Today I had a very humbling realization: I don’t always do the right thing.
Now, as much as I know, logically, that I can’t possible do the right thing every single time, there is a part of me that feels that I usually bat 1000 when it comes to human interactions. I pride myself on my ability to integrate myself with others, and today I was slapped in the face with the reality that sometimes, I’m not only not good at person to person relations, there is the occasional interaction that I completely, utterly fuck up.
To elaborate, there are 18 teachers in my school, including me, who received possible non-reemploy notices for next year. One of those teachers is 4 months pregnant, and she was devastated at the news.
Today after our staff meeting I gave her a hug and attempted to cheer her up by saying “look at it from the lens of possibility! You’ll be ok!” to which she replied “shut up Hannah…just shut up”.
Now, my immediate inner reaction was to rear up on my high horse and and condemn her for such rude hostility. How dare she not be inspired by my waves of positivity! How could she not see that I was a vibrant fountain of constructive forward thought! Fine, she could just wallow in her negativity.
When I mentioned this story to someone else (with the expectation, of course, that he would immediately agree that I was such a beacon of light and my coworker needed to recognize), he simply said “people don’t want to hear all that.”
This made me pause.
Why WOULDN’T someone who is feeling down and out want to hear about how things are going to get better and that they will come out on top? Isn’t that better than agreeing with them that the world is crashing down around them? Don’t people want to have someone point out all the good things when they are focusing on the bad?
And then I realized: people don’t want to hear anything until they know that their current feelings are validated. Feeling validated is a basic need of every single human being, and any advice given before validation occurs will simply be seen as patronization.
This, of course, was a bitter pill to swallow. Here I had been riding along on my high horse, thinking that I was magnanimously sprinkling goodwill flowers for everyone to enjoy, when really I was coming off as the smug little goody-two-shoes, pat-patting everyone on the head with a small “there there”.
Being the type of person who legitimately wants to help people, this realization kills me. Being the type of person who will not accept less than perfection from myself, it also prompted thoughts about how I can truly, honestly legitimize someone’s feelings. How can I change my approach so that I am ACTUALLY someone people can count on versus only being that person in my head?
In my view, it all comes down to one simple thing: listening. When I was busy spouting my words of supposed wisdom, I was failing to actually listen to what my co-worker was going through. This woman, a cornerstone of our school, is facing the possibility of bringing a baby girl into the world on only her husband’s income with no health insurance. If you live in the boondocks, that’s no problem. Here in California? HA.
The bottom line is, her feelings are extremely real and valid, and no amount of positive fluff will change that. There is an extreme difference between being legitimately there for someone versus using someone else’s issues to showcase your own thoughts and feelings.
Listening to someone, really listening, is usually the only thing that truly helps in any sort of rough situation. Feelings are ever-changing and maddeningly, unaffected by logic. Yet paradoxically, sometimes the only thing that can help change someone’s emotions is the simple acknowledgment that their state of mind is real and that it is okay.
When I think back on all of the times I’ve been upset and stayed upset for any length of time, it was simply due to the fact that I felt like my feelings were not heard. When I have confirmation that my current reaction is acknowledged, usually, magically, my negativity dissipates.
Facing realizations about how you have screwed up sucks. I always want to be the best version of myself, and when it’s pointed out to me that my approach to a situation was terrible, my prancing gelding suddenly turns into a rock that I am frantically trying to crawl under.
But if I know one thing about myself, it’s that I don’t give up. And so, I turn my head onward with the torch of new realizations lighting my way. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I come across someone in a state of internal agony, but I will try my damndest to make sure that it will be the last time I try to fill the space between us with my own useless words.
Shit happens. Life can be a real freakin’ bitch sometimes, and people react to things in different ways. And you know what? If I think the way I react to things is ok, I have no right to judge how others react. The only thing I can do is listen, squeeze their hand, hand them tissues, and then shut up and listen some more.