends that had not had a major grief in their lives were only superficially helpful.
God – I hope this doesn’t come across as on-uping you (your feelings are your own, and it probably sucks donkey-balls right now). I am trying to say that whatever someone is going through, it is often helpful to talk to someone else who has been in a similar situation.

4 02 2012
Cheap Social Worker

I’ve shared this with several friends in a passive-aggressive attempt to teach them something. I agree with everything you said, especially the part about one-upping people. It doesn’t help and in most cases just makes the person feel worse (I know from personal experience). Thank you writing out a well-articulated post on this subject!

13 02 2012

I am TOTALLY a “oneupper” by nature, always have been. I have only come to recognize it in the past few years, and have started working really, really hard to change that about myself.

Let me tell you, it is not easy. I’ve discovered that a lot of my friends come to talk with me about certain issues because they KNOW I’ve been in a similar situation, so obviously I don’t need to tell them all about it! Unless they specifically ask how I dealt with it, of course.

(I love your Baudelaire children reference, by the way)

11 03 2012

As one of those “unskilled, uneducated do-gooders,” still floating along through Narnia, I have nonetheless begun to recognize the folly of self-disclosure. In the limited amount of field-related work I have done, the temptation to tell people how I dealt with something has been nearly overwhelming at times.

As a person in recovery, it is especially tough when working with someone who is chemically dependent, as this is the way we are taught to work with others in 12-step programs. However, this sort of backhanded advice giving has, in most instances, not served the client especially well. This is one of the many reasons I am now leaning away from working directly with this population. It hits a little too close to home too often, and though it’s easy for me to empathize, it’s too easy to fall into these traps.

Thank you for the post, I really enjoy your blog!

p.s. I realize the irony of self-disclosing all over this reply 🙂

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