Things Not To Say, episode 1: “Have you tried…?”

This post stemmed from two specific incidents – being irked by unsolicited advice myself, and helping a friend whose heart was broken by ‘expert’, solicited advice, badly offered. As I wrote, trying to unpack why this well-meant question is SO INSANELY INFURIATING – honestly it’s the fastest way to raise my BP – the more scenarios sprang to mind, because the crux lies in the giving and receiving of help.

The result are abstracted ‘I’ and ‘you’. Some ‘I’ is me, my experience; some is a deep empathy for others with similarly intractable problems. The ‘you’ could be the friend who said it to me this morning, or anyone else – acquaintance; teacher, doctor, psychologist, social worker – who assumes I’m here because I haven’t tried that one idea they just had.

Just don’t say it. Ever. That question is a communication disaster, relationship TNT. It will damage things between us, possibly irreparably.

“Wait, what?” you cry. “I’m just trying to help!”

Well, yes.

That’s the problem.

And here’s why, as someone who has tried.

First and foremost, I didn’t ask for your help.

Sure, I’m complaining. My situation sucks. That does not mean, though, that I want or need you to fix it. I might just need to complain. Complaining helps. It lets off pressure – the pressure of performing ‘fine’ for society. We, as a culture, are so allergic to ‘uncomfortable’ that the only accepted answer to “How are you?” is “fine”; anything else, we shut down. We don’t let people be sad, frustrated, angry, scared, or exhausted. Maintaining that face for your viewing pleasure, is exhausting.

I also think it’s bullshit. So sometimes I whinge because it makes me feel better, and sometimes I whinge because to smilingly gloss over troubles is just plain wrong.

If you try to help, you deny me both the chance to feel better and the chance to feel heard.

More importantly, offering unsought help shifts the balance of the relationship. You take power, since you presume to have something (insight) that, by implication, I lack.

Now, you may have a friend who’s been through something similar; you may have read about it; you may have the certificate, a long CV, and an office proving your expertise; you may even have helped scores of people.

But unless I’m in your office, paying for your help, then you have to knock that shit off. Actually, you should knock it off even if I am in your office, paying for your help.

Because whatever you know, I’ll wager my next two years’ sleep that I’ve spent more time in the ring with this issue than you. It’s been in my face, on my case, days, nights, weeks, months, years, decades. I know its contours, its fluctuating weight, the fetid smell of its morning breath. I’ve spent nights thinking about it and days reading and talking about it. Then I’ve read and talked and thought some more.

Above all, I have tried.

Yes, I tried that.

And that.

I have tried every fucking thing I possibly could.

It didn’t work, okay? I’ve dealt with frustration, backlash, fallout, side-effects, the side-effects of withdrawal, and crushing disappointments.

Then I’ve picked myself up and done more searching and reading, talking and thinking, because while this is one ornery, complicated thicket of an issue, I’m pretty ornery myself.

That won’t all come across the first time we chat. It won’t come across in a 15-minute consult or in the first hour. Hell, it might not come fully across in the first year we’re talking.

But assuming that that means I haven’t tried that thing you just thought of, devalues the sheer bloody effort I’ve already put in. I’m not stupid and I’m perfectly capable of using a search engine and a telephone. If it was simple as your first answer – your first ten answers – then I guarantee I would not be complaining now.

Which is why a knee-jerk, “have you tried …?” lights my fuse. On a good day, I might just think, “OF COURSE I BLOODY HAVE, THAT WAS 2010!” On a bad day, I might say it. Or worse.

That doesn’t mean I’m wallowing, refusing help, self-sabotaging, or complaining just for funskis. It means, you’re reminding me of failure. I know very well what I’ve tried, what I wish I could change but can’t, where I draw the line (yes, I’m allowed values, even if they make it harder).

I probably have a solution in mind. If I’m not doing it, I have reasons. Maybe, right now, I just can’t bring myself to try again.

Or maybe I’ve realised, all I can do right now is wait. Wait for the pain to pass, the panic to subside. Wait til this phase is outgrown, the therapy/medication/new routine takes effect. Wait til I get my strength back for another round. Wait til things change. They will.

All you have to do is let me get there.

You can help, by listening. Yep, that’s it. Remember, complaining may simply release enough pressure to let me breathe again.

Listen and acknowledge that this is hard for me (even if it doesn’t seem like it should be hard, to you). Remember, feeling heard and connected may be all I need.

Listen and respect and trust that I’m doing my best. Respect and trust that I’ve worked at least as long on this issue as you, and with, likely, a great deal more investment in solving it. Respect and trust that if I could do differently, I would. Respect and trust that if I want help, I will ask for it. This is how you let me keep my power.

If I do ask, remember that whatever I’ve said – whatever you’ve heard or read – you don’t know the whole story. At best your knowledge is vicarious, abstract, general. Mine is intimate, minute, painful.

If you must offer something, start by asking if I want your help. Ask what I’ve tried. (I’ll do my best to give you the short version.) Ask what I need. Ask what you can do to help. Offer chocolate, cake, alcohol, and/or hugs.

Just don’t – don’t – ask me if I’ve tried…