Friday, February 27, 2009

The Goldfish Guide to Dealing With Doubters #3


The remarks. We've all heard them. And they are all about power.

“You look all right to me.”
“You were fine yesterday.”
“Have you thought about pushing yourself a little harder?”
“We all get tired/ achy/ depressed.”

and many variations on the theme, including, courtesy of Seahorse's sister “Your eyes burn too brightly!” (Seahorse says things are improving on this front, but it was a classic).

Nobody believed a word she saidYou know it's about power because

(a) Such comments are unanswerable.

If you react to a casual remark, then you may stand accused of making a fuss. You look defensive, like you've got something to prove.

In the same way, when people slip offensive language into conversation, you are forced to either turn the other cheek or else draw attention to it, which often only compounds your own humiliation.

(b) Such comments cannot possibly be meant sincerely.

This is an important point. For example, someone who says “You look all right to me.” would never go so far as to assert what they are implying; something like “I can tell whether someone is sick just by looking at them. You look fine to me so you can't be sick.”

Nor does anybody seriously believe that one's health cannot vary from day to day, that an act of will can overcome the rules of biology or that there is no difference between the tiredness, sadness or discomfort of a healthy person and chronic fatigue, depression or chronic pain.

This should influence the way we feel about it – that is, we don't need to imagine that our account of things seems dubious to others or that we ourselves are suspicious characters.

It also shapes the way we deal with it. There is no point in directly challenging the comment, in disagreeing with it as if it were a point of view open to challenge.

So why do people say such things? Well partly because they have permission, as I explained, but mostly it's just what your mamma told you about the playground bullies; because they are insecure and feel better for making other people wobble. The more vulnerable a target the better, and being sick can make you very vulnerable.

Probably the best way to respond is to pretend like you think the person is joking – it is, after all, the most sympathetic way you could interpret their remarks. Of course, this would be affectionate piss-taking, so you are allowed to be rude back so long as you do so with a smile on your face.

So you might reply to “You look all right to me.” with
“And you look like shit. Oh the irony!”

“You were fine yesterday.”
“That's because I hadn't spent the previous day with you.”

“Have you thought about pushing yourself a little harder?”
“Have you thought about pushing off?” (Hmm, sure you can do better.)

“We all get tired/ achy/ depressed.”
“But I try not to get so bitter about it.”

And so on but hopefully with more wit.

Sometimes, this is not enough. If the person making such comments is someone you have to deal with on a regular basis, then you need to address that, but at another point in time.

It is far more powerful to raise the subject later on when they're no longer playing that particular game and you are no longer upset. Then you can hopefully talk to the person calmly – or even write a letter – and demonstrate that what they've been doing is the height of bad manners.

My life experience suggests that people don't respond well to being told that they've hurt your feelings unless they did it by mistake – if they said or did something carelessly which nevertheless had no intention to injure, then people are generally okay hearing about it, learning from it and moving on. But then most people I know are very nice and only ever hurt one another by accident.

When someone has been mean, they generally know it already. Feeling cornered by their guilt, some folks respond with groveling apologies without thinking about what they've done and others are affronted by you having made them feel that way. So they turn it around and present your complaint as an attack on them, or simply find more nasty things to say – like you're only upset because there was some truth in their comment.

Far better to act like you're not particularly upset but point out that they've been an idiot. That their behaviour is unacceptable in a wider sense. Make them feel crass, rather than cruel. These doubting comments are massively disrespectful, no better than calling any other aspect of a person's life into question – arguably worse because illness sucks and there's nothing to be gained from it (as there might be from, say, lying about qualifications or marital status). It is bad manners. And that's likely to effect their relationships with everyone, not just you.

Please Note: Sometimes, people may compliment you on your appearance by saying that you look healthy without meaning to cast any doubt over your illness. They mean that despite everything, you're looking good. But it is pretty easy to work out when this is the case.


irasocol said...

As an "SLD" type (and, ok, one with "behavioral issues" I often say that the worst thing someone can say (doubt/power) is "you just need to try harder" - immediately declaring that the difference between them and me is that I'm lazy or uninterested.

So yes, these remarks are "all about power." All about making themselves superior.

So I deeply appreciate your advice: "Far better to act like you're not particularly upset but point out that they've been an idiot. That their behaviour is unacceptable in a wider sense. Make them feel crass, rather than cruel." I'll have to give this a try.

- Ira Socol

Never That Easy said...

I hadn't thought about how much these comments are about power, and I appreciate you mentioning it.

Hi fishy!

Anonymous said...

You rock. Seriously.

and I have added "And you look like shit, oh the irony" to my personal arsenal for dealing with some choice people in my world.

Thank you thank you thank you.

I needed this today!

seahorse said...

I wondered what you meant about the power thing for quite a while. Understanding you now, I feel quite incensed that people who are supposed to love me are really just trying to score petty little victories like all the time. It all makes sense. I think I'll just stay in my greenhouse away from toxic people.

e said...


I recently received "Gee, you don't look disabled." (I was seated). I smiled tightly, saying, "Gee, you don't look ignorant."

My favourite when producing a parking placard: "Wow, that's a perk." To which I said, "Want a perk?...Try a brain."

Your "You look like shit, oh the irony" is priceless!

Your point about power/dominance is well taken.

Great Blog!

Anonymous said...

When I got to the bottom and read your note I had to laugh since you were reading my mind!
I love this post- I do get your posts on my reader but for some reason not unless I go right to you on my list. The mysteries of the computer!