14 November 2015

what not to say

One of the things that has sometimes been hurtful along the way, is the well-meaning comments when people hear bits and pieces of my story.  I get it:  it's hard and awkward to hear deep pain from others.  Most of us have people in our lives who have experienced loss and pain.  I mean, what do you say to someone who's lost a child?  A husband?  What do you say to someone who has been raped?  Fled from an abusive spouse?  What do you say to someone who confesses that they have wanted to hurt their children in a moment of rage?  Someone who tells you they live with a mental illness?  It's hard!

I don't have the answers, really.  All I can do is speak from my experience.

So, one of the things I've mentioned that I struggle with is low self-esteem.  I can't count how many times I've felt dismissed with, "oh, me too!"  or "yeah, every woman struggles with that..." or similar sentiments.  Sometimes the responses are spiritual:  "you need to see yourself as God sees you!"  or "just tell yourself the Truth!"  Some people give self-help pep talks:  "you're beautiful just the way you are!" "accept yourself!"

Another feeling I've never been able to shake is this feeling of 'otherness.'  And when I've talked about it, again, I've heard all sorts of well-meaning things:  "everyone feels that way sometimes;" "you have a great group of friends!" "we love you!" "you're part of us!"

Oh friends, we mean well when we throw out these platitudes or commiserative comments.  We want our friends and fellow humans to know they are not alone, to feel better.  But listen...let's stop.  Let's think.  Let's even pray, if we believe God hears and answers us.  Let's listen to the heart underneath words of pain.  Because here's what I'm talking about when I say low self-esteem:  I'm talking about a 2-year old who is horrified to be wearing a bikini in public because her belly button is showing (read: she thinks her body is ugly).  I'm talking about a tiny 7-year old who can't bring herself to wear a dress whose fabric she adores, because she thinks she looks pregnant (read: fat).  That is NOT 'normal' low self-esteem, folks.  And when I talk about this feeling of 'otherness,' it's not that I feel left out or not a part of things.  I feel like I'm alien, like I'm not even of the same genetic make up, or like I'm observing from outside my body.  I feel like I'm unwelcome everywhere, barely tolerated, like I'm completely forgotten when I'm out of sight, completely locked out of community (I have heard this 'otherness' feeling is often experienced by adult survivors of abuse).  And when I have received pep talks, spiritual thoughts, and platitudes, I've walked away shredding myself, because there has to be something wrong with me for not being able to believe the right things about myself or rise above these 'normal feelings' that everybody has.

Hear me, friends:  I've not arrived; I am guilty of speaking too quickly way too often!  But here's what happened one time, years ago:  a dear friend's husband received a cancer diagnosis, and she came to use our computer to send word to friends and family (we lived overseas at the time).  I did not know what to say!  I felt awkward and awful.  I sat beside her saying nothing at all, and she didn't say anything either.  After awhile, she got up to go back home, so I stood with her and gave her a hug.  When she left, I felt terrible that I hadn't offered words of hope or care - I didn't even offer prayers or condolences!  I felt like a failure as a friend, and as a Christian.  But a couple of years later, she mentioned that NOT speaking was the best thing I could have done, that she felt comforted and cared for in the silence.

This is not to say everyone is the same.  I'm just saying, please:  be quick to listen, and SLOW to speak.  And when you do speak, a simple, heartfelt "I'm so sorry" goes a long way.  Less is more.

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