Sunday, January 04, 2009

If you don't have anything nasty to say . . .

Do you ever re-play old embarrassing moments to yourself and wince again in agony? I do it much less than I used to; I get better every year at forgiving myself and allowing myself to grow. But still, some days I manage to carry around with me labels about myself that are negative. (“I’m such a selfish person,” for example.) I’ll find myself telling myself these things—sometimes in an effort to become a better disciple of Christ. It seems part of my duty, sometimes, to be aware of my shortcomings, either so that I can do better or at least so that I can be humble and try not to judge others so harshly.

But I don’t think that’s right. I’m not sure that’s how Christ wants me to go about thinking of myself. Certainly I don’t think He would approve if I went around thinking constantly about others’ faults, labeling them in my mind (“she’s incapable of recognizing her own faults and apologizing,” for example, or “he’s moody.”) Even though sometimes I do it as a way to remind myself to be charitable and forgive (“Yes, he’s moody. I already knew that about him. I can forgive his recent behavior because I know that’s just his fault that he struggles with, just like I struggle with selfishness”).

So, anyway, I have a friend whom I would like to make a closer friend who has the talent (skill, tendency) of never, ever labeling.

But here’s the thing: she bends so far backwards to avoid labeling that I’m having a hard time getting closer to her. Here’s why.

Whenever we are together, most of the conversation centers around me. Because when she asks how I’m doing, I tell her about my struggles as well as my triumphs. I, like she, am a full-time mother, so often my struggles involve trying to figure out how to help a child with a negative personality trait that he has. Because I want the conversation to be two-sided, I often invite her opinions or suggestions on these kinds of struggles. Which puts her in a position of giving me advice, but it doesn’t bother me because I ask for it.

However, that’s usually the end of the conversation. Because she will not share anything negative about her family (or herself, for that matter). It is a personal policy of hers (she has told me) never to say anything negative about anybody, including herself. So we never talk about struggles she has with her kids or any struggles she might have in trying to get herself to live better.

I resent this. It makes me feel shut out. Surely she has struggles. I don’t want to have a gossip fest, but I do want to be allowed to ease (or at least SEE) her burdens.

But I also resent the feeling that I’m incapable of having a mutually nurturing relationship with someone unless they will “spill dirt” with me. And how egotistical does it make me look to think that I might be able to lighten her burden somehow?

I begin to wonder if I even know how to have a real friendship, whether I really know what a true friend does for her friend. And I can’t figure it out—does this women have other friends that she DOES tell things to? Which would mean that she just doesn’t need me as a closer friend. Strangely, that would ease my mind. I don’t HAVE to be her best friend. Or is it that she doesn’t speak negatively to ANYONE? (This, from what I can tell, seems to be the case.) Is that HEALTHY? And if so, what are girlfriends for in her life? Maybe I am missing something huge about what friends should and should not be to each other.

I ask myself why it is that I want so much to be closer to her. I think it’s because I know that she truly wants, as deeply as I want, to live righteously in every way possible. I’m drawn to people like that. I want to be around them more. But I feel bad about what seems to be a barrier between us, and about my own fear that the barrier is there because I am somehow dependent on HER HAVING WEAKNESSES in order for us to be close.

[p. s. By the way, don't forget to check out my Official Author's Site. The link is the first one there on my sidebar.]


Christopher Bigelow said...

I usually find myself thinking that "positive" people like this are either self-deluded or dishonest, or a combination of the two. The LDS Church is chock full of them!

At the same time, I think I have somewhat of an attitude problem--always have, probably always will (at least during my mortal life). But I sure do value candor in people and dislike all the Mormon righteous posing--and if all that righteousness isn't just posing, I like it even less, because I don't measure up and have a hard time even wanting to!

Angie said...

Everybody has weaknesses. Everybody has struggles. Pretending otherwise doesn't change it. It's part of mortal existence. I think there are many well meaning people in our faith who want so much to force themselves to feel and be what they aren't yet. I understand that desire, but I understand the dysfunction that can result from repressing feelings. I feel sad for your friend if she never lets herself appear human, because that is such a lonely way to live. Maybe there is someone somewhere she can level with. I hope so. But I don't think you should beat yourself up for trying to be open with her. That is where emotional intimacy comes from.

Kathleen said...

You know, Darlene, I don't think she would ask how you're doing if she didn't care. Perhaps by hearing about your struggles, she is comforted in the struggles she has that she can't let herself share.

Some people are nurtured just by knowing that they are not the only one to experience a problem. They don't need to exchange ideas on how to deal with it, they just need to listen to someone else's insights and experiences.

