People don’t want to help you as much as they want to be let off the hook

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We’re going to spend a second talking about trying times.

It won’t be super long, or even that informative, and it can easily be classified as “opinion.” But still, let’s do it. I don’t think people do this enough. Mostly I write about work, and this can/will apply to work too.

My own personal trying times

Got divorced in 2017. I don’t really write full blogs on all that, because it’s not my story to tell. Guess the easiest way I could say it all is this: it’s hard. (You probably guessed that.) You have one narrative and idea for your life and then, one morning, that narrative, that idea, those concepts? They’re not there anymore. So you find yourself, at 36 in my case, having to think about what’s next and how to get there. It’s not “the way it’s supposed to be,” but a lot of life isn’t, so that’s something to remember.

What’s the “let me off the hook” problem?

Humans aren’t (generalization) very good at dealing with trying times. I think we’re mostly OK with death, but that’s because over thousands of years we’ve accepted it as inevitably and it goes according to (hopefully) a progression, i.e. you will outlive your parents. Obviously funerals are awash in tears, but those trying times can be “contained” somewhat.

Then you got shit like divorce, or children dying before parents. (Not equatable, by the way.) These are trying times, bad things, all that. When these happen, you’ve got two possible outcomes for someone that might have to interact with the divorced/alive parent/whoever:

  • “I don’t know what to say here.” (Probably most common.)
  • “I know I need to say something but I’m super busy with my own life.” (Also somewhat common.)

This all points to the “let me off the hook” problem. Basically a lot of people, when faced with trying times where they know they need to say something, just want to say that one thing and then be done with it. Let them off the hook.

Here’s a quick example

Not super close with my extended family personally. I live in Texas right now. None of them do. I see them at weddings and funerals and get the big life updates — someone’s engaged! — on Facebook or whatever. Basically I’m describing the normative way people live/work now, but none of us acknowledge this openly. That’s why it’s one of the most socially-isolated times in American history, per research.

OK, so … I go through this separation. No one really reaches out to me because I’m not putting that shit all over Facebook, right? Finally my mom tells a bunch of people, as happens, and eventually I get a couple of 2–3 line emails. It’s “let me off the hook” to the max. You could probably recite the email in your mind right now. “Hey so sorry to hear let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

What would happen if I replied and said “Well, you could…” Probably nada. 7 days of no reply and then maybe a cursory “so busy with the kids!”

That’s the “let me off the hook” problem of trying times. People kinda just want to get in and get out.

Why does this happen?

You want me to explain human psychology in a blog post? OK, well, that’s flattering. I’ll try.

First off: we’re brought up, often, to not discuss uncomfortable things. So many people, even if they’ve been through lots of shit, don’t have the best mechanisms for discussing it.

Secondly: we all believe we’re unfathomably busy.

We need to be more real when we discuss stuff. That’s what my newsletter tries to do.

Third: the great irony of adulthood is that we over-commit to not let people down, then let people down because we over-committed.

Fourth: empathy isn’t nearly at the premium we think it is.

Fifth: a lot of us are worried about our own shit and can’t see beyond that.

Sixth, as noted above: sometimes people just don’t know what to say.

Seventh: some people are legitimately flaming bags of shit and that won’t, unfortunately, ever change.

Wow, we got to eight reasons: most white-collar first-world peeps (the ilk I somewhat belong to) are much more focused on achievement than fulfillment, which colors how they make decisions and interact with others too.

Why is it important to discuss trying times?

Because, quite frankly, everyone goes through stuff. You don’t skip the Second Act of life, you know? (It also applies big time to work.)

But because a lot of people don’t discuss it — and because social media, largely curated, has made this worse — many people think they’re suffering in silence.

This most notably applies to concepts like mental health issues, etc. But it applies to daily functioning too.

No one you know or interact with is actively discussing their problems, so you assume everyone is doing well but you.

(This applies majorly to marriages/relationships, but I won’t chase that rabbit hole in this post.)

Now do this: watch this 60 Minutes where they returned to Newtown, four years later.

Newtown was an absolutely awful thing. Horrible. Five year-olds got mowed down with a semiautomatic. You gotta go pretty deep to find worse stuff in the annals of human history.

What’s the one thing all these parents say in this video?

“I wish people had just brought it up instead of trying to find a way around it or a quick sorry.”

That’s the whole deal right here: people wanted to be let off the hook. They wanted a quick in and out. It benefits them, but doesn’t benefit the person suffering.

So look, if you read this far, and you encounter someone in trying times, don’t go for the “let me off the hook” play. Engage with them for real.

Written by

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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