It’s Not About the Nail

By Nanci Schiman

Recently a friend and I were talking about communication. More specifically, communication breakdowns between two people. Why does that happen? Who is at fault (if anyone)? How can we make things better? When do we stop trying?

“It’s not about the nail” my friend said. “The nail?” I asked. (Hmmm, maybe there’s a communication problem here, too!). “It’s not about the nail” my friend repeated, searching his phone, then passing it to me. I clicked on the YouTube link and 1 minute and 42 seconds later I said “Ohhhhh. You’re absolutely right. It’s NOT about the nail.”

The message that I took away is that sometimes we need to step back, pause and listen. Really listen. Not just to what the person is saying, but to what they AREN’T saying. Do they want a solution? Did they ASK for a solution? Or do they want empathy and validation? Is our view of the problem the same as theirs? What need are we trying to fill for our self in our response?

Even though it seems clear as day that this poor woman’s headaches and snagged sweaters could be resolved by simply yanking that nail out of her forehead, that’s not what she’s asking for. Never once does she say to her husband “Could you help me fix this problem”. She just wants to be heard!

This video resonated with me because it could easily have been me sitting on the left hand side of the couch with any one of my daughters, repeatedly rehashing an (obvious to me) problem. The nail is metaphorically any number of issues, worries, concerns or frustrations.

Perhaps our most frequent battle was over self-care. Whenever one of my daughters melted down, felt overwhelmed or simply couldn’t cope, I zoomed right past her tearful or angry vent, barely hearing more than the first sentence, and blurted out the (incredibly obvious to me) solution. “You know, if you’d just make an effort to get a decent night’s sleep, take your meds on time, eat healthy, nutritious foods . . . you’d feel a whole lot better”. And, true to form, the response was an escalated “You’re NOT LISTENING TO ME”!!!! “It’s NOT about sleep. That has NOTHING to do with this”!!!! Followed by the classic twist of the knife “you just don’t UNDERSTAAANNDD!!!!” Basically, I was saying ‘If you’d just take that nail out of your head . . . ‘ instead of ‘life is really overwhelming for you, isn’t it? I am so, so sorry for what you are going through’.

The flaw with my approach is that I skipped right over the here and now and addressed the past (can’t change it) and the future (can’t predict it). Sure, there is a lot to be learned from past mistakes and applied to the future through proactive planning. But the problem right here, right now, is about the present. It’s about how my child is feeling, not about how they messed up or could do better in the future. They already feel bad enough, they don’t need to have their shortcomings or errors of way thrown back in their face. Particularly when they are struggling with unstable moods.

Why is that SO hard for me to do?? Because I’m a mom, a friend, a daughter and I care. Deeply. With all the joys that come from these relationships also comes the potential for great pain. I can’t bear to see the people I love so deeply struggling, suffering, giving up. I want to make everything better by using all of the skills and tools I’ve amassed in the past 55 years. I mistakenly assume that the deeper the anguish, the more urgent and difficult the solution.

I’d like to think that over the years I’ve become a bit more understanding and learned to follow the message in the video. While I’ve by no means perfected this approach, I have found that when I can stop my brain from flooring the gas pedal and shifting into 5th gear, the conversations are a lot more peaceful. Instead of blurting out a solution (which may come across as criticism), I’m learning to stay in low gear and focus on the words and emotions, verbal and non-verbal cues. If I can truly listen, put myself in my daughters’ shoes, I have a fighting chance of being able to respond in a way that is supportive and helpful.

Sure, this approach may not appear to fix things, that’s exactly the point. Fix what? And by whose standards? Setting aside our own need to control, offer a quick solution, stop the pain, allows us to be of service and usefulness. It puts us on the path of meaningful healing. Instead of escalating the emotions and frustrations, we have an opportunity to slow down the pace, catch our breath and reaffirm that we are someone who can be trusted and counted on.

Yes, but . . . what about the nail??? Are we supposed to ignore it and continue to be a sounding board for the increasingly tiresome complaints? What if she starts hemorrhaging? What if she falls and pushes the nail in deeper, doing some lasting damage? What if our loved one stays on the same path, ignoring the tools and resources that could bring an illness into remission or at least lesson the symptoms?

