It’s Not About the Nail But It’s Also Not About the Hammer

By October 23, 2014Blog

Even though a lot of people related to the video I shared in my last blog, several people pointed out that things are not always as clear and simple as we’d like to them to be. No surprise – the video was all of 1:42 minutes; just long enough to scratch the tip of the iceberg.

On the Bring Change 2 Mind website one reader, Diane, commented about sharing the video with a close friend, only to find that it didn’t open the door to a more empathetic and supportive understanding. “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.’”

While I can’t know Diane’s situation entirely, the response she encountered hits very close to home. How many times did I encourage, cajole, or nag my daughter to ‘please just get outside, sit in the sunshine, use the mood light . . . ‘ ANYTHING to break that awful cycle of sitting in a dark, dreary room.

There is no doubt that it can be heartbreaking and frustrating to watch someone so dear and precious just wasting away day after day. Of course I felt an obligation, a duty, to make things better. I was SUPPOSED to make things better. That’s my JOB, my singular purpose as a mom. So often I have felt that I was failing miserably in this critical responsibility of caring for my child, no matter what her age. Ironically, my daughter usually felt that same frustration and failure – she couldn’t live up to my expectations or her own. She just COULDN’T take those seemingly simple steps toward wellness no matter how badly she or I wanted that to happen.

Beyond not listening, the bigger issue was that my daughter and I were both stuck. I was stuck in an urgency to be the catalyst of change and my daughter was stuck in a quicksand of moods that she couldn’t control. We both epitomized one definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Like Diane, it wasn’t a matter of not trying hard enough, it that we were trying TOO hard.

Sitting on the left side of the couch (as the person who is supposed to be supportive) the mistake I made was trying to pull the other person along to where I wanted them to be. So even when I was putting on my best empathetic face and saying ‘That must be really hard’, my mind was still solidly on that $%*#@ nail. I’d toss out a few supportive comments and then I was right back to MY point of view. What I’m (oh so slowly) learning is that when someone I care about is struggling, I need to pay more attention to where they ARE rather than where I WANT them to be emotionally or physically.

If my child is completely overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, worry or sadness, I absolutely have to start by meeting her where she is at in that moment. She needs to know that I get it, that I can see her emotions and comprehend her struggles and barriers. She needs to feel me sitting next to her on the couch, not across from her or half way out the door. Then I need to STAY right next to her for a while rather than checking the ‘empathy’ box and zooming on to the ‘Now I’m going to fix this’ box. How long do I have to wait? Long enough for it to feel really uncomfortable for me. Have you ever sat in silence during a conversation? Really paused to see if the other person has more to say? If not, try it. When does it start to feel awkward? 5 seconds? 10? What about a minute?? What seems like a blink of an eye in other situations can feel like an eternity. But if I skip the key step of making that connection and allowing it to solidify, my train has left the station with my child still sitting on the platform aimlessly looking for a ticket.

Making that connection is analogous to earning a person’s trust. If we don’t trust each other, how are we going to hear and receive anything that goes even an inch outside of our comfort zone? Without the trust, my first words beyond empathy are heard as a threat, a withdrawal from the small deposit I’ve made into our emotional bank account. No matter how well intended, sincere and spot on my suggestions may be, they are likely to be received as negating whatever I said before and threatening to my loved one’s wellbeing. So now we are not just back at zero, we’ve gone into a negative balance.

I don’t have a sure fire formula but I do know that if I slow down, way down, and build that foundation, little by little we can move towards a more solution based approach. Ask yourself ‘what is my motivation’? Or ‘whose timeline am I on’? Sure, this takes more time and patience than we’d like, but isn’t it worth it? If we really want our loved one to feel better, then we should be open to a kinder, softer, gentler approach. Remember, we’re the supposedly ‘healthy’ ones, so we SHOULD be able to handle a little discomfort and up our patience game.

Now, what about our poor young woman sitting on the other side of the couch with that unmentionable nail in her forehead? Is she completely at the mercy of our patience and ability to slow down and prove our trustworthiness? No! Even in her compromised and painful state, she has some control of the situation and the outcome.

Think about the people in your life and each of their talents, personalities and skill sets. If you need someone to proof your resume or recommend a good babysitter who do you call? Is every person on your list of friends, family and acquaintances equally qualified to help in these two ways? Probably not. If you call up your career oriented, blissfully single and unencumbered friend to see if she knows a good babysitter you’ll probably come away empty handed. However if you ask her to help with your resume she will likely offer some great insights and edits that had never occurred to you.

My point is that if we give a little thought to who we reach out to for support, our odds of getting the type of support we need go up dramatically. And if we keep going back to the same person for every one of our needs, we’re likely going to find our satisfaction rate drops greatly. So even in our time of need, we have a responsibility to set up our friends for success. Choose the person who is most able to help. Sometimes that is just a matter of timing. We know exactly who can offer us great support, but we call on them at the most inopportune times. What happens? Our already fragile self feels even more defeated and disappointed, perhaps even resentful.

The bottom line is that when you have that pesky nail sticking out of your forehead, or you see your friend trying to ignore the nail, take a moment to consider what tools you really need to bring to the couch and who is best suited to take a seat on that couch. It may indeed truly be about the nail, but just not right this moment, or with you.


  • Mary K says:

    Thank you for this yet another, well written, thought provoking article. Sometimes, we need to see it written in black and white to understand. As a Mom, the first thing I want to do is help and fix it. Thanks for pointing out that the most helpful thing to do is listen. Really focus on what the person is saying and just be quiet. Often, very difficult for me…

  • AnotherMom says:

    I whole heartedly agree with Reply. I pray every day for God to give me the ears for listening and the mind for understanding and the heart for feeling. And – A smile and quiet tongue. A mother’s tendency is to help a child’s hurts. That’s why we are mothers. May God’s grace help those that don’t suffer from mental illness to be “there” and bring peace of mind for those that do. Amen.

  • Nanci Schiman says:

    I’m glad that this blog was helpful for you, Mary. Parenting can be really hard, perhaps because we care so much and we know how much is at stake. We are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. That’s part of being human. The main thing is to be open to trying different approaches. That is exactly what you are doing.



  • Tim says:

    I got the feeling from the video that they’d had that conversation before.

    If you don’t want a solution to a problem, state so before talking about it. You’re far more likely to get the emotional support you are craving.

    if you continue to complain about the same problem, then expect that anyone who cares about you will try to come up with solutions to your problem.

    My rule has always been that, if you need to vent about things at work or in life, tell me and I’ll be there for you. But… if you keep coming to me with the same vent, I will try to help you come up with solutions. At that point, if you refuse to try to fix the problem, you need to stop complaining.

  • Tim says:

    That being said. As long as efforts are being made to try to work on the problem, i will definitely be there when a vent session is needed. Even (or especially) if there are setbacks.

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