html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Coming through.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Coming through.

I did some stuff that was outside my usual boundaries this weekend and if I wanted to tell you about it, I’d have said what it was. But it was new for me and it generated a lot of thought, which meant I needed my friends to think with me and offer their perceptions. I knew immediately which friends I could talk to.

The friends I could talk to about this are the friends I can tell anything to and be completely sure of their reaction. These are my friends who pass no judgment, who approach all my thoughts and doings with loving acceptance. Those are the people I turn to, and therefore the people who know me best. They offer me judgment-less listening and know that I’ll return it.

I had to learn this no-judgment approach. For a long time, I thought there were right and wrong ways to do things, and that you could evaluate people’s actions against an external standard. I’ve abandoned that in a lot of realms. That just isn’t an approach that gets me what I want, which is deep and open relationships with people. When I realized how much I love receiving unconditional acceptance, I changed my base assumptions so that I can give it out. For my friends, who are sweet-natured and accomplished and generally of my worldview, I start with the assumption that anything they do is the right thing, considering their priorities and options. They have brought their lives this far to my general approval; they wouldn’t have come to a wrong decision. Faced with what looks like a bad choice, I immediately look for a cause that would make it the perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is a loving and constant conviction that your people get the benefit of doubt.

It is formulaic even. You turn to your girl friend, or Chris, if you’re lucky enough to know him, and you say “I tried heroin this weekend! I think I LIKE it.” Your girl friend blinks in surprise a couple times and says something noncommittal and reassuring while she processes it: “Oh honey. You were so brave to try something new.” Pause. Then, while she is patting your arm and breathing short breaths, she thinks hard. What, given everything she knows about you and within the constraints of well-meant behavior, could explain this? That may be a very small intersection or even a null set, so she works harder. She may ask for more information to make it make sense. She remembers the time when she was tempted by something similar and explores that out loud, saying to you what you need to hear. We are alike; we feel similar things; I understand; there were reasons; people do that and you did it; you did your best; I would have done that in your place; I would have wanted to do that in your place; good people can act that way; you were brave to tell me, my sweet good friend; I still love who you are; I always love who you are.

That is, frankly, it. That is pretty much all I am willing to tolerate from my closest friends. A hint of less or disapproval means that person does not get my confidences next time. Friends who don’t offer that may get access to lots of me, but not my scared or confused or ashamed parts, so not my most interesting parts. There is a time, later, after the loving acceptance, when you can reintroduce critical thought, starting again from the baseline that your friends are good people who do their best. “Hon, did you like how that turned out? Were you kind to yourself when you did that? Have you had different ideas since?”

Sometimes any sort of reason fails. What your friend did was beyond the pale, more hurtful than you can put together a generous story for. Then you get two choices. You can simply be loyal, on faith. You love your friend, including all she does. Or you can stop being friends. This is actually a good test for me. If finding empathy and loving acceptance for someone is a consistent struggle, that means I shouldn’t be a close friend to that person.

I suspect some of you will have a very hard time with this concept. But there IS right and wrong and people DO dumb shit for bad reasons and I have to live by the TRUTH, you protest. To which I say, some external version of truth is not what I want when I’m struggling. I want a haven and a gentle listener and the sure knowledge that my friends will apply their tremendous focus to finding the softest path open to me. I will go to the people who offer me that. You can have your judgment or you can have my confidences and trust and gratitude and deepest friendship.

26 Comments:

Anonymous ogged said...

You shouldn't have done heroin this weekend.

10:53 PM  
Blogger jens said...

Sorry...from a computer nerd standpoint...

was that an EXCLUSIVE or?

11:44 PM  
Anonymous pete said...

I thought I should de-lurk to tell you you've made me cry* two posts in a row.

Also, thank-you for "More about asking nicely" and "Just say what you mean". Those two posts helped to make me (and, a certain young lady) very happy.

*in a manly-yet-sensitive sort of way

6:34 AM  
Blogger jens said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:49 AM  
Blogger jens said...

As you point out, though, this "non-judgmental" approach is really only an illusion for a "tolerant" approach.

As you are listening, there is the possibility that, if you have a hard time dealing with what you hear, you might not want to be friends anymore. That's quite a judgment, really.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I've got no problems listening to a friend's stories about drug use or unconventional and dangerous sexual activities (actual, I kind of enjoy it), but were that same friend to tell me how she tortured, mutilated, and killed these people, and where she buried the bodies....sorry, dear, it's judgment time!