These are valid concerns that I’ll write about in Part 2 “It’s Not About the Nail But It’s Also Not About the Hammer’. Until then, try to leave the nail alone.

14 responses to “It’s Not About the Nail”

  1. Leslie says:

    So beautifully said, thank you

  2. Mary K says:

    This is a thought provoking article and so well written. We all want to pull the nail out, especially us “”Mom’s”. I need to leave the nail alone and listen. Thank you Nanci!

  3. Diane says:

    I forwarded this video and article to a dear friend (my only friend) who is very typical of the guy on the left. We had a long dialogue about communication, one of many we’ve had over the last two years. He wanted to know if I noticed in the video that the girl, too, wasn’t listening to the guy. I tried to explain how, with depression and PTSD and other mental illnesses, reactions and needs in a conversation might be a little different than he is accustomed to. He continues to blame me for not trying hard enough, for not listening when he says he cares, for not “just” going out and “getting some air and sunshine.” We’re not talking anymore, and the sadness is just so heavy.

  4. Nanci Schiman says:

    Diane, I’m sorry for the disappointment and pain that you are experiencing. I hope that my second blog will offer some insight and comfort. More importantly I hope that you won’t lose faith in the possibility of friendship.

  5. Brian says:

    Nanci,

    I thank you intensely for this reminder to me and for sharing this message to many others.

    My fiancé was diagnosed with several potential forms of mental illness at 30 yrs old. She had some minor symptoms that were very short lived and seemingly impermanent during the previous seven years that we were together before I proposed to her and before she had her first major nervous breakdown hence prior to the quick-to-follow formal diagnosis.

    We tried medication right away as she had a very demanding professional job that she did not want to lose. We were lucky to have a nationally recognized psychiatrist but unfortunately the first few rounds made things much worse, truly scary experiences. After a horrid reaction to one of the medications, we cried for hours as I felt her slipping further and further away – I promised her no more medications for a while other than one mood stabilizer that we agreed seemed to work very effectively for emergency fits of anxiety and/or panic attacks. So, we stopped seeing her psychiatrist and I combed through a long list of different types of therapists mostly all within a few minutes of where we lived in Manhattan. I set up numerous therapy appointments myself for her but she only went to a few. She didn’t like the counselor and eventually built up some sort of high anxiety to trying new therapists to the point where she would be all dressed to go out the door but would literally freeze right in her footsteps standing in front of the door with her jacket on and umbrella in hand just crying because she couldn’t move. I would give her a hug and it felt like every muscle in her body had completely constricted the point where she was just a slab of concrete barely able to move her arms to put them around me. I had essentially quit my job the morning after her first visit to the hospital so that I could stay home and take care of her providing extra support before the stress got so bad that she lost her job which I knew would be devastating to her (it was her dream job) and I would look for a job closer to home since I was commuting over an hour each way out of state everyday. Unfortunately, she had gotten so behind at work that she had a nervous breakdown while working from home. She called her employer crying hysterically so they ignorantly without informing her called some 911 “crisis unit”, (supposedly extra support and rush was put on our case because of her profession in the city) which showed up having pushed right past our doorman and literally four (4) uniformed cops knocked and opened our unlocked door at the same time with two paramedics following, but the cops ended up scaring the heck out of her before she even got to the door at which point she dropped to the floor hyperventilating begging them to close the door because she was not fully dressed and wanted her privacy from our neighbors and these cops were being very loud causing a lot of commotion – I came out of the bedroom saw what was going on and I started yelling at the cops to do what she said trying to explain her situation but they completely ignored what I was saying and came after me completely traumatizing both of us. They took her to the psych ward that morning and I signed her up for short-term disability. Now we were essentially both unemployed living off unemployment checks and my IRA accounts. We decided since we both felt a mental institution at this early onset would only make her feel more “crazy” (her psych previously agreed), medications made her feel like she would rather be dead and scheduled therapy sessions were always riddled with massive panic attacks and tardiness which you would think comes with the territory but these therapists told her to find a new one because of too many missed appointments and being late all the time. We moved on as best as we could hoping that maybe just taking a break from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives would help repair her nerves and ease her mind, etc… So we stopped trying to schedule new therapy sessions which were causing the majority of her panic attacks. We stopped going to family events that brought on bouts of anxiety every time we tried to go because we were usually late and would be shamed for the uptienth time. As I saw the money was growing too thin to survive on our own soon and she was still not recovered enough to return to the work force and now neither of us had any health benefits, as a Hail Mary pass, I decided to accept the use of airline miles from a close friend and the last bit of money I could withdraw from my 401k and took her to our time share in the Caribbean for almost four weeks. Our time-share that we paid thousands of dollars for turned out to be a scam and they kicked us out after just a few days, but in lieu of spending too much stressful time fighting with the resort, through the help of some friends of mine and selling some of my high-valued electronic devices I brought with me we managed to stay as long as it took which was the point at which we felt truly at peace. I once again was able to connect with that pure loving and selfless girl who I fell so deeply in love with many years ago.

