Several of my dear friends have said lately that they are socially inept. They say that they are “worker bees” who can accomplish a lot behind the scenes, but don’t know what to say to people. I can relate quite well to this and in fact, have written “ditto” more than once on such comments on social media.
When I worked in scientific research, I used to joke that I should never venture out of the lab because I related to my cultures so much better than I did to people. The truth is that I relate just fine to people. I understand how they feel most times and I genuinely want to support them and to help if I can. The problem comes when I try to express that. You see, I never seem to have the right words or at least I don’t have the confidence that I do. I feel that most of what I say comes across wrong or can be misinterpreted. I can’t tell you how many “I’m sorry if that came out wrong and I offended you” messages I’ve sent in the last year. Thankfully, usually these are to friends who have known me for a long time and knew the spirit of my comment, so they usually tell me I worry too much.
That is true also. In fact, that may be a bigger problem for me than what I actually say. I worry that I said the wrong thing or that I will say the wrong thing. And now that we live in a new city and are having to make all new local friends, this could be somewhat debilitating, if I let it. It could keep me inside, afraid to say anything to anyone. Instead I have chosen to push forward with getting involved in our new community (especially at the kids’ schools and in our neighborhood) and tamp down any feelings of social insecurity I may have. I do still get funny looks at some things I say and expectant pauses at times I perhaps should’ve said something I couldn’t come up with, but I’m being me and I’m making friends along the way.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about that misstep, especially at important times, like difficult news for others. I long to offer support without being condescending, offensive, intrusive, or a thousand other adjectives.
What brought this up today was a Caring Bridge post from a mother whose daughter, a friend of Emeralds’s, has been waging a battle with cancer for about 20 months. They’ve recently gotten news of a setback and apparently people have been posting messages in their CB guest book giving the parents advice and quoting scriptures regarding how to handle their child’s “dying”. The mom was upset that people have given up on their daughter and presume to know how she should feel and what she should do. My first thought was one of rallying support for their fight. I’m praying for a miracle always. I’m also so in awe of this family and I would never presume to know how they feel or what they need to do. My next thought was, “Oh my God, have I said anything that indicated in any way that I’m giving up on this precious child?” I scanned my brain. I know I haven’t said much, but I have made a few comments of support on their FB page. I don’t think I’ve given any advice, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t said anything about dying. After running through all that in my head, I finally relaxed with the realization that I don’t think I’ve said anything that has contributed to their pain or emotional suffering.
What all this (along with the words of the mother on CB) has taught me is that in times that I don’t know what to say, I need to rely on what I do know how to do. I can send positive thoughts, prayers, hugs (virtual or in person, depending on the situation), share a tear, or lend a strong shoulder to lean on, and I can say “I’m here”, without offering words of wisdom I don’t have.
I can trust that my emotional reaction is right and hold back words that may not be. That’s the kind of comfort I can deliver, social ineptness or not.
I will still make the wrong social moves. I will still say the wrong thing. I will still worry that I’ve offended someone at some point, but knowing that I am not the only person in the world who can’t find the right words, and knowing that I don’t have to say anything at all to be helpful, will help me in my journey to be more confident in my own instincts. At least that’s my hope.