(sorry, spelling mistake on that last one! If I am going to be judged, I don't want it to be on bad spelling!)

6:50 AM  
Blogger Louis said...

I'm a little different. Most of my friends take the approach that you note here. I usually do too for that matter. I really like my friends best that have the courage to tell me that they think that I made a mistake. It says a lot to me that they are comfortable enough to risk making me angry, and that they care enough to tell me what they really think of behavior that may be bad for me (or my lack of behavior that maybe good for me). I moved away from the friends that I had that did this, and I miss them. I grew more as a person as a result of having their company.

I have a strong personality and am no one's doormat. I don't want someone telling me what to do, but I do want someone to remind me to take a critical look at myself from time to time.

Just not too much or too often :-)

-Louis

7:36 AM  
Anonymous sealion said...

Forgive an impertinent question: You seem to be saying that, when making a confidence, you demand maximal benefit of the doubt regarding your motives and intentions. If maximal benefit of the doubt is not forthcoming, the person you're taking into your confidence gets /no/ benefit of the doubt as to his or her motives and intentions. Have I misunderstood your position?

8:09 AM  
Anonymous bryn said...

I think that I am fairly non judgemental, at least I try hard to be, though I am not surrounded by many non judgemental people.

I think the hardest part for me is that I really want the best for the other person, and my (or societal version of best) sometimes rushes in to start helping or fixing, before the listening time was ready to be over (which in some cases should be never)

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Nicole said...

Man, Megan, usually what you say resonates with me but I'm having a real problem with this. While I can certainly appreciate the deep need to have my own deeply flawed and occasionally flat-out idiotic self met with love and acceptance, I also need my friends to help me become a better version of what I am. I have several people in my life who are nothing but roses and sunshine and I just don't trust them. There are even fewer people, who I value more than anyone else in my life, who love me enough to sit me down once in awhile and say "you're being an ass and you're hurting someone and there's no way to justify it - now cut this shit out" Do I like hearing it? No way. Do I go through a patch where I huff and pout and think that person doesn't know jack and won't be hearing from me again. Usually. But dang, anyone who would pat me on the head and tell me I was brave for something like trying heroin, molesting children, or slapping my mother around? I call that cowardly, not accepting and loving.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Ogged:

It felt great! I wasn't sure about it at first, but it has been a day or so and I think I want to have some more.

Pete:

I contributed to someone getting laid?! You just made my day.

Jens:

The chance that if I have a hard time dealing with what I hear, I might not want to be friends anymore is very, very small. By the time we're friends enough for confidences, we probably already know that our choices are fairly similar.

Louis:

That is incredibly valuable. But it comes after the non-judgment stage, when I am secure again.

Sealion:

That sounds about right. Fortunately, I have many people who do step up, and I step up as well. Since we've reached this agreement about how to act, it works well for us.

Bryn:

That's hard for a lot of people, including me.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

It's worth recognizing that different topics bring different needs for tolerance - sometimes disagreement with friends is beneficial, as there really is an external world, and actions have consequences.

Knowing when to be tolerant and supportive and when to help a friend recognize and deal with something that sure seems like an error is a key element to friendship.

In no case is it beneficial to equate the action with the person. It IS the right thing to help judge choices. The best model is usually that you're helping a friend judge her options, not that you're judging her or her past choices.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Nicole:

There's a baseline. We can get away with this approach because we're all fairly similar: bright, well-meaning people. For people who generally have their acts together, you can give a lot of latitude.

I started a companion piece about where the boundaries were, but I was too tired to finish it.

All:

You know I'm joking about the heroin, right?

9:02 AM  
Blogger jens said...

Well, I kind of figured it was going to be something considerably more out there than just that!

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Nicole said...

So the idea of baseline makes sense - you've become friends with people who you trust to be basically decent and trust you to be the same. I get that, but I sometimes need people to call me on shit, even people who trust me and think highly of me. It's hard to do, but without those people in my life who are willing to tell me stuff I don't want to hear in no uncertain terms, things can get all twisty in my head and I run the risk of rationalizing being mean or lazy or stupid.

All of that aside, I do think there is very human tendency to get a nasty thrill out of saying something fifficut to someone, especially if it can be disguised as doing it for their own good. Someone once told me to think hard when I feel someone needs to hear unpleasant "truth." If there is even the slightest chance that I stand to gain (e.g., a thrill, a sense of smug superiority) from them hearing it from me, I keep my mouth shut. I work pretty hard at that one.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Louis said...

