We are coming up on the time of year, where it is common for people to reconnect with friends and family and share the stories about their lives. We seek that connection with each other year round but something about the holidays really seems to increase our willingness to be open and vulnerable to each other emotionally and to really open ourselves up to connection and sometimes even pain. If you are like me, you don’t want to hurt those who are opening up to you, friends and family alike. So what steps can each of us take to help prevent ourselves from hurting those trying to connect with us?
I am talking about emotional connections here, not just working calendar magic so that we can see someone for a few minutes. It can take only a few minutes to create or acknowledge a connection with someone, so I don’t worry if I can only meet for a quick cup of coffee with one person between visits with others this season. I make the most of even 5 minutes by following these tips:
- Listen to their story or what they have to say. If you only have five minutes with each other or if it is Uncle Ted talking about his most recent deep sea fishing trip over dinner, really take the time to listen to what they are saying.
- Try to identify what they are feeling while they are sharing the story with you. Are they happy, sad, wishful, lonely?
- Empathize with that emotion. It is never cheesy or rude to say, “Gee Uncle Ted, it must have been really disappointing to see that one get away!” or “Wow Sis, that sounds really rough.” By recognizing the emotions in the story that is being shared with you, you are seeing beyond just the words to the person who has lived that story.
- Don’t worry if you get the wrong emotion the first time you try this. If Uncle Ted wasn’t disappointed or it wasn’t rough for your Sis, they will let you know and seldom in a confrontational kind of way. When they state the correction, KEEP Listening and empathize again, now with the correct emotion which they just gave you.
Don’t use the phrase “At Least…” ever when trying to empathize with someone. Let me say that again, NEVER, EVER use the phrase “At Least…” when trying to connect with someone.
Really quickly let me share an example of how this phrase is commonly used. We tend to use it a lot when we think we are trying to empathize with someone but it never seems to quite come across that way.
Let’s say Michelle is one of those always bubbly, upbeat people, but she is feeling down at the moment because she isn’t going to be able to go home for the December holidays this year, even though she was able to see her entire family for Thanksgiving. It can be very tempting to say, “I’m sorry you can’t go home for the holidays but at least you got to see them last month.”
First of all, Michelle knows she saw them last month and she is still feeling down. By telling her at least in this case, we are implying that she shouldn’t be down or feel as bummed as she does because there was something good before, in this case seeing her family at Thanksgiving.
Heck, all of us who feel bummed now have felt happy before, sometimes as recently as 1 minute ago. That doesn’t lessen what we feel now. Instead being told “at least..” can leave each of us feeling invalidated and not connected with each other. If I am feeling down, it is much better for me to hear “wow that is a downer.” than anything trying to tell me I don’t have it very bad.
The second reason at least doesn’t help with connections is because it now creates a competition and not the friendly kind. The many times I have heard “at least…” are commonly in reference to “at least you have it better than so and so” or “at least you have it better than me”.
A friend of mine, Wayne ended up having an operation which removed much of his lower leg. He was devastated when this happened. He had been very mobile, self-sufficient and always on the go up until that point and even just the time it would take to recover from the operation was a huge blow to him. Shortly after this surgery, he was spending time with one of his old army buddies and they tried to cheer him up by pointing out “at least it wasn’t your whole leg.” What his well-meaning but clueless friend didn’t understand was that for Wayne, it was just as bad to lose his foot as it would have been to lose his entire leg from the hip down. He stopped hanging out with that friend entirely when a month later Wayne did have to have more of the leg removed and this time it was above the knee. When I asked him why, he told me about his friend’s response to his emotional pain of the first surgery and told me “I just don’t need to hear that, “at least I didn’t die.”” Wayne went on to joke, “Heck maybe if I do see him and he says that I will die in a few weeks. After all, it’s now my whole leg.”
When we use the phrase “at least” to try and connect with someone it’s common that instead of being cheered up, our friends and family feel worse. After all, who isn’t cheered up by thinking of people who have it way worse than we do? I know after seeing starving children in a magazine I want to just jump up and down with joy because my life is better than theirs, don’t you? Oh wait, no I don’t feel better. In fact, I often feel much worse than I did before I thought of those other terrible things and I bet you do too.
What does help me feel better is having someone acknowledge that right now, I am not doing great emotionally and having that person just be with me and listen!
If you have watched the movie Inside Out, you have seen a little about the power and strength that can come from feeling sad and you might have learned that feeling sad is needed. If you remember when BingBong (the imaginary childhood friend who cries candy) was feeling sad and Sadness just sat down with him and let him cry, he felt much better but when Joy was trying to remind him of better things, he kept getting sadder and less happy? When we use “at least” statements on our friends and family this season, we are decreasing their ability to be happy because, like Joy in the movie ,we are trying to force our desired feelings on everyone around us. Instead, try simply acknowledging what emotions are there and listening to your friends’ stories. Maybe even share a few of your own. By being with our friends and family and connecting without “at leasts” we can all have happier and better holiday seasons this year.
Life’s too Short to Have Bad Days! What are You Doing to Make Today Fantastic?
I am learning to communicate without “at leasts” so that I can connect better with everyone I know.