We Need To Talk

“We need to talk.”

What do you think of when you hear those words?

I’ve been realizing over the last several months that, when I hear something like that, I immediately assume the worst. I worry, sometimes for days, that either a) I’m in trouble or b) someone close to me is in trouble. But usually that I’m in trouble.

Why? Probably because I have a somewhat neurotic personality and have experience, unfortunately, with unhealthy workplaces led by unpredictable supervisors. Sometimes, the supervisor would call me in to his office to praise my job performance, other times to threaten my job security. The praise and the threats may have happened 50/50; I’m not sure. But, as I learned in a psychology class once, there’s this thing called the negativity bias that makes negative experiences impact us more than neutral or positive experiences. For example, if my supervisor criticized me 5 times a week (true story), he might need to affirm me, say, 10 times a week in order for me to come away with an unbiased perception of our interactions. And I don’t think that’s asking too much; it’s what we call “constructive criticism” or maybe “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). But my supervisor didn’t seem to go that route.

So, I became scared of his office. Scared of the desk phone that so often summoned me into his office. Scared, sometimes, of just waking up in the morning and driving into work. Long after shaking off that situation (with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” playing as I drove away; no joke), it seems I’m scared of someone saying “we need to talk.”

But here’s the thing: sometimes we just need to talk.

A few days ago, someone in a supervisory position over me suggested that we go to lunch. I swear, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. Lunch time came around, we ordered salads, and after several minutes of small talk and sipping sweet teas, I asked her, “So, did you want to discuss something in particular?”

“No,” she said with the simplest smile. “I just thought we hadn’t touched base in a while, just the two of us.”

I sat down my fork and breathed in deep (note to self: do this more often).

Hours of anxiety released like a deflating balloon.

Suddenly, the small talk seemed sufficient rather than suspenseful, as if maybe we’re meant to just be together rather than just be together until some ticking time bomb goes off. Suddenly, I wasn’t so scared. I was just there — fully, freely there. I cared more genuinely about her toddler’s antics and approaching anniversary, and I could accept that she cared quite genuinely about my roommates and writing.

We need to talk. We really do. And I’m resolved to redeem that phrase.  

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How to Hear Sad Stories: With Mental Health First Aid

Well, I took my own blog’s advice recently and shared a sad story with someone (not with humor, alas, but perhaps with some holiness).

Gratefully, the person listened well, joining the handful of other effective listeners I’ve experienced and observed. So, now, I’m turning to the topic: How should we hear sad stories?

Mental Health First Aid training teaches 5 steps (A-L-G-E-E) for responding, in particular, to signs of mental illness. After going through A-L-G-E-E training in 2013, I’ve realized I have some favorite ways to respond to others and be responded to, described below.

  1. Assess for risk of suicide or harm. My favorite assessment response: SPECIFICITY. Like this: “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” Some people say that asking someone about suicidal thoughts might cause the person to start having suicidal thoughts. But, mental health professionals say that it’s a highly effective question. And I say it’s a highly beautiful question. It says to the hurting individual: “I so truly believe that your life is valuable that I want to make sure you believe it too.”    
  2. Listen nonjudgmentally. My favorite listening response: AWKWARDNESS. (Not in the sense of middle-school-cafeteria awkwardness but in the sense that mental illness just isn’t talked about very often, so it’s guaranteed to be a bit uncomfortable, and we have to accept that.) Ask an open-ended question like “Why are you having suicidal thoughts?” or “What are you thinking right now?” then sit back, make some eye contact, and let the silence settle in. Give the person time to identify their thoughts/feelings, ascribe words to those thoughts/feelings, and muster up the courage to share those words with you. As they share, keep up the eye contact, try not to look surprised by what they share, try not to interrupt, and occasionally re-phrase things they’re saying. Like this: “What I hear you saying is…”  
  3. Give reassurance and information. Favorite reassurance response: PRESENCE. The key is to say: I’m here, I’ll continue to be here, and you can continue to find me here. Like this: “Thank you for trusting me with this part of your life; I know that took courage. Let’s make it an ongoing conversation. You can reach me at _phone number, email address, etc._.”   
  4. Encourage appropriate professional help. Favorite helping response: SPECIFICITY again. Don’t wait for them to bring up the topic of professional help; chances are they won’t bring that up, so go ahead and say it. Like this: “Would you like a referral to a mental health professional?” See #1 for why this is great. It’s specific. It’s tangible. It’s a gift.
  5. Encourage self-help and other support strategies. Favorite strategizing response: INDIVIDUALIZATION. Generally, people really do know how to help themselves — they just might need some leading questions to realize it. Like this: “What’s helped you in the past?” or “How could your hobbies be used to help you in the future?” Individualization puts people in control of their self-care plans and increases the likelihood that they’ll follow through on implementing them.