Megan Said:
All:

You know I'm joking about the heroin, right?

The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.

-Louis

9:41 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

In my circles, a mild "Did that work out the way you meant it to?" is understood for the challenge it is. Oooh, another good one is "Would you treat a friend the way you treated yourself when you did that?".

Non-judgmental empathy first. Critical thinking with support second.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

One of my good friends, earned that status with one line:

"Jason, your breath smells like shit."

This isn't a "looking back I realized" sort of thing. I stopped what I was doing and thought, "This person has my best interests in mind and has the courage to show me." (and then I went off and brushed my teeth).

I know that's a small example, but there aren't enough of these people in the world. Most people would let you wander around all day gagging maggots (and I, sadly, include myself occcasionally).

If your intentions are good, there is no way you can address my problem that would offend me or bring into question our friendship.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote a polemic against protectionism, or perhaps against the minimum wage, for putting teenagers out of work? You sure are good at building suspense...
Tyler

5:56 PM  
Anonymous mattpfeff said...

So I commented in the next thread already, because I saw it and went with it.

But here's a remarkably internally consistent response: I disagree with the empathy first, reasoned response second thing. I don't think the order matters. And I think that sometimes that can even do a disservice. I've learned a lot from when people I've loved, and who I know loved me, have been upset by something I did, or failed to do. I honestly don't know that I would have learned as much, or as well, if they'd hugged me then and later tried to approach it from some safe, reasoned distance.

That guy who did the Stanford prison experiment has been in the news again lately, on account of his new book. Why did he stop that experiment? Because, he now seems to tell everyone who asks, the woman he was seeing visited, and was horrified. He'd been thinking critically about the experiment the whole time, and it wasn't until he saw the reaction of someone he cared about that he saw another perspective on it. Maybe she could have gotten through to him by just talking about it, but I honestly don't know.

Now, me, here, I'm also being judgmental, and I've had enough conversations with enough people by now to know that some people would totally take this kind of response as a challenge or a criticism of *them*. But I'm taking the time here to express my disagreement with you precisely because I respect you, and I think it's worth it -- if I didn't think highly of you, and that you were worth responding to, I wouldn't bother telling you I disagreed.

Everyone's different, of course; there's no "right" way to communicate to another person, the important question is whether it will actually convey what you intend to express. So I could see some people responding better to empathy first, too. But that's something that really varies from person to person, I think.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hey Matt,

Freakin' great comment. I love the specific example.

I tried to leave room for "beyond the pale" where you judge and you make your feelings known when someone does something unacceptable. My friends are solid people. They would shout out if I did something too extreme to tolerate.

But you know, I do a lot of self-evaluation and self-criticism. I am pretty acutely aware when I'm fucking up. I don't need more of that from my friends. I need reasons I can trust why I should stop being so harsh on myself.

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Mike Jenkins said...

I'm glad I don't have friends like your close friends. Who wants to hang out with spineless sycophants?

1:06 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Perhaps a non-judgmental approach is not for you.

They call me out on stuff. But they do it later and they do it with love.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Non-judgmental isn't for everyone on either side of the conversation.

The reaction that you're sure to get is the one which happens right away. Anything which needs to be delayed might also be forgotten.

In my view, the most important reaction is the one which should come first. Personally, I'd much prefer that my friends give their honest opinion first. Support can follow later if it still seems useful.

Of course, the relative value of support and analysis is very subjective.

Telnar

7:44 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

Speaking just as a reader of this blog, it seems like you've really been stretching your wings and growing a lot since your latest birthday. Also seems like it's been making you happy, at least that's been the tone in your writing.

Most of the time when people are judgemental it is about their own ego more than anything else. I guess that's obvious.

On the other hand, I've always liked people who can be straightforward and blunt about telling me I'm *wrong* about something, and should do something differently. Factually wrong, wrong in technique, or even a more sensitive issue like not being as polite or tactful as I should be. To me there's a difference between being given useful information and being judged. People feel differently about this.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hey Marcus:

My friends call me out. Later.

Dude, you posted this, like, minutes before the two maudlin posts. But I am generally happy. I'm always happy when the days get longer. Dunno if I've been doing that much since my birthday, but things are going. I guess.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:08 AM  

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