I don’t very often talk about specific people in my articles, but this time it seemed appropriate as a colleague of mine, who we’re calling J.D. (Jane Doe), told me the following story about her close friend and neighbour.
For many years, the friend and her husband, who J.D. calls ‘a good man’, lived the high life. They had a house in the best part of town; a weekend place in the country; the children went to private school; the parents wore designer clothes; the family travelled the world, etc. On the surface, an enviable life. But pull back the curtains a bit and what emerged was a very different picture.
An executive with a marine technology company, the husband’s recompense was mostly based on commissions. When sales were good, the couple caught up on piled-up bills and enjoyed their life, but when sales were bad, the commissions dried up and things became incredibly stressful, for although they had investments (which the husband adamantly refused to cash), they had no savings.
The husband controlled the finances. If his wife, who was a homemaker, needed/wanted things, she asked him for money. We only mention this because for years, whenever the neighbour talked to J.D. about her worries, J.D. told her to get her own bank account and insist money be put aside for rainy days. Did her friend ever take the advice? Of course not, which frustrated J.D. to no end. (J.D. was the only person who knew what was going on. Business associates, family members and other friends had no idea the couple were living a spendthrift* life).
Yes, we can hear your judgments loud and clear. It’s almost impossible not to have them when we hear about a situation like that. Those people should be doing this or that, we say to ourselves. Unfortunately, like J.D., we often voice those suggestions (judgments). After all, we’re just trying to help.
That kind of help is open to question, for the moment you or I tell someone else what to do, we introduce conflicting ideas and confused feelings within the person, and the inner debate about what they need to do gets externalized before they can resolve the problem. They stop trusting their instincts and their coping skills, and they either do nothing or they become reliant on us for guidance.
For some time, J.D. had been examining why she felt so frustrated with her friend. Then one day, after yet another advice-giving session, J.D. took a hard look at that frustration, and realized it sprang out of an inner desire to be needed… she wanted her friend to need her, to come to her whenever she had a problem, to think that J.D. knew better than she knew for herself.
When a mini recession hit the market and sales tanked with no end in sight, the husband had a minor heart attack, and his wife came running to J.D. for help. But this time J.D. did something different.
She listened to her friend cry and then blame her husband (blame being a way to deflect a person’s own pain and discomfort, and numb feelings of vulnerability). And when the crying and blaming had spent itself, J.D. didn’t analyze or give her point of view or leap in with advice – she simply asked: ‘What part do you think you played in all of this?’
There was a long silence. And when the neighbour finally began to talk – when she finally began to explore her own actions, she revealed herself to be a far harsher judge of what she thought she had done to bring the situation about than J.D. could ever have imagined. She was full of guilt (a painful feeling of regret or responsibility about one’s actions); shame (a painful feeling about oneself as a person), and she felt completely vulnerable (a feeling of being susceptible to damage or harm).
‘What do you think I should do?’ she asked when she’d poured it all out. J.D., knowing her friend had to find her own answers, instead asked: ‘If this was happening to me, what would you suggest I do?’
After another long silence and in a very low voice, her friend replied: ‘Control; I would tell you to take control of the finances.’ ‘Hmm, control,’ was all J.D. said. ‘I’m going to create a budget,’ the woman added quickly in a determined voice. ‘He can be in charge of paying some of the bills and some of the spending, but I’m going to take control of everything else.’
J.D. didn’t ask her how she was going to get her husband to agree to that. She simply said: ‘Well, you’re a strong person. I can hear in your voice that you’ll find ways to achieve whatever course you set for yourself.’
For what J.D. did was to finally realize that most of the time when we are hit with Adversity, we can find the strength to deal with it. In a similar vein, she felt her friend could develop the strength to do whatever she wanted or needed to do.
The friend went home and immediately set up the budget. An investment was cashed. Joint spending and savings accounts were set up; the couple began to follow that strict budget, and they both committed to a change in lifestyle, which they’ve adhered to though the mini-recession is long over.
They also went to see a counselor. As she talked about the roller-coaster years, the woman realized that in repeatedly discussing the situation with J.D., she had fooled herself into believing she was doing something to create change without actually having to look at or do anything about her own behaviour. The husband discovered that his controlling behaviour sprang out of a fear of not measuring up to his father’s idea of manhood. The power dynamic between the couple changed; it became balanced.
And J.D.? When other people came to her with problems, she learned to focus on listening and helping them find their answers, rather than simply telling them what to do.
It’s never pleasant watching the people we care about go through adversity and the sometimes difficult process of change that hopefully follows, but we can make it a great deal easier for them and for us if we stand at their side, rather than in their way.
*The earliest definitions (~1300) of thrift meant wealth, prosperity, and fortune. Hence a ‘spendthrift’ is someone who spends their fortune. Oxford Dictionary