There are at least three kinds of phenomena that affect us. The first are things that we can control, or at least influence. The second are things that no one can control. The third are things which we cannot control but which someone else can. This third category is the birthplace of a painful phenomenon: when someone makes a choice that affects you, over which you have no say.
These choices that others make are not necessarily bad choices. They might even be excellent choices, but when they affect us and we have no say over them, they can still become painful experiences.
A friend gets married and moves out of the house they shared with their nearest and dearest, leaving their housemates bereft, scrambling to fill the room and feeling the pang of pain in the midst of all the celebrations. A friend leaves the team you have sacrificed years of your life to build, leaving you to clean up the fallout and pick up the pieces. A friend decides to have children and their whole world, including their friendship with you, changes. A friend takes on an intense job and is no longer available to giggle and gallivant. A friend goes through a divorce, and you feel like your world is being ripped apart too.
Why Does It Hurt So Much?
Indirect hurt is a funny phenomena. It may not feel valid, because we often legitimise pain by how personal it is. “Don’t take it personally,” we tell ourselves, “your friend is not moving house as a way to avoid seeing you every day – this decision is nothing to do with you!” Whilst that may well be true, it’s a bit irrelevant. Just because something isn’t intended to cause you pain, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. It’s important to validate this type of indirect pain.
It’s also true that emotions are not mutually exclusive. You can be delighted for a friend and sad for yourself at the same time.
These situations hurt a lot because when they happen we realise the cost of having let ourselves get so intertwined with someone else’s life. We may feel betrayed – we have trusted another enough that their decisions affect us deeply, and now they seem to be making a decision that flies in the face of that trust. Suddenly, we are faced with our own vulnerability. We realise how exposed we are – how did we get to the point, we may wonder, that another person’s decisions, over which we have no say, can affect us this much? We may feel angry – at them for allowing us to be so vulnerable when this decision was always a possibility, or at ourselves (for much the same reason).
Finally, we may feel powerless, and that is a terrible feeling.
The Pain Is Valid, The Conclusion Is Not
The pain that you feel (even if a friend is making an excellent choice, the right choice, the choice you would make!) is valid. The seemingly inevitable conclusion – that we should never let ourselves get so close to someone that their choices can hurt us this much – is false. I know how tempting it is to decide to only be friends with people who are never going to move, to live alone so you never get abandoned again, to disconnect to prevent yourself being so exposed – I know, I know, I know – but it is not the right conclusion. It is actually through vulnerability and interconnectedness that healing and hope and resilience are built. It is through vulnerability that we become wholehearted (c.f. everything Brené Brown ever wrote).
It was meant to be this way. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but we really are meant to be deeply connected with others. This pain you feel now? It’s a result of your bravery. It’s a wound that has come from running hard in exactly the right direction, and the best response is to get up, clean the wound, and keep running.
Keep running towards vulnerability and interconnectedness.
It Helps To Talk
One of the problems with these kind of situations is that we don’t have a script for dealing with them. “I’m feeling sad about your promotion” just doesn’t quite come out right, does it? But if we are going to run hard towards vulnerability and interconnectedness, then we’re going to have to find a way to deal with the wounds. If the change is a big one, I believe that an honest conversation can go a long way.
Perhaps the person doing the choosing is the right person to have the conversation with – in a really good friendship – but perhaps they are not. Whoever you have the conversation with, don’t let it come out as an attack, a bitter dismissal or even as a joke. Let it come out a bit more like this:
“I am so excited for you [or for him, or for her] about this new life change. I can definitely see why you made that decision – it really seems like the right thing for you, and I really hope I’m going to get to be a part of it. I would love to hear how you’re feeling about it all – the ups and the downs – and what kind of support I can give to you in this big life change.
I’m also feeling weird about all the changes myself. Our friendship means so much to me, and I’m going to really miss this era of friendship. Maybe the next one will be even better in its own way, but I feel like right now I’m grieving the end of one season, without quite knowing what the next season will look like. Sometimes I just really wish things didn’t have to change.”
It’s Actually Not Your Choice
It’s tempting to go from “this hurts” to “you’re wrong because this hurts.” People who feel powerless are also sometimes tempted to try to regain power in manipulative ways, so it is important, if you’re in one of these kinds of situations, to come to terms with the fact that it absolutely is not your choice what your friend does. Yes, we are relational beings, whose choices and actions inevitably impact those around us, but we still don’t get a say in everything that affects us. Don’t try and talk your friend into a different choice “for their own good,” or manipulatively sabotage or undermine the choices they’re making. It’s painful, but it’s true: it’s not your choice.
If You’re The One Choosing
If you’re the one choosing, it’s easy to get defensive. Maybe you think “Why can’t they just be happy for me?” or “I’m not doing anything wrong!” It’s also easy to feel helpless – what do you do when you make a choice that you can see affects people you love, and yet you know that choice is the right one to make?
Well, firstly, it’s true: you’re not doing anything wrong. We ALL make these kinds of choices. Even our tiniest choices affect those we’re connected to – when I decide to work from home more than I work in the office, it affects my colleagues and their work experience – and yet it is not their choice to make.
I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end of these choices a lot in the last few years. Some of my choices have included running a charity, getting married, moving abroad, moving back (but not home), choosing to live on a super-low budget so I can devote myself to my PhD, and actually devoting myself to that PhD. All of this hugely affects how exactly I am involved in my friends’ lives. There are at least three dear, dear friends who I desperately want to be with in person today because of what is going on in their lives, and I’m not – because of the choices I’ve made. That affects them – of course it does!
So what can we do as those who are choosing? Firstly, find ways to show our friends how much we still value them, even though things are changing. Don’t pretend that things won’t change, but do find ways to involve and value your friends even when things have changed. It’s on you to take the lead on inviting your friends into their place by your side in this new season. Secondly, be brave enough to hear “This is hard…” for what it is – a brave soul fighting for a highly valued connection in a time of transition. It is not a condemnation of your choice. Don’t run away to hang out with people who aren’t affected by your choice and will make you feel better. Sit, listen, acknowledge the pain, and be honest in return.
When someone makes a choice that affects you, over which you have no say, it can hurt. There is no easy solution to that hurt, but today I wanted to acknowledge it.
I also wanted to say that as uncomfortable as it is that even our good decisions can hurt other people, this is the way it’s meant to be. We could live disconnected lives and be affected less, but we would miss out on the fulfilment of interdependence.
Interdependence is the antidote to many woes, but with it comes exposure to pain. Let us not run from that pain into the darker pain of isolation and disconnection. Let us instead learn to live with the tension, and build friendships that are strong enough to handle honesty, vulnerability and change.
Due credit to Brené Brown a researcher who has started a global conversation about vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame.
Featured Image by Death to the Stock Photo