Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The story of who I am

The story of who I am consists of a chapter about how I just don't tune into other people's feelings and emotions. Although I have played along with this with many of my friends for a long time, I have recently decided that this is a load of codswallap (to coin an English phrase.)

Reason number one for the cod is that this is a relatively new chapter, one that has emerged since I moved to the U.S. There were many stories of who I was back in the U.K. but this was not one of them. So, it got me to thinking that either something drastic changed in my personality immediately after I moved to rhe U.S. (possible but unlikely), that the story was untrue, or that there was some underlying cultural factor that was leading me to be misunderstood.

After my soul-searching and self-analysis I realize that this is one of those areas in life where I have been (and continue to be) classically misunderstood.

For those of you who don't know many Brits, you don't understand how people are back where I was brought up. The expression "chin-up" is the best way to begin: when a friend or family member is going through a rough time, it's generally accepted that you bitch along with them to a certain extent and then tell them that it will all turn out alright in the end. Support is considered to be bolstering one's friends' outlook on the problem, not wallowing in the mud with them. We're a nation of eternal optimism underneath our grouching. Nobody expects much sympathy or empathy; people get on with it because they know there really is little else choice. A good friend "snaps you out of it".

This doesn't translate to the U.S.

When trying to deliver the same friendly support in the U.S., it's interpreted as insensitive. People out here want empathy, they want sympathy, they want you to emotionally connect with their feelings, their problem, they want you to cry along with them. In short: they want you to be their own personal Oprah.

Don't get me wrong, I am not downplaying the importance of empathy or sympathy or judging the American psyche negatively here, just pointing out a major difference and trying to explain that this is not what I was brought up to do. It's not what my culture does. It's not in my DNA.

But, does it mean I'm insensitive or that I can't tune into other people's emotions? NO. IT. DOES. NOT.

An experience with a good friend in the last few years taught me this lesson that I have only recently been able to see with clarity, in hindsight. I thought I was being supportive at a difficult time in every way I knew how. She thought I was being insensitive and expecting too much of her (as if my "chin up" attitude were a critique on her emotionality.) The reality was that I was being supportive but in the way I knew how, just not the way she wanted me to be.

Of course, there are lessons for me to learn here about how to look at people as individuals and try to understand what they need from me as opposed to using a cookie-cutter approach for each friend or loved-one in my life. BUT there are also lessons to be learned on the other side of the equation and, some experiences of my own in the last two weeks have made me realize this acutely: Just because someone does not give you exactly the kind of support you want in your time of need, it does not mean that they do not care. The "understanding the other person" equation is not a one-way street. Sometimes, when you feel someone doesn't understand or "get" you, it could be just as true that you are not understanding or "gettting" them.

Anyone who has known me intimately for any length of time knows that I am generally thoughtful, loving, and loyal as a friend or family member. Yes, I am also frank-speaking, sometimes tactless, and often put my foot in my mouth but we're talking about the difference between intention and action here. The people closest to me, I am confident, would say that I am insightful into other's motives and personalities and that I understand (and empathize with) far more than people expect of me on the surface. (If you don't think this then I'm open to hearing about it but suggest that perhaps you haven't taken the time to know me the way you expect to be known yourself.) How this comes out, how I embody this, may, however, be different to what's expected in the U.S.

I take that onboard and I look to find ways to be a better friend, wife, and family-member every day. BUT, I still say phooey to the story that I am not sensitive or tuned into other people's emotions. I am re-writing this story. If you have been a contributer to my narrative, wipe this slate clean.


e said...

Hear, hear. You know, I am blunt and tough with all my friends and loved ones. Like you, I offer support and sympathy, but will not sit around for a prolonged bitch fest. Say what you need to say, and then you gotta move on and create something new. Complaining and whining and doing nothing about it simply means that you actually prefer things to stay the way they are, period. And there is always someone who says, but you don't know my parents, or, but you don't know my husband. I say, your life is exactly the way you designed it. Sorry. Deal with it. So sympathy is great if you are seeing that something doesn't work and want to make a change, but you ain't gettin' it from me if you're just going feel to sorry for yourself and play the victim for the rest of your life. Of for any extended period of time.

So. What does this mean? That everyone around me knows that they will only get the straight story from me, and they will not be indulged or enabled. I expect the same from them.

What is the point of what I'm saying? Consider that we teach people how to treat us and how to see us. Perhaps your story about how Americans are suffers from the same hitch in the giddyup that their story about you does: some of it is true, but a lot of it is not, and it's just a surface reading.

For anyone who gives me the whole "you're not supporting me the way I want you to line", I tell them this: I am not that friend. Here's what I can provide. If you want that, then I'm here. If you want the other thing, I'm not. It's simple. We don't have to be everything to each other, I'm comfortable being the blunt friend. And if you can see me beyond that, if you can see that I'm a good, solid friend and that I'm sensitive to your feelings, great. And if you can't, then great. Life is not a popularity contest. High school was, but now we're grown ups.

Just because you are sensitive to people's feelings does not mean you need or want to indulge those feelings or let them run the show. In fact, I would suggest that our feelings are a terrible way to make any decision, and things go much better when we acknowledge our feelings and accept them, but they don't run the show.

Grand master point: you are who you are, you're a great friend, your value is that you're honest and straight forward in addition to sensitive and empathetic. Train your friends to accept who you are instead of all of you getting stuck in your and their cultural stereotypes. And if you want to talk more about this, give me a call. And if people insist on not getting who you are, too damn bad, they can have whatever lives they have, without honest people around them. So there.


e said...

Did I mention you're a wonderful, awesome friend? Pffft. The nerve of some people.

TravelVixen said...

e - I agree with everything you said and have had the recognition of all of the above too for some time; I just didn't put it all in this post. One thing that people find weird about me for some reason is that I AM ok with not being liked and don't spend my life trying to be liked by everyone; I get that I'm not everyone's cup of tea (not everyone is mine) and I don't beat myself up about that. I don't. If it seemed that way in this post then it wasn't intended.

I also agree that it's likely that I am using a cultural stereotype and am overgeneralizing the American psyche; stereotypes are just a useful tool not an absolute. It's a place to start understanding where people's perception of things and people come from. I know you know this.

I don't agree, on the other hand, that the same is being done in reverse - if people out here actually did understand the English psyche, then it would probably actually help them better understand me.

As for being a certain "type" of friend, yes, I have communicated this to my friends for some time BUT that, in fact, has become a part of this story about me too - to the extent that now people think me completely incapable of "being" anything else.

I don't see myself as a fixed set of personality traits any more. I used to because it helped me explain who I was to people who didn't "get" me. (Which, as we've established, is just fine. They don't have to.) But I have come to know myself in new ways in the last 5-6 years and, while I definitely have characteristics and tendencies, it does not mean I am incapable or unwilling to play other roles or display other behaviors.

That, in part, was the point of this post: I am more, deeper, more nuanced than what you see on the surface. I feel that, for some time, I have been complicit in encouraging my friends (not random people who I couldn't give a toss about) to pigeon-hole me based upon some surface characteristics, thereby turning myself into my own two-dimensional characature (sp?)

What I'm saying is, I'm not playing a role in that any more.

I'm always being taught: "Seek first to understand before being understood" and, while I don't always live up to this, I have actually never expected this of the other person, on the other side of the relationship equation. My story was that people wouldn't understand me and so that let them off the hook.

Anyway... enough. I think you get it.

e said...

Yes, all that too. You are more than just one type of friend and you can and will train your friends to see you that way. Anyway, yes, we totally understand each other. Way to go, sister.

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