As a school student
I remember knowing that it was my solemn duty to respond immediately to emotional pain and suffering if I saw it occurring at school. I had been taught since kindergarten that if someone was being bullied, I had to step in and help them and that if somebody had no friends, I should adopt them and introduce them to others. If I saw someone crying, I should go and put an arm around them and ask “are you ok?”. I tried to live by this to the best of my ability as a student, but I now know that I didn’t see most of the pain I was supposed to respond to. Real bullying and isolation comes not from strangers, but from former friends when you’ve grown apart from them. However, there were definitely times in the playground when I had conversations and gave advice to upset people who were not necessarily my friends. It was a normal thing to do, and there were times when other students did the same thing for me.
As an adult
When I see someone experiencing extreme emotion, a wave of hot and cold fear slugs me in the ribs and then spreads all the way down the trunk of my body and through my extremities. The feeling is always followed by a violent shiver, and then it abates. During the fear wave, I get one moment of ‘deer-in-headlights’ and then many moments of ‘flee the situation’. The most important thing is that they shouldn’t know you’ve seen their moment of vulnerability. Or, they should be able to plausibly pretend that they don’t know about you seeing their moment of vulnerability. There are plenty of options for making yourself unobtrusive during someone else’s emotional lapse. If you’ve just walked onto the scene, and nobody looked your way, back away sneakily, then turn and run. If they did look at you, smile, mime forgetting something, and then leave, pretending you didn’t notice anything unusual. Make small talk with your back turned so that they have time to wipe their face and compose their voice. If they try to flee the scene, let them go, and say the things you’d normally say when they leave a room.
It all sounds cold-hearted, doesn’t it?
The truth is that other people’s emotions are awkward to deal with, and there’s a very clear reason for this: fear of rejection. I don’t want to put myself out there and offer comfort or ask that fateful question “are you ok?” Only to have that person frostily reply with “I’m fine”, and think of me as a busybody. If I’m very close to someone, or very clear on where our relationship stands, it’s a completely risk-free situation, and I can acknowledge their pain and respond to it immediately. Likewise, if I’m certain they don’t want to be acknowledged, I can just enact one of the above evasive manoeuvres. Otherwise, the decision to ask or not to ask is risky!
I don’t want to be the one who makes the move of asking, only to have the other person think “geez, we’re not close enough for you to be asking, man! Why can’t she be cool and pretend that it’s just hot in here?” I also don’t want someone I barely know to open up with a flood of information, because I would never know them well enough to help. I’ve been in situations like that with students, where you offer solutions and they keep saying “no” until, in a burst of frustration they just say “you don’t understand” and run off sobbing. I don’t want to be the reason that an upset person feels worse instead of better.
There’s also the awkwardness surrounding The Comforting Physical Gesture. If it’s somebody I am not sure of, I never know if I’m being too cold or overly familiar when I’m talking to them. I’m just thinking the whole time “all right, that thing they just said was bad, do I put my arm around them? pat their hand? No, wait, opportunity missed, it would be creepy now. Oh, oh, something worse, and they’re getting teary, now I have to do something! Quick! Decide!”
Accidentally hit them in the head with my hand because they moved as I was putting my arm around them.
What if it’s a member of the opposite sex that I’m trying to comfort, and they think my comforting gestures are an ill-disguised attempt to get into their pants? What if they decide that sounds really good, and they forget that they’re upset and start putting the moves on me?
What if they think I’m coming onto them, so they suddenly get better and enact their strategies to get out of Unwanted Sexual Contact situations?
Then someone else would have to go through the above process to ask ME if I’M ok!
Some might say I’m over-thinking this, but others will totally get me, because they, like me, have been burned before.
Now to find the courage, sometime today, to ask a special person if they’re ok instead of procrastinating by having a paranoid-anxiety-attack on my teaching blog…………