 

You don’t need to be a licensed professional to listen well. You need to be a friend (or pastor or teacher or whatever you are).

As a friend, the best thing you can do is be specific, be willing to feel just a little bit awkward, and be very present.

How to Tell Sad Stories: With Holiness

How can we tell sad stories? Whether in conversation, in therapy, in writing, or otherwise, this can be a terrifying task.

I think the characteristics of Christ described in Hebrews 12 have something to say about this. Here, the apostle Paul advises “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

God is Author. God is the Author of the Universe. He got the Story of life started, making it very “good” (Genesis 1). But his protagonists, Adam and Eve, faced the conflict of being deceived, tempted, disobedient, and ultimately separated from God.

It’s important to note that God isn’t the cause of the conflict any more than J.K. Rowling was the murderer of Harry Potter’s parents (she wasn’t; Voldemort was). Rather, God is the author of our stories, meaning they’re holy stories. Happy? No, not always. But holy? Yes. 

God is Finisher. I might even take a little poetic license and say that God is Editor. He doesn’t just throw words on a page (like I sometimes do). He doesn’t just give us life and then leave us alone to live it. Rather, He works on stories to make them sanctified, redeemed, used for good in time. As Joseph put it, talking to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Christ was unashamed. Even on the cross, having been betrayed, mocked, whipped, and crucified, he “despised” (alternatively translated as disregarded, ignored, or scorned) the shame. Perhaps followers of Christ, following in his example and filled with his strength, should despise shame too.

God is  alive. Because Christ rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God,” he is still alive (Hebrews 12:2, Nicene Creed). What’s more, he sent the Holy Spirit to be Helper/Advocate/Counselor, dwelling with us and in us (John 14).

When we have to tell sad stories, we can remember:

  1. Our stories are holy.
  2. Our stories are useful.
  3. We don’t need to be ashamed.
  4. God is with us and in us.

 

If none of those things seem true, we can look — look for holiness, for ways to make our stories useful, for reasons to be unashamed or for confidantes with whom we can be unashamed, and for God’s abiding presence.

I’ll be looking. I hope you will too.

How to Tell Sad Stories: With Humor

“You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.” – Hazel Grace Lancaster

This is my favorite line in all of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, slipped in subtly on page 209 right before the climax is about to arrive and the reader’s Kleenex box is about to come out.

Why? What are the key ideas here?fault in our stars

Choice. Good characters are active, not just acted upon. They make the conscious choice to interpret their circumstances in a particular manner. In the case of Hazel and Augustus of Fault In Our Stars fame, they’ve flown across the world to meet an author who they’re sure will offer wisdom and answers — and (spoiler alert) the reclusive writer is utterly disappointing. Naturally, they’re angry at the time. But, afterward they choose how to interpret the experience, and they make “the funny choice.”

Like Hazel says, you — we, all of us — have a choice in this world. We might make multiple interpretative choices that shift as our circumstances shift, but no matter what we can be in control of the choices.

Stories. With an interpretation chosen, Hazel and Augustus shared their experience verbally with Hazel’s mom. Stories have tellers (e.g. Hazel and Augustus) and stories have listeners/readers (e.g. Hazel’s mom). I’m convinced that we need to be tellers and we need to have listeners/readers for our stories — especially sad stories. This is why therapists exist, why so many people “vent” into cyberspace via social media, and why Maya Angelou so truthfully said that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

I realize that getting the untold story out of you, when it’s a sad story, can be a pretty great agony too. (Can’t keep it in; can’t get it out.) So, I wonder what would happen if we asked ourselves this: “If my circumstance was in a book/movie what genre would that book/movie be? What genre would I want it to be?” Then, gently guide your sad story over to the aisle where it would belong in Barnes & Noble.