I wonder if it isn't a matter of what Dr. John Lund (author of HOW TO HUG A PORCUPINE) calls "love languages." Different people have different ways of feeling loved, and if you can learn those and use them to express love for them, then they will feel that you love them. If, on the other hand, you try to express love using the way that makes you feel loved, they won't get the message at all.

It may be that you and this friend have very different love languages. You feel loved when someone shares their struggles with you, but maybe she thinks she is expressing love by just asking about your life and listening to you.

It's a thought, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I hesitate to comment since I seem to be a thread-killer here with my windy comments -- but you just keep bringing up topics that interest me.

Here's my philosophy on "negativity" and "gossip" and "murmuring": it's all about intentions and context. There are many types of communication that get glibly identified as fitting in one (or all) of the above three categories, but that are in fact none of the above. Around the people I'm closest to, I complain a LOT. Even around those I'm less close to, I'm often willing to be the one who says the "negative" thing everyone else is thinking but avoiding saying. And I am someone who uses words and language to problem-solve, so all (or anyway, most of) my complaining is part of solution-searching: I can never find the right solution until I've correctly identified the problem. Likewise, if I talk negatively about others, I try to only do so when I am seeking to figure out how best to interact with them or help them (and I AM very careful about who I choose to confide in, and careful to keep confidences.) To me, negativity or gossiping or murmuring are all activities that imply an UNwillingness to change and an unwillingness to take responsibility. But, as I said, I do lots of solution-seeking complaining: "I hate it that thus-and-such happened. It was SO frustrating. I wonder what I could possibly do differently to avoid that experience again."

For a scriptural contrast between murmuring vs. problem-solving complaining, we have on the one hand Laman and Lemuel, always insisting that things would have been so much better if they'd stayed in Jerusalem, always avoiding any sacrifice or effort, and always avoiding taking any personal responsibility for their hardships. And on the other hand we have Nephi, who identifies problems (such as a broken bow) and then goes to the Lord for help. I also think you could definitely call parts of 2 Nephi 4 "complaining" -- surely, "O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me" would, if translated to modern colloquial terms, fit under some people's definition of whining or complaining. But if you read the whole passage ( ) then you get the balance, where he goes on to say that he certainly has many reasons to rejoice and finds motivation to overcome his grief and discouragement.

In response to an earlier part of your post: I'm very opposed to labeling, but I also think labeling is different from identifying specific behaviors -- for example, it's one thing to say "Lately this kid keeps doing this annoying thing and I wish I could figure out what I can do to discourage it," and a very different thing to say, "This kid is (in general and as a personality trait) annoying."

I do think that people who focus on the positive are enjoyable to be around, and I can understand your being attracted to someone who's so motivated to be good. But it does sound like she's operating under a rather facile and incomplete concept of negativity. (As do many other well-meaning folks.) And, like you, I think I would find that obstructive to really getting to know her.

Oh, and going back to the very beginning of your post, I DO agree that feeling bad about our inadequacies doesn't necessarily help us improve: in fact, I think sometimes we use (I should say *I* use, because this is a chronic thing for me) our identification of our failures as a false atonement. For example, it's as though if we said "Oh I'm so bad about thus and such," then our acknowledging it somehow makes it better -- if we KNOW we're bad, and we feel bad about being bad, then we're not as bad as if we were just plain ignorantly or unremorsefully bad, right? (Like I said, this is a chronic thought pattern for me.) BUT, I'm discovering that feeling bad in that way doesn't motivate me to actually do better, whereas feeling God's love for me and feeling optimistic (trusting in the Savior's Atonement) free me to meet challenges and not wallow.

But I still think there are plenty of types of "negativity" that can be quite productive.

Laura said...

I think there is a difference between being negative and owning your feelings. My oldest child struggles with anxiety which is hard on me. There are days that I need to vent and blow off steam and I am not so charitable or kind about it--I usually only vent to my therapist. I am comfortable with this because she is outside of my sphere of normal people and she is wise enough to avoid labeling/judging. I also vent to my husband because he too is wise enough to avoid labeling. Now, that doesn't mean I don't express frustration to my friends and ask for their opinions and ideas on how to deal with it. Sometimes we need to say/articulate the hard things so that we can understand them. Those are my two cents anyway.

Laura said...

Oh, and sorry if I just came off as self-righteous there . . .

Anonymous said...

I like Kathleen's idea about love languages. And I think I speak the "feels love by talking about problems" language.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Kathleen and Laura and I are all talking at once. You sparked an interesting conversation.

Darlene said...

Good points, all. Thank you for helping me work through this. Obviously I am like you, Zina, in wanting to work out my problems verbally, and in growing closer to other people as I vocalize my struggles. (Obvious, because what is this blog, anyway?)

Michelle said...

I feel a bit threatened and judged in friendships where I do all the whining-- I need reciprocity!