Consult-Liaison Education Lessons Nonfiction Reflection

Five Things You Can Do When You Have to Talk to Someone You Don’t Like.

We all have to talk to people we don’t like, whether in our professional or personal lives. We try to avoid these people. We try to work around them. Sometimes we spend a lot of energy trying to get away from them. And, despite our efforts, we often still have to spend time with them.

Most people don’t like the experience of disliking people. Some blame it all on the disliked person. Some people assume all the blame themselves (“why don’t I like that person? what is wrong with me?”). And, despite self-reflection (or lack thereof), the uncomfortable sensations remain.

It’s okay to dislike people. It happens. Sometimes we don’t have rational reasons for disliking people. Even if the reasons elude us, one of the most useful things we can do for ourselves (and for everyone else) is to acknowledge our dislike. Once we recognize our internal reality, we can then take useful steps in our external reality when we have to spend time with these people.

Here are five things you can do to make the best of the time you have to spend with someone you don’t like:

1. If they are much older than you, really look at them and picture them as kids. Kids are cute. All of us were kids at one point. Sometimes things happen to kids that lead them to act in certain ways as adults. These certain ways helped them cope with and survive in the world. Maybe these strategies don’t actually work well now, but they may have been lifesaving when they were kids.

Have compassion on the kid.

2. If they are much younger than you, really look at them and picture them as elderly people. You might recognize that, if they keep doing whatever it is that they are doing, they will have difficult lives as older adults. Maybe they haven’t learned what they need to learn yet. Maybe the time you spend with them can help them learn something different so they aren’t destined for decades of misery.

Have compassion on the elder.

3. Try to get to know them better. Abraham Lincoln remarked, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

Yes, this means that you might have to spend even more time with someone you don’t like. When you start exercising curiosity about people you don’t like, though, you often learn that you both have something in common. Sometimes you learn things about the person’s past that might explain why they he does the things he does. Instead of thinking of him as an “annoying dickwad”, you may notice that you now think of him as “that poor guy who no one cared for as a kid”.

4. Assume that the person is having a rough time in his life. None of us shine when we’re dealing with the problems and failures that inevitably occur. We often have no idea what challenges people have in their lives. Even though their challenges may occur in contexts that have nothing to do with you, the ways they deal with those challenges may affect how they interact with you. What they do that vexes you may be the best way they know how to cope.

5. Approach them with the assumption that these people are your teachers. Everyone you meet can teach you something. Because we often have no idea what has happened or is happening to people, it is foolish to believe that we know more about life than those around us. This person might teach you how to show more compassion or exercise more patience. This person might be an accurate reflection of those aspects of you everyone else finds annoying. Your reaction to this person could help show you how you can make your other relationships better.

You may protest that these suggestions may not reflect actual reality: “These are just mind tricks you play on yourself!” However, you cannot control the behavior of other people. You are limited to choosing how you can react to and interact with the people you dislike.

Thus, if the goal is to make the best of your time with people you don’t like, would you rather be “right”? or would you rather be “effective”? These five suggestions may not be “right”, but they are more likely to make you effective.

Observations Reflection

On Trigger Warnings.

A reader I respect asked me for my thoughts on trigger warnings.

Per Wikipedia, trigger warnings are “warnings that the ensuing content contains strong writing or images which could unsettle those with mental health difficulties”.

Let’s put aside the last part of that definition, “those with mental health difficulties”, as some articles suggest that trigger warnings are not limited to those with mental health difficulties. Part of me wonders why that fragment is in there.

First, some relevant clinical information, as trigger warnings as described in popular press are commonly paired with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

DSM 5 has loosened the definition for trauma. Affected individuals do not have to directly experience the trauma (“exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways”). Parameters to describe reactions to the trauma, however, still exist. In a previous post I reviewed the other DSM 5 criteria for PTSD.

The vast majority of people who experience trauma as described in DSM 5 do not go on to develop PTSD. Yes, people may experience symptoms in the days to weeks following the event. Most people, though, incorporate the events into their lives and move on. This is a testament to human resilience.

One of the most effective treatments for PTSD and other conditions related to anxiety and fear is “exposure“, delivered in a gradual process called “systemic desensitization“. For example, if a woman was a victim of rape and has symptoms of PTSD, the therapist and woman build a hierarchy of anxiety-inducing experiences related to the rape. The least anxiety-inducing experience may be her thinking about the facts of trauma. The most anxiety-inducing experience may be her wearing the exact same clothes she wore that day, going to the location where the rape occurred, and describing, out loud, what happened. Something in the middle may be her walking past the location where the rape occurred.

The therapist helps the patient learn coping skills to recognize, acknowledge, and manage anxiety and other uncomfortable reactions. They then work through the hierarchy, from least anxiety-provoking to most anxiety-provoking, until the patient is able to meet and overcome the anxiety associated with the traumatic event.

Do note that avoiding cues associated with the trauma is not included in the descriptions above.

So, back to trigger warnings:

Different people respond to cues in different ways. Some victims of rape don’t have any visceral reactions when they hear or talk about rape. Some do. Some people only have visceral reactions if they smell something from or see certain objects associated with the traumatic event.

Who decides which triggers are worth mentioning and which are not? Does anyone have the right to tell someone else what is a trigger and what isn’t?

People have different capabilities to cope with stress. I mean no disrespect in the following sentence: Some people have never learned how to deal with themselves. They don’t know what to do when they feel angry or sad or frustrated. No one ever taught them what to do with those emotional energies. They have a skills deficit.

Thus, for some people, the best way they’ve learned to take care of themselves is to ask for trigger warnings. That strategy has worked for them and, as a consequence, they continue to use it. The feeling of empowerment is much preferable to feelings of discomfort.

