Here’s the thing: my parents got divorced when I was very young. My father was (and is) dealing with chronic pain and my mother was (and is) struggling with bipolar disorder. Both of them admit that they were bad for one another. Neither of them harbour any animosity, any regrets about taking a shot on the relationship, or any bitterness that it didn’t work out.
But then there’s me. Tiny Baby Trash Broad, precocious, whose personal development was completely tangled up with her parents being miserable. I’m not saying that it’s unhealthy to be told that “you are the one good thing that came out of our relationship”, but it’s not a great thing for a three-year-old to internalise.
(That said, I also internalised “We still love each other, but we’re not in love with each other anymore”, but I’m not sure if that was something my parents actually said or if it’s just what Stacey McGill’s parents told her in The Babysitters’ Club.)
Flash forward thirty-odd years and I’m still trying to be the one good thing that comes out of people’s shitty experiences. So, yeah, if we’re friends and you’re having a tough time, it’s almost guaranteed that I’m spending a bunch of mental energy on trying to find a solution. You probably haven’t asked me to. And, because I’m a perfectionist on top of all of this, I probably won’t actually tell you about my grand plans for ensuring your happiness unless they are 1000% guaranteed to work. But trust me, I am wearing myself out thinking about your troubles.
Recently, a friend recounted the one perfect question that a person like me needs to learn to ask. When someone is struggling with something–unexpected eviction, partner trouble, irritable bowel syndrome, whatever–you just need to ask them:
Are you looking for empathy, or advice?*
This Trash Broad has a strong tendency to leap straight into Advice Mode, but frequently, that’s not what people want. Intellectually, I know this, because I am the actual worst at taking advice from others. So I just need to expand that to include other people.
I’m thinking of it as the ‘Help Or A Hug’ principle. Sometimes, people do want your help with their problems. Sometimes, they just want a sympathetic ear, a shoulder, or a full-on bearhug to remind them that they are loved and that you are there for whatever it is they need from you.
People can and should change their minds about whether they need Help Or A Hug. Moment to moment, we all need different things. But I’m trying to remember not to just assume that Help is the only kind of support I have to offer. After all, there was nothing I could do to Help my parents when they got divorced, so we all got loads of Hugs, and on the balance that was exactly what we needed to get us through.
* technically, Kate McCombs says ‘Are you wanting empathy or a strategy right now?’ but you get the drift.