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Counterintuitive Underreactions and Overreactions

I love Pride and Prejudice but this is the image in my head for Bad At Serious Conversations.

The quality of not reacting in an upset way to new information has been on my mind recently. People seem to tell me things regularly—a driving force, if not the initial impetus behind my career choice–and something I’ve noticed as a skill is knowing when to react strongly to emotionally-loaded information…and when to treat an offhand remark like a plea for help.

That is, how do you decide when the reaction to–

“Yeah, sorry I’m late on this piece of the project–I had some friend trouble last week–but what if we scheduled a meeting on Tuesday and went over this section right now?”

–should sound like:

“Oh, that sounds [expression of sympathy], I’m so [sad/apologetic]! [Tell me more/how have you been handling it]?”

And when the appropriate response to–

“Yeah, I’ve had some struggles with depression and repeated hospitalizations meant I had to take an extra year of college.”

–is best phrased as:

“Oh, okay, [brief smile] [topic change, offer of ice cream, return to task at hand]“

My initial impulse was to say that a good heuristic is “the weirder/more emotional the information, the more noncommittal the response” But this breaks down very quickly. For one, I hang out in a social group that is almost definitely breaking my Weird and Emotional Information Disclosure alarms. Casual references to hallucinations and depressive episodes are par for the course, and dissecting how one feels about a surprise phone call is the norm.

Each time I try to break down exactly how I decide which of these to do in what situation–because sometimes ‘I had some friend trouble’ is an offhand aside, and ‘struggles with depression and repeated hospitalization’ does call for processing and discussion of current feelings–my brain comes back with ‘well, it was obvious in the situation!’ Thank you, brain, for that helpful contribution.

And then there’s another complication: what if in attending to this; in trying to figure out when to be noncommittal about Serious Things and take parenthetical remarks as openings for Deep Conversations, you do more harm? If you maintain even mediocre relationships, it seems high-risk to play around with how you respond to disclosures. If the learning curve means messing up a few times in large ways, you might be better served by not accidentally tanking your friendships.

And these interactions can and do make or break relationships and friendships. I can hear it now (in part, because I have heard it before):

“I confessed my deepest secret to her, and she just asked if I still wanted to go bowling!”

or, from my own life:

“Every time (this is only slightly hyperbolic) I offhandedly mention that my parents recently divorced, everyone thinks it’s The Worst Thing In The World, and I have to convince them I think it was a good idea. And then when I say I’m glad, everyone assumes I had a horrible home life. Now I just never mention it.”

At the same time, filing this as a skill that some people have and some people don’t, and one for which there is no ability to intentionally jump from one camp to the other just grates on me. Most of my social skills are learned, and I pick up new ones best from explicit instructions and scripts that I, over time and testing, adapt. They’re social skills, after all, not social I can just miraculously do it and you can’t so pbthhh.

So….how? Accept that straining some friendships is the price for being a slightly better friend overall? Try some other heuristic for how to react? What do you do?