I have so many great friends here in DC as well as in Chicago, and on a daily basis, I find myself wondering how I got so lucky. And I think about this even more when one of them needs a shoulder to cry on. Why? Because I…am not very good at comforting people.
Before you get all up in arms, and say, ‘No way, Heather, you do a fine job of comforting folks when they’re upset, I’m sure,’ let me explain myself here. (Or, I mean, maybe you totally agree that I’m the worst, but this is what you would say to comfort ME when I feel like a terrible and awkward friend.)
When it comes to reassuring those that I care about that everything is going to be A-OK after a rough patch, I’m not so good with words. I distinctly remember when I first realized this fact. As a senior in college, one of my roommates broke up with her boyfriend after a drunken night out and stumbled into our room bawling. Before I could say anything, she just walked straight at me, tears running down her face, mumbling about a breakup. Panicked, all I could think to do was open my arms and hug her while she cried. And all I said was, ‘I’m so sorry, just let it out,’ and it seemed to help. I distinctly recall my initial terror at thinking I was going to have to talk through it with her, and worrying about what I could even say, and being so relieved that comforting a friend had been so simple, and that for the moment, a hug solved it all.
Although I consider myself a writer, a communications professional, and most importantly, a talker, I feel that comforting people with my words just never works out very well. I make things worse by thinking far too logically about why you and your best friend or coworker are fighting. Or I will tell you that you dodged a bullet because MAN, your boyfriend had a terrible last name anyway. Or I try to lighten the mood with a joke about how much free time you’ll have now that you lost your job (This last one especially does not work out well). If I don’t somehow offend, I just say, ‘Aww,’ and ‘Oh, I’m so sorry’ on an incessant loop that even starts to sound empty to me after a while.
And to clarify, I really really do care, and I do have a heart that does not pump ice through my veins. I care about my family members and friends so much that I wish I could help them out by just dealing with some of the shitty stuff for them. Just scooping some pain off the top and handling it for them so that they can breathe easy for a few. But I worry that my words never convey that when those I’m closest to are going through tough times — so sometimes, to make sure I don’t end up looking like an insensitive jerk, I say little or nothing at all. Which probably doesn’t help either.
I kind of wonder if we all comfort others in the way that we receive comfort best. Words honestly are probably the least useful when my friends are trying to talk me off of a ledge. For example, some of the adages I have heard over the years from well-meaning friends have almost been more infuriating than helpful. There have been points during breakups or dating mishaps where I thought that if I heard my girlfriends say, ‘It will all work out in the end. If it doesn’t, it’s not the end,’ one more time, that I was going to throw my phone out a window. That didn’t help me when I thought about how that could mean that I would meet the love of my life at the ripe old age of 80, so I try not to use that one on other people. Same with, ‘It just wasn’t meant to be.’ Like, duh. I knew that already. For as extremely emotional and expressive as I am, I’m also annoyingly logical. So please, guys, I love you, but stop quoting your Facebook profile from 2005.
I also started thinking a lot about this today when I saw Hyperbole and a Half’s newest post (hooray, she’s back!) on depression. So many times your friends or loved ones just want to make you BETTER when life is crappy, so they just start saying things, even if they do not acknowledge the problem at hand or, really, make sense at all. And a lot of times, they just tell you to look on the bright side, and that you’ll get through it. If you’re a naturally optimistic person like myself, this is normally very easy, but when you’re depressed or going through some really rough times, this advice, this help just makes you feel further and further away from your friends and from getting better.
So for me, words — as much as I love them and swear by their power in general — are not very effective for dealing with pain. Aside from when I get them out for myself on paper, they don’t do much for me. And so, instead of using them for other people, I do what I know (and respond to) best. I give really great hugs, and have no problem hanging out with you all day on the couch (or at the bar if that’s what you need). And I won’t hesitate to pick up your all-time favorite treat or movie on my way over or even make something if it’s simple enough (I’d like us both to live, so no laborious recipes, but I can make some pretty awesome muffins). I will tell you that you are allowed to feel however you are feeling, no matter how crazy you think it makes you seem, and that if you need to ugly cry for hours, I am cool with that. And most importantly, despite my love of conversation, I’ll sit and just listen and act as a wordless sounding board for as long as you want, or heck, even just sit in silence if you just need to feel a little less alone. But let’s just assume that, eventually, everything will be OK, so please, don’t make me say it.