How do you take your help: with or without a hug*?

Thursday, May 4, 2023

In the 15 years we’ve been together, my partner Gary has done maybe seven things that have irritated me.* On average, that’s about one irritation every other year: in other words, kind of amazing. And so, when “Irritation #8” came along last week it took me by surprise. And also took my breath away. (Key point.)

The situation was this: We’d just been to Bagel Central to meet up with my daughter and her family for breakfast. My plan was to get there a little early to grab a table and look over the handwritten menu scrawled over the expanse of two whole walls, but when we walked in, they were already in line. I went to claim a table but when I got back, they had miraculously advanced to the head of the line and were now anxiously waiting on my order. I was panic-stricken. This was madness! The wall menus and baskets of bagels and display cases of schmears were all closing in on me. So many bagels! So many choices! And so many people waiting in line behind me! I am not a quick-glance, I’ll-have-the-#3 type person.

With all the pressure I was rapidly coming apart at the seams. In the end, after a freakish amount of time and with many orders submitted and then immediately taken back, I mournfully said I’ll just have a strawberry lemon muffin. (Big mistake.) When we finally got to the table I laughed about it, but the truth was I was rattled and rattled even more by how rattled I was.

Walking to the car with Gary afterwards, I laughed about it again, commenting on how ridiculously overwhelming it had been. But even as I talked, I could hear the stress returning. Gary heard it, too, and then did something very uncharacteristic: he turned to me and half joking/half serious said, “Breathe,” while dramatically pantomiming cleansing breaths. I immediately stopped breathing. I seriously do not like that.

This “just breathe” thing people do when you’re having a stress moment….in my book that’s right up there with telling people to calm down (which no way is going to happen now). But here’s what I think would be helpful: if someone just said, “Would it help to breathe together for a minute?” If it does seem helpful, then they serve as a calm pacesetter and we get to draft off them which is so useful because trying to prioritize breathing, much less doing it slowly, is the last thing a mind wants to do when it’s flapping around concerned about very different and vastly more compelling things.  
I got the idea for this new & improved breathing conversation based on a recent New York Times article about the question you should ask when a person you care about is upset or having a hard time, be it child or adult:

“Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged*?”

Each option has the power to comfort and calm but in any given moment not all people want or need the same thing. We all know how frustrating it is to be given advice when what we really want is to be hugged or listened to. This question becomes an especially important one for the fixers of the world to ask since so many of us naturally default to fixing so we can feel useful, and also because sometimes it is too painful to just sit with someone in their pain. (In reality, it can actually be kind of insulting to act like someone won’t be able to come up with some solutions themselves once they’ve had the opportunity to get the problem off their chest.)

Bottom line, mental health is a fluid state. Sometimes we have it. Sometimes we don’t. When someone is having a hard time, we can probably help them more than seems possible if we give them some choices from a small menu of options. What better way to kick of Mental Health Awareness Month than with a small, not overwhelming menu of ways we can offer help. And a menu we can consider for ourselves when we find ourselves low in the tank on any given day. We can specify clearly what we need from someone so they needn’t guess or, worse yet, annoy the heck out of us by pantomiming cleansing breaths!

The key point here is that connection with people can help bring us back to ourselves. We have each other for connection, and we also have Work Force EAP, there for us 24 hours a day when we need them. Just call 1 – 800 – 769 – 9819.

To being human, which is almost synonymous with wanting to help,

*In our personal relationships, helping, hearing and hugging may always be very appropriate for the situation.  In our professional relationships, we need to exercise caution, recognizing that only helping and hearing are universally appropriate. 
**Gary has given me permission to share this story though, after reading it, did say that he plans to help himself to an annual irritation going forward.