Time Limits & Partial Authenticity

It’s definitely been a while but, if it counts for anything, I’ve *thought* about writing a lot in the past few weeks! What brings me back today is the social expectation of appropriate responses.

This has long been a pet peeve of mine. The most common example is when you see someone you know, perhaps in passing, many people have interactions similar to this:

P1: Hi, how are you!?
P2: Good! You?
P3: I’m good, too!

Really, what’s the point of these interactions? Often, when, “how are you?” is asked in this way, the asker doesn’t care what the response is. This Q&A dance has become so routinized, that it is disingenuous. Maybe I’m hyper-aware of this because I place so much value on the power of words, and which words I choose to use on a daily basis. Since I noticed this trend several years ago, I made it a point to only ask people how they were doing if: 1) I genuinely cared to know the answer, and 2) if I have time to listen to the answer. The people I interact with probably don’t notice, but it makes me feel good to interact with others in a genuine way.

So, how do I greet others if I’m not using the standard, “How are you?” script? I’ll often just say, “hey!” or “good to see you!” or give a compliment about something they’re wearing, or comment on the weather (not a fan of the last one because it’s small talk – but it happens sometimes).

A lot of times, I’ve witnessed the “how are you?” exchange and seen the answerer *look* as if everything were not good, despite verbalizing the socially-appropriate response. I’ve also witnessed times when someone has responded, “not so great,” and the asker is like, “that’s good!” because they were preoccupied with something, and just going through the motions of social expectations. Another thing (way more common) is this:

P1: How are you?!
P2: Good, how are you?
P1: Good, how are you?
P2:…um, good…?

It’s so routine that people aren’t even paying attention to what they’re saying. This is problematic.

Last night, I was talking with my SO about a previous relationship of his. Part of the conversation had to do with mourning the loss of that relationship and how he felt and knew that there was an unspoken limit to the grieving process. I asked if this was something his friends expressly said, or if it was just a feeling; he said it was both. He had spoken with one friend who lost his wife and told my SO that, “after a while, people just want to know that you’re okay. They don’t want to hear about everything else.”

This creates an uncomfortable and lonely dynamic. We are aware that our friends have their own lives, and that they simultaneously want to support us. But, when we experience a loss and feel like there’s a limit on our grieving process, a lot of stuff inevitably gets suppressed and may find inappropriate outlets, or manifest as anger/frustration.

As I reflected on his experience and thought about showing up as my full self in each of my relationships (romantic and otherwise), I was somewhat stymied by this revelation of part-time authenticity in adulthood. I know that we aren’t always 100% ourselves in every situation. I also know that friends are not supposed to be our therapists. But, it seems like a tricky balance to navigate when you’ve experienced such a great loss and you want to rely on your friends for support (because they’ve supported you in the past), but you also worry about burdening them.

I’ve experienced this multiple times in my life, and last night/this morning wasn’t a revelation that I had never had before…but it made me think about it a little bit more.

Some of my unanswered questions are things like:

-Who is the best person to turn to when you’re experiencing a loss?
-Who creates the time limit for grieving? Is it different for types of losses?
-How do you know if your confidant is feeling overburdened by your grief, or if your anxiety is just making you overanalyze things?
-Why do people just want to know the good stuff (“that you’re okay”)? Part of being in relation with others is accepting all parts of them.

Grief work is something that I’ve come to enjoy as a therapist (after being adamant that I never wanted to do it), but something I always tell my clients is that you may never fully stop grieving/feeling sad/etc., you just learn better ways to cope with the pain. We are social beings, and we (introverts and extroverts alike) need relationships to help us navigate our daily lives and to make sense of what we’re experiencing. I think that through these relationships we learn how to be our authentic selves. And through that learning, I think it becomes less appealing to engage in trivial exchanges (i.e. how are you?…), and more appealing to slow down and enjoy the people in our lives. Not just enjoy them, though, but to truly listen, and support them, too – for as long as it takes.


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