Funny. Hazel and Augustus chose to place their story in the comedy aisle. In the scene I’ve been describing, they role play their frustrating experience to Mrs. Lancaster, turning it into a sort of SNL sketch with grand gestures and embellished accents.

The “funny choice” is a wise and healthy choice, encouraged by philosophy and psychology. According to John Morreall, professor of religious studies at The College of William and Mary (my alma mater!), comedians and philosophers actually have a LOT in common. They both appreciate cleverness, think critically, and ask questions (e.g. “What’s up with that? Why do we do that?”). And psychologically, humor lowers epinephrine (adrenaline), boosts the immune system, helps us be mindful of amusements in the present, and helps us put aspects of the past and/or future into perspective.

I hope to write at least one more blog post about other approaches to how to tell sad stories. If you have suggestions, let me know!

Above all, I hope you make the choice to tell sad stories — and at least consider placing them in the comedy aisle. 

    

I asked God if it was okay to be introverted

This is the first post in my “God Says Yes” series.


 

I’m not just alluding again to Kaylin Haught’s poem here. I’ve actually asked God if it’s okay to be introverted.

Why would we think it’s not okay to be introverted?

  1. Introverts look around us and extroverts seem to be most visible. At work and school, we see extroverts speaking more frequently and forcefully than others. At social events, we see party hosts and extroverted guests mingling comfortably. At church, we see the greeters, musicians, and preachers — seemingly everyone who’s anyone — engaging gregariously with crowds of congregants. Extroverts can just be so visible, so we might assume they’re right.   
  2. Introverts look inside ourselves and feel afraid. Before or during socializing, we can feel real physiological and mental stress. For example, when I was first getting involved in a new church, I went to a party being held by the young adult ministry — but only after calling a friend to tell her about the knot in my stomach and the fear in my mind of not knowing what to do or say. (Fun fact: I didn’t know what to do or say, but party-goers didn’t even notice or at least didn’t mind. We’re friends now.) Introversion can just be so uncomfortable, so we might assume it’s wrong.   

 

There are things I simultaneously strongly want to do and strongly fear doing. I want to have friends, go to social events, make business contacts, be involved in ministry. Yet, I look at others’ extroversion, look at my own introversion, and wonder if I’m really able to do those things.

Yes yes yes.

Why, from a Christian perspective, is it okay to be introverted?

  1. Scripture. There are countless positive examples of introversion throughout Scripture. In the gospels, Jesus often “went away to a quiet place to pray” (Matt. 14:13, 23; Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42, 5:16). To Elijah, God spoke through a “still small voice” rather than winds and fires (1 Kings 19:11-13). And to Isaiah, God said: “In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). The apostle James instructs that everyone should “be quick to listen; slow to speak; slow to anger” (James 1:19).     1547941_10201853562130339_3778232266731685006_o
  2. Tradition. For the majority of Christian history, from the early desert fathers to the 16th-century founding of the Jesuits, the discipline of silence has been a valued tradition. And the tradition is still alive. Last weekend, I got to participate in a silent retreat at a local retreat center along with 20 or so others from my church. From Friday evening to Sunday morning, we kept a vow of silence, setting aside distractions, letting fears fall away, putting people-pleasing aside. In silence, we could take the time to identify our thoughts and feelings, entrust them to God, and hear His voice instructing and comforting. What’s more, in a silent group (which is only a little awkward at first), introverts can experience the reality that we’re not wrong to speak less than others. In that setting, in fact, we’re quite right!
  3. Reason. Research is showing more and more that introversion isn’t so much about social awkwardness (wish I’d known that in middle school) but biological predisposition. And those who have that predisposition can contribute just as much as extroverts — just in different ways. Books like Susan Cain’s Quiet and Adam McHugh’s Introverts In the Church have helped me understand and maximize ways to contribute to the workplace and church as an introvert. Introverts are generally better with one-on-one and small group interactions rather than working with large groups. So, at work and school, we can be focused workers, careful listeners, good note-takers, mediators of conflict, and more. At church, we can be great small group leaders, wise mentors, and potentially helpful with setting up events, serving Communion, passing offering plates, and so much more. Public speaking can even be right up an introvert’s alley, contrary to popular belief, because it affords the chance to prepare and to speak in a planned manner that lets the introvert maintain control of the situation. (Just don’t ask us too many scary, spontaneous Q&A questions!)