    We had a very highly intelligent and extremely gifted & talented bird that was really like our only son who passed away tragically at just 1 yr old just before we left. It was yet another devastating blow to our lives. However, we found his spirit all around us while we were on this journey in the Carribean – I mean I am not the eccentric type at all but the events that took place and the messages we received and felt clear in our hearts were nothing short of enlightenment and surreal at the same time. It was at that point that we got a call from our breeder that our new bird was old enough to be picked up and taken home. So, my fiancé decides she is ready right then at that moment to get on the next flight home, go to N.C. to pick up our new little guy and feels ready to update her resume, contact her recruiters and jump back into the workforce, which she did and is almost three months into her new job now. There’s a lot lot more to this story but I think I’m just feeling the benefit of getting it all out for the first time – let me get back to the point now.

    I lived this exact skit, this exact level of understanding mental illness as you so excellently portrayed in the video. I learned to just be calm and listen only after many pain staking months of trying to fight through my fiancé’s mental illness with nothing but love and compassion instead of instruction and aggression. I can’t take all the credit for learning this on my own though. I know this may sound crazy but it is 100% true and deserves to be shared and heard by whomever wants to listen – I had an Aunt to whom I was always very close and she was one of those angelic people who was miraculously always close to everyone. Unfortunately, she passed away while we were in the Carribean, but I went to visit her at her hospice care facility just before we went on our trip. There were many people there and I didn’t want to take up much of her time depressing her with my sob story at a time like that, but somehow she knew and as people were coming in to see her she was just staring at me very surprisingly pretty much ignoring everyone around her summoning me from where I sat off to the side. Then, in the middle of my nervous small talk by her side with very little vague details that I gave her she held my hand and said I love you so much and God loves you… hear your bird’s message, be calm and listen to her. That’s all she said before a nurse came in and made everyone leave the room. I will never forget that bird of ours it was the Holy Spirit as far as we are concerned and I try my best to remember those simple words… “Be calm and listen”. But, it’s not always as easy as it sounds and I have lost my way with that mode several times along this journey since my love was diagnosed and I was enlightened, but your video just helped to “drive it in” for me again! 😉 I’m very grateful for this because it is so hard for us loved ones and caretakers but this reminds me it can never be as hard as it is for those suffering constantly and perhaps for the rest of their life with the illness.

    PS. In case you were wondering what was the message from our bird – it was FAITH in LOVE. Everything happens for a reason. We must carry our faith through the good and the bad never giving up or letting go of our loved ones. Mental illness is not a choice, it’s just a reality of life and we cannot turn our backs on it just because we may not fully understand it.

  6. Nanci Schiman says:

    Brian, thank you for sharing your story. Your pain, love and hope came through in every word. As trite as it may sound, my heart truly aches for all that you and your fiance have gone through. Unless someone has lived the types of experiences you recounted it is almost impossible for them to understand this incredibly emotional roller coaster ride we are on.

