Thursday, July 2, 2015

I Will Say The Wrong Thing

I've been a member of a lot of support groups. Support groups for cancer moms. Support groups for grieving moms. Some have been on the phone. Some have been in person, with people sitting in chairs, arranged in a circle. Some have been email groups. I've never done the chat room.

These are the kind of groups I have done. Perhaps you have participated in groups yourself. If you've been to Weight Watchers meetings, then that is a support group. Same with AA meetings. There are message boards for people in treatment for almost every disease process.

The reason you are in this group, with other people with a similar profile is that you need some kind of support you are not getting from your day-to-day life.  At least some of these people get you. Like it or not, they might be the only ones who do.

Every support group is different. But here is a common thread I've noticed among all of them.

There will be a point at the meeting when someone - you or another group member - tell a terrible story about someone in your personal life who said or did the wrong thing. You can pretty much count on some or all of the people present to commiserate with you. Sometimes the social worker or therapist facilitating the group will be quiet and listen to what all of the participants have to say. Other times, if the wrong thing is bad enough, they will join in the commiserating.

If you are telling such a story, chances are, as unique as the situation feels to you, someone else will pipe in that their boss, mother in law or crazy neighbor said the same thing. You feel sorry for this other person. But it's good to be understood.

There was one time when Jeremy and I told a story about someone saying a wrong thing that no one else in the group had heard. The group members were silenced for several minutes. People just stared. Even the people who never stop talking stopped talking. After a bit, they shook their heads.

It is important to have a safe place to vent. It is important to feel validated.

For a long time, I was too busy telling terrible stories, listening to terrible stories and commiserating with people about their terrible stories  to think about what I am about to say. When I had a little bit of mental bandwidth I thought about it a little. Once I had more bandwidth I thought about it quite a lot.

I will say the wrong thing.

I will be that person who someone brings up in the support group.  No one wants to be that person.

People who haven't been to a lot of support groups might not even think about this. They don't know what goes on in these places.

I've been careful. If someone says they are on a diet and going to Weight Watchers, then I'm not going to bake a chocolate cake, cut myself a big slice and eat it lustily in front of them. I want to be supportive. I don't want to be branded as the food pusher at the Weight Watchers meeting.

It wouldn't occur to me to ever ask an adoptive parent who the "real" mom is, tell a grieving person to snap out of it, assume a woman wearing a diaphanous blouse is pregnant, or pat a man's spare tire. The only reason I know about this is either from witnessing or reading about it.

Then there's the things I think, but don't say. Shouldn't that kid be in bed? I think you're on the Autism Spectrum.

There are lists published daily about what not to say.

Part of what worries me is that there are so many lists of things not to say to new parents, the infertile, the childless by choice, the moms of kids with dyslexia, the moms with dyslexia, the newly retired, the newly religious, prodigies, insomniacs, people with chronic illness, the obese, people who have lost their jobs, people who have lost their pets, the Gluten Intolerant, and people who have many competing multiple issues that there are too many potential bad things to remember. I'm afraid that I might forget something I'm not supposed to say.

To further complicate matters, no two people are alike. Every cancer mom I've ever talked to hated it when people brought up the idea of them having another child. They're insulted that anyone would say such a thing. They feel that there is an implication that the sick child can be replaced with a healthy one.

It turns out that two people gently brought up more children after Jacob was diagnosed. In my case, I wasn't insulted. I didn't think they were asking me to replace Jacob. My feeling was one of support and encouragement. I'm left happy that these two people didn't get the memo. Because for me, they actually said the right thing.

In spite of being careful, I have said the wrong thing. My wrong things seem to fit into three basic categories.

The canary in the coalmine
I'll notice something. I will often be the first to notice something. Other people do not notice or are not ready to notice. They feel I am being ridiculous. I have said the wrong thing. Then weeks, months or years later, they notice the same thing I did some time ago. But when I said it, it was too early. Now I try to wade in more gently. I made this improvement the other day and it worked out. But I'll probably say the wrong thing again. It's not easy being this canary.

Letting the cat out of the bag that I didn't know was in the bag
Sometimes I talk about things that are taboo to other people. I seem to have fewer topics that feel taboo for me. I'm not big on certain kinds of euphemisms. I don't know why people are ashamed or secretive about such things. But I need to remember this and respect them.

So I will inadvertently let something drop that was supposed to be covered up. It isn't a surprise party kind of thing. It isn't something that someone told me in confidence. Its something I was supposed to know not to talk about.

So now if I have something like that to say, I might just have to zip it. Or use a whisper voice.

Giving the wrong advice when the person just wanted to vent
The person will seem to be asking for advice. I give some advice. I give reasons for my advice. Then it turns out that my advice is crappy. I have said the wrong thing.

The next time someone seems to be asking for advice I'll ask them directly if they want advice or if they really just want to vent. If they say they want advice, I might remind them how crappy my advice was the last time.

There are probably people who do not care that they said the wrong thing. I'm not one of them. When I say the canary in the coalmine wrong thing or the cat out of the bag wrong thing I remember it forever. It becomes a hot memory.

Just thinking about being that person in someone's support group gives me the same deeply embarrassed feeling that is hard to live with, even though I won’t be there to witness it.

After a long-suffering time, I decided a different approach was in order.

I've come to accept that in spite of my best efforts and in spite of my awareness of what gets me into the most hot water, I will say the wrong thing. Allowing myself to think about patterns of saying the wrong thing and admitting that saying the wrong thing is something I do took some of the sting out of it.

The next thing is to figure out what to do when I say the wrong thing again.

I've apologized of course. But I'm thinking that maybe asking the other person what else I could do to make them feel better would be good. I might put forth some suggestions.

Sometimes I'll be the one saying the wrong thing. Other times I'll be on the receiving end.

A person I have known for a long time said something to me. Unfortunately, it's playing over and over again in my head like a broken record. I feel unmoored. They have said the wrong thing.

If this were a bereaved parent bad thing, I could take it to a chat room I've been invited to. I could call my very best Camp Sunshine friend.

This particular wrong statement is homeless. I'm not in that kind of support group.  I've thought about joining a support group about this topic. Unfortunately this topic has me so busy that I haven't looked for one, which is ironic.

This wrong thing that someone said needs an audience. I'm thinking if I'm this upset that the support group might need to move from the back burner to the front one. Things that don't bead up and roll off are a message. The message isn't for the person who said the wrong thing. The message is for me.

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1 comment:

  1. An excellent article with concrete suggestions for when you say the wrong thing. Now I have more of a plan!