Silver linings only belong to storm clouds

How hard do you try not to hurt people’s feelings?

We hurt stranger’s feelings unintentionally, I am sure. We hurt some feelings intentionally from time to time, I bet, too.

But when you really try to do it all right… when you think about all the options and all the possibilities to your best ability so you avoid causing problems… and it still manages to result in hurt feelings, what do you do?

Recently I became aware my actions hurt someone for whom I care very much.  I had debated the possible actions and choices for months, and I knew that my options guaranteed some or all parties might be displeased. In the end I chose one version of happiness, and in turn created unhappiness. Days after learning of the damaged feelings, I am left feeling conflicted, sad, dismayed and confused. I know what it is to be hurt, and would not wish it on anyone. If I am supposed to learn from this – what is the lesson? Is it that I just cannot make everyone happy no matter the effort expended? Is it that my happiness must always fall second place to other people’s happiness when they are in conflict?

When left with these questions, I feel as though no matter which way I turn, I lose. My head spins with possibilities, and not one is a clear winner:

  • OPTION 1: Don’t worry about making other people happy.  Take the risk that your actions will cause discord and focus on your own happiness first. Problem with this: must deal with the aftermath of appearing “selfish.”
  • OPTION 2: Worry about what will please others, because bringing them happiness brings you happiness. Problem: This simultaneously brings the stress of anticipating the needs of those silent masses of people who matter in your life. This can create enough anxiety to eliminate any happiness you gain in considering their happiness in the first place.
  • OPTION 3: Realize you can’t win either way. If you focus solely on making others happy (preemptively) you lose your happiness (because you won’t be honoring any other need but the desire to please others). And if you focus on your happiness only, you degrade the happiness of others because you are not considering anyone but yourself. And trying to balance the two is like an endless process wherein one is trying to balance scales while gravity shifts under the seismic instability of emotional reactions and uncontrollable social variables. In other words: a futile effort.
  • OPTION 4: Exclude people from your life and decision-making so you eliminate the need to please them. But in the process solidify your sadness as you effectively make yourself an island.
  • OPTION 5: Accept their negative emotions (even though it is made difficult by your frustration at having tried so hard to avoid a negative result). Do you take ownership over their emotions? Do you assume responsibility for producing them? Or are we all the sole owners of our emotions with nowhere to place blame but within? To the contrary, if a person is brutally assaulted, their feelings of pain and anger are not entirely their responsibility and are certainly significantly the cause of the assailant. But in day to day social situations, to what degree are we responsible for the feelings of others? There seems to be no good answer. Do we simply allow the emotions to exist in the air that cushions our relationships, unresolved and untended?
  • OPTION 6: Rest knowing you had the best intentions. Rely on the fact that emotions are complex. Solutions are rarely cut and dry. Choices are often presented as a utilitarian balance of what is necessary and what is desired. This balance is tinged by the external variables in the moment, and – when taken out of context – may not seem like the best solution at later date. So again, trust in one’s decision is essential; confidence that we do the best we can at the time is an imperative. 

If the hurt is unintentional – if we truly believe we did the very best we could with the information and influences available at the time of our actions – then perhaps the best we can do is acknowledge the pain and express regret it occurred.

What saddens me, is that hurt feelings exist at all in these circumstances. Because even with the best intentions and the best efforts, the knowledge that we hurt someone unintentionally can in turn hurt us to a significant degree. It seems that hurt, no matter our efforts, is a driving force in our lives. It must often uncomfortably exists in our days, an ever-present reminder that maturity and wisdom are gained not only by the triumph of logic, nor the thoughtful assessment of pro’s and con’s, but also by the visitation of discomfort, sadness, and disappointment. Perhaps in coming to peace with this fact, one might finally achieve the most realistic sense of satisfaction.

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Civility has its limits

About six months ago, journalist Liz Clancy Lerner asked me, “Can someone ever be too nice?” My short answer was yes, followed by a number of examples that were obvious, like in cases of violence, rape, and other extreme scenarios.

But recently I thought again about how complex civility can really be. There isn’t a fine line that designates when it is appropriate to be unkind and when it is necessary to play nice.

I typically err on the side of being nice or friendly. I do this to “save face.” That’s how I was raised. What will people think? How will it look if…? That was always the question and primary concern in small town Iowa.