    Like you I have found that certain experiences can have a more powerfully positive or negative impact than any ‘traditional’ treatment. My blog on Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) and the police speaks directly to your horrific experience with (presumably very well intentioned) police. And getting away to a peaceful, tranquil environment can sometimes work miracles towards hitting that reset button. In our case it was a treatment center that combined that complete change of pace and distance from life’s stressors with solid and consistent therapy and medication stabilization. Sadly, as you know, for so many people these options are simply out of their reach.

    Each person is their own unique walking chemistry set so what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. The key is to keep trying, never give up, and make sure that there is at least one person who can serve as a constant, dependable advocate. You are clearly that person for your beautiful fiance.

    I wish you both peace, stability and better, brighter days ahead.

    Warmly,

    Nanci

  7. Al says:

    Sorry but it seems like your comments are so sincere and understanding. Yet, unless the woman herein admits that the nail is causing the problems she is facing the conversation is “useless”. One can be patient and listen all day but it will get neither person anywhere until they take the nail Out. Then and then ONLY will peace result.
    Repeatedly talking about an obvious problem is useless unless one is “willing” to do something about it.

    In the video the woman never removed the nail. EVEN AFTER THE HUSBAND DID STOP TO LISTEN TO HER. Thus they could not even end with a Hug. So I’m sure the man may soon start wondering should he stay in this type of relationship. They have a Really sad and painful problem if the nail is never removed.

  8. Mike says:

    I love this video, but the creators of it don’t seem to be aware that for many people, this doesn’t hit the funny bone, but instead might feel like a kick to the stomach. Removing the nail is a simple answer. Mental illness rarely has those.

  9. Shar says:

    Asking her would she like help? I want to take your pain away
    Asking her to touch her forehead, or taking a look in the mirror may have helped. As someone that works in the medical field this type of situations are hard to work through.

    • Zandao says:

      In real life it doesn’t help. Sometimes it makes it worse. Sometimes human beings doesn’t want their problems solved, sometimes they are addicted to their suffering so deeply that when you remove the nail, their lives lacks sense, they miss the suffering.
      A good psychiatrist knows when to show the nail with a mirror, sometimes the psychiatrist makes the person remove the nail without looking it, sometimes he/she just makes the person conscious of the nail and help the person deal with the pain of removing it by him/herself.
      It always takes time and sometimes when the person figures out that he/she will see the nail, just leaves the treatment.

  10. Dan says:

    It is pointless to have a conversation about a problem with someone who doesn’t actually want the problem solved. There is an old saying from my grandpa’s era; “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing, it frustrates the pig and irritates you”.

  11. Casey says:

    B.S… This is the problem with society. Every whiney complaint is supposed to be heard and given full attention with no regard whatsoever for an actual solution to the problem. Look, people feel a need to be heard, I get it. Should people listen to a valid complaint? Absolutely. However, as a great leader once said, “Complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining.” – Teddy Roosevelt. We have become a society of whiners that want everyone to pat them on the head and tell them how hard they have it and it’s unfair instead of figuring it out and fixing the problem like grown adults. Stop pointless whining…address problems and find solutions to make things better where you don’t feel the need to complain any longer. Trust me, you’ll be happier, and those around you damn sure will be!

  12. Loey says:

    Right, Zandao, very true. A good therapist’s job (any kind of therapist, not just psychiatrist) is to promote healing on the person’s own time and in his/her own way.
    But in the case of this video it’s a mate, not a therapist, and it’s not the mate’s job to play therapist and constantly hold space for the person who is creating conflict by avoiding the fact of the nail. Because mates are not our children nor are they our therapists.

    Imagine a more realistic scenario where both mates have a nail. To stick to typical gender stereotypes, in this case, the man isn’t talking about the pain but is creating conflict in other ways to avoid the fact of the nail. Maybe rather than expressing his pain by talking, he does hurtful things so she feels what he feels. Many possible levels of all that. If they each face the fact of their own nail and work on getting their own out, they might actually enjoy true intimacy.

  13. Ron says:

    Or, maybe the person with the nail in their head needs to practice some open-mindedness and listen to her husbands suggestion that just MAYBE the nail in her head has something to do with it. It is not healthy to dwell in the problem. It may be comfortable or familiar to ” sit in your shit”, but it is rarely healthy or conducive to personal growth.

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