This week was unexpectedly intense, in my online world; I wonder if there is a polarizing issue that didn’t come up, among my close friends. I have some distance, because I didn’t end up in the middle of anything, and I have so much empathy, for everyone. Not long ago, I hurt my friend. I thought maybe the world could use some of the insights I’ve gained into relationships, as I try to repair a friendship I damaged badly. I wasn’t going to write about this, publicly, but I’ve been told, privately, that my insight into relationships in general might help people. So, here goes nothing…
I hurt a very dear friend, by not really listening to her, by pretending to validate her experience, when I really didn’t know what was going on with her. Worst of all, I didn’t realize that I was hurting her, until she came to me to express her hurt feelings. It all happened online, where it’s easier to ignore the unspoken, even when I know that something is off. My behavior triggered, for her, feelings of shame, anger, fear, mistrust, and I don’t know what else. I did that. And I didn’t even notice that I had done it. I don’t know if we can repair our friendship.
We have a shot at repairing our friendship, my friend tells me, because I said what amounted to “You are right that I did this very wrong thing.” It took weeks for me to bypass the fear that told me to run away, to fight back by arguing, to do nothing but repeat myself. I didn’t totally succeed. I apologized, when I ought to have realized that she dislikes apologies, having heard too many insincere “I’m sorry”s, in her life. Because I wanted to do it, to help myself feel better, I said it. I justified it by thinking about how it is the thing we do, when we admit a wrong. We apologize. If I had thought about her, more, and me, less, I might have skipped that. I was afraid of more pain. Things were so tense. It eased MY fear, but it made hers worse. Even so, we are stumbling along, with tension and anger and definitely fear, and it’s crucial that I do my best to avoid a reaction from a fearful place.
It’s better to wait, than respond in fear. My pain is not secondary to her pain, in importance, but there’s no reason why I can’t put it aside long enough to say, “My dear friend, you are in so much pain. I see that. And I see that I caused you pain.” It’s not easy, but it is simple and important.
There’s a strange connection, here, to a seemingly distant world, HypnoBirthing, where we teach that, during childbirth, fear leads to tension, which leads to pain, which triggers more fear. I made the connection between relationships and my training on fear response when one amazing friend said, after a whole assortment of internet meanness was unleashed on her Facebook wall, “This is not what we are supposed to do to each other.” She’s right on so many levels. Human beings are not supposed to be cruel; by nature, we are creatures of community, not isolation.
I want to talk about why the very best of us, the ones who are good in a crisis and trained to deal with huge emotions, trauma, everything scary–why do we lose our hard-earned knowledge and training, when we are afraid? In the birthing community, many women in the US describe “instincts” that women in other parts of the world, with more supportive attitudes about birth and recovery, do not describe. Which are “natural” and which are not? In the US (and elsewhere), we have been telling women to lie flat on their backs during birth for over a century; it’s more convenient for doctors, so it dates back to when doctors took over from midwives. We now have women feeling, instinctively, that they should lie down, when they are giving birth, even when this works against them, because gravity isn’t helping her, and for many other physiological reasons. What I teach, in HypnoBirthing, are essentially tools to bypass the culturally ingrained messages we have heard all our lives, in order to receive the signals our bodies send us, about where we want to be and how we want to stand/sit/squat/lay down. Fear gets in the way, because doctors we trust tell us to do things like stay on our backs, and breaking with tradition is scary. Physically, fear leads to tension. Because there’s a baby trying to move through the birth passage, physical tension in the surrounding muscles is going to cause pain. Pain is scary, so the cycle repeats.
In countries where birth is less medical, where care providers tend to say less and move more, working around a laboring mother, women usually describe an instinct to squat, or sit on a short stool that essentially puts them in a squatting position. This physical position does all kinds of wonderful things that facilitate an easier and more comfortable birth. I’m oversimplifying, of course, because sometimes, you just want to lie down, but the point is that what birthing women identify as a protective instinct is actually, quite often, a fear-driven impulse, planted by a culture fearful of birth. The popularity of Brene Brown’s books on vulnerability is all I need to illustrate how much our culture longs for a way out of our fear of being vulnerable. When we act from fear, not compassion, the results never feel good. Nevertheless, in social interactions around hugely important topics, we often have good reasons to fear vulnerability. Have you seen an internet discussion on vaccinations? Yikes. We respond from a tense place of fear. Our words and actions hurt each other. Our pain then tells us that our fears were justified. See? You’re hurting! Be afraid! The cycle continues.
Fear leads to tension, which leads to pain, which inspires more fear. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with my close friend that her trigger was shaming, inherently. If she says, “I feel so shamed, and stigmatized” and I say, “But you shouldn’t feel that way,” then I have put her in the unhappy position of feeling the fear that comes with shame and stigma, AND having to defending herself against someone with whom she thought she could safely be vulnerable. If I say, instead, “Shame is awful. I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. I don’t feel that, though.” and wait to see if she has any interest in hearing more about my own feelings, then my friend might still be defensive and angry that I don’t agree with her, but at least she is not afraid that her trust was misplaced, and that an important friendship has faltered.
Between me, and my friend, there is an additional barrier: when I “half-listened” to her, I triggered a flood all these feelings (mostly shame, fear, anger) that she felt during trauma. She and I share the experience of hearing people who say they love us discount and invalidate the reality we see, claiming that a good night’s sleep, some vitamins, and getting ourselves together, trying harder, will “fix it.” If you’re reading this space, you’ve probably experienced the same lack of validation, questioning of your own reality, that comes with seeking help for mental illness. In the case of this friendship, we have also known people who have abused us by using our mental state, our shame, and our fear, against us, to gain power over us. When my friend told me that she felt all those feelings, as I hurt her, I found myself on the other side of the looking glass. There I was, standing next to the people who stigmatized her, refused to validate her experience, who hurt her the most. I wanted to believe, “That’s not me; I am nothing like people who do that. My friend is being absurd, and she should know that she hurt me, with her words, too, by even thinking I’m capable of that.” I had a choice: defend myself, and align myself further with the people who hurt her the most, or own that my behavior was similar to theirs. My behavior does not define who I am, so I can own it, and feel the feelings, without feeling that I’m giving up any part of my identity.
My friend fears that I could hurt her again, and fear still permeates our interactions. I feel afraid, when I see an email from her, and as I try to respond, I conjure up images of the people who have wronged her, not wanting to join them, again. If I let fear overpower me, I make the tension, and pain, worse, until it’s all feeding on each other and building in intensity. I can live with the idea that she feels afraid of interacting with me, and also still see myself as a good friend, with a loving heart, and no intention of hurting anyone. Intention has nothing to do with the pain I caused. I can sit with the deeply discomfiting thoughts that my own fear hurls at me. I can refuse to give in. I can just keep going, and see what happens, without knowing when or if anything is “fixed.” With effort, I can refuse to force a resolution, before the situation is ready to resolve.