As I grew older I began to embrace the side of me that was more forthright and more assertive – which often times made some family members uncomfortable. But it has been an asset to me many times in recent years, and I’m happy now to own it as part of my persona.

Even still, I have trouble putting my new “assertive Jen” mode to meaningful use. It’s great when I’m joking around, and it comes out full force when I am pushed too far. But what about those middle-gray times when it’s not black and white? I still play nice and save face. And I’m left wondering, “Did I react the right way?”

I work near a spot in town where an art event was going on Friday night. Needing to use the restroom, I knew I could just pop into my work building and use the facilities there. As I walked into the lobby, I saw some familiar faces – cleaning people and the security guard “George.” He is an older man, probably in his late sixties. Unlike a few of his security guard predecessors, George has been professional with me when we’ve interacted. Surprised to see me after work hours, he asked what I was up to, told me I looked nice, and then gave me the key to the ladies room. After doing my business, I returned to George’s desk and made a little light chitchat. I didn’t really care to visit much with him, but thought it was the nice thing to do.

George told me how pretty I looked again. I thanked him – I never mind a good complement. Then he said to me, “You should come back here and sit on my lap.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Could this sweet old man really be making a pass at me? I asked him to repeat himself to ensure I had heard him correctly. “I said, ‘You look so good. Why don’t you come back here and sit on my lap?'” he replied, with a chuckle.

Having been one of many women in that building who had received inappropriate looks and advances from previous security guards, I was well-practiced at my response. “George, you should not talk to me that way. I am a married woman and that is inappropriate. Don’t you realize you can lose your job? Other guards have been fired for this sort of thing.”

George replied, “No, no I doubt that. See, a man can say anything he wants to a woman. As long as he isn’t touching or raping her or holding her arms against a wall he isn’t doing anything wrong.”

“ARE YOU F*@&!#$ KIDDING ME?!” I thought. Did this man seriously just say that?! Yes. And he meant it. He seemed shocked that I thought making those sort of advances was inappropriate in the workplace. I replied, “Well, it’s not okay with me. Don’t talk to me that way again.”

So far so good. Assertive. Civil. Firm. To the point.

Then I did something I don’t understand, and it happens all the time. I reverted to a friendly mode, keeping the mood light but serious, and as I walked away smiling I said, “It’s not cool George. Not cool.” I shook my finger at him. “I’d like to see you try to say that with my husband around. He might not be so nice!” George laughed and I left the lobby.

When I arrived back to my husband I was furious. Furious with George, but angry with myself as well. Why hadn’t my anger been so intense when I reacted to the guard? Why did I feel the need to make nice?

It's hard to find relevant images sometimes. I picked this one because I liked it! Source: http://mystylishbump.blogspot.com/2011/04/think-happy-thoughts.html

I do this all the time – try to smooth things over after a confrontation. Even when I know I am standing on firm ground and am in the right, I still try to gloss over the situation with humor or smiles.

Of course, I was proud of myself for asserting that it was wrong to say those things to me. In the past even that response would be difficult to summon. Let me give you a comparison: 7 years ago my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. One of his family members (not his kids or grand-kids thank goodness) said it was his own fault for getting cancer because he didn’t listen to his doctors. I was highly offended and angry. That is not the sort of thing to say when someone has cancer metastasized to their bones.

But what did I do? I said, “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m sure he listened to his doctors.” Then I talked amiably for a few minutes, gave her a hug saying how lovely it was to see her, and I left (angry on the inside, smiling on the outside). Why? First, I didn’t want to start a family feud. Second? Well, that is what I thought was proper behavior. In 2004. But it’s not “proper” to roll over when someone bad mouths a person you love. And it’s not okay to mislead someone into thinking something is not as serious as you really feel it is by smiling or joking around after the fact.

In the end I am realizing there are times when being nice is completely inappropriate.

George needed to know that sort of behavior was unprofessional. My relative should have been told her statements were offensive. It was my responsibility to be assertive and call them out on their behavior with confidence and gravity rather than alleviate their guilt and discomfort with humor and lighthearted banter. However I may have been socialized as a child, it is my duty to address my fear of conflict, deference to others, and lack of confidence when asserting my perspectives. And maybe next time, I will be able to leave my offender with a bitter taste of honesty rather than the sweet flavor of pseudo-civility.