For all of us: You feel the way you feel. It’s neither right nor wrong. People may tell you that you’re overreacting or “too sensitive”, but that’s about them, not about you. You feel the way that you feel.

Emotions aren’t simply reactions. Emotions give us information about the situations we’re in. They help us decide on next steps. We certainly prefer some emotions to others. All emotions, though, serve a function. Avoiding them often causes more problems.

The request for trigger warnings may not represent a need for coddling. It may reflect a need for greater validation. When we feel like no one understands where we’re coming from or what we’ve experienced, sometimes we try harder to make others listen to us with hopes that they will then understand us.

As social creatures we build our identities in relation to others. Context matters. Perhaps the request for trigger warnings is a reaction to the limited support and acknowledgment we received when we experienced trauma. This is an opportunity to not only advocate for ourselves, but also to advocate for others who may still feel uncomfortable expressing their own distress. Feeling empowered is much preferable to feeling uncomfortable.

Do people want trigger warnings because we, as a society, are unwilling or unable to talk about the horror, helplessness, and terror that accompanies trauma?

If people can ask for trigger warnings, that means that they have voices that others can acknowledge, hear, and respond to. What about all the people in the world who don’t have a voice? And are yet unable to escape trauma? The request for trigger warnings can be noble, but does little for others who are currently experiencing and recovering from their own traumas. Not talking about something doesn’t mean it will go away.

Furthermore, the underlying assumption of trigger warnings is that people who have experienced trauma can’t handle life. Not only is this assumption wrong, it is also dangerous.

As I noted above, most people who experience trauma do not develop PTSD. For those who do develop PTSD, they can and do recover. That doesn’t mean that recovery is easy, quick, or painless. Like anything important, it takes time and energy.

Because we build our identities in relation to others, requests for trigger warnings could send the message that people who have experienced trauma will never recover. It can also suggest that people who have experienced trauma are “defective” or, as in the Wikipedia definition, have “mental health difficulties”.

To be clear, there is a role in alerting people to potentially disturbing experiences. Movie ratings do this: That “R” rated movie has violence, nudity, and drug use. This information serves a purpose for parents and viewers of films. If you find the film disturbing, you can use the energy from your own emotional reaction to write a letter of umbrage to the filmmaker, avoid similar films in the future, or tell your friends not to see the movie. However, how you react to the film doesn’t mean that everyone else will react in the same way. It also does not mean that film makers must heed your requests to provide warnings about its content.

Given that people respond to cues and deal with stress in different ways, people have unique emotional reactions to events, and avoidance is not an effective treatment for anxiety and trauma-related disorders, requests for trigger warnings are ultimately short-sighted and will not help people learn about themselves, grow, and recover.

Nonfiction Observations Seattle

Bridges, Frustration, and Coping.

The longest floating bridge in the world is in Seattle. It is 7,710 feet (2,350 meters) long and spans beautiful Lake Washington. Locals call it the “520 bridge” and, in its current incarnation, only cars may use the bridge.

Yesterday, the Washington State Department of Transportation hosted the grand opening of the new 520 bridge. On the bridge were several food trucks, booths with information related to the engineering and construction of the bridge, and equipment and heavy machinery used in its creation.

To get to the event from Seattle, people had to take shuttle buses that originated at the University of Washington campus. The buses drove about three miles on the old bridge and delivered the crowds to the start of the new bridge.

Tens of thousands of people took the opportunity to walk across the bridge and enjoy the surrounding views that, prior to then, one could only enjoy by car.

In the early afternoon hundreds of people got in line to get back to Seattle. A young man wearing an orange vest carried a sign that read “End of the Line Here”. He folded the line back and forth to compress hundreds of people into a narrow area while we awaited the shuttle buses.

Behind us were two women who appeared to be in their 60s. One wore a visor that pushed her short white hair out of her face. The other had a greying bob.

“This is ridiculous!” Visor exclaimed. “This isn’t organized at all! We’ve been waiting in line for over 30 minutes and I don’t see any buses coming!”

“I know!” Grey Bob agreed. “We haven’t moved at all. This is terrible. This is ruining the entire event!”

Thin white clouds were streaked across the bright blue sky. A refreshing breeze swept around us. Mt. Rainier stood in the distance, a lenticular cloud atop its peak like a floating hat.

“OH MY GOD we’re actually moving!” Grey Bob squealed as the line shuffled forward. “We might actually get off this bridge!”

“I’m not going to be that optimistic,” Visor replied. “I’m going to wait until we actually get to UW before I say that.”

Shimmering white light danced on the dark blue ripples of Lake Washington. As the clouds dissolved under the sunlight the snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Mountains revealed themselves. A media helicopter, less than 100 feet above us, drifted past.

“HELP US!” Visor screamed at the helicopter.

When we could no longer hear the helicopter, Grey Bob sighed, “It’s been over 45 minutes. This is unacceptable.”

“If I have to wait in line any longer, I’m going to jump over the side of the bridge and kill myself,” Visor squawked.

Grey Bob laughed before commenting, “The barriers aren’t that high. Someone could really jump over. It wouldn’t be that hard.”

“Oh yeah, you’re right,” Visor said, her voice non-plussed. “That’s not good.”

At around 55 minutes the line was no longer still. We walked in quick strides towards five buses. Two of them faced West to go to UW. Three of them faced East.

“All the buses are gonna go to Seattle,” the event planner shouted at us. “Get on any bus on the other side of the barrier. All the buses will go West.”

I smiled as I watched my father scramble over the barrier—while not a spring chicken, he is still spry—and my husband and I made a point of scurrying away from Grey Bob and Visor. The three of us got on a bus facing East.

Nearly 100 of us packed into the bus. My father sat to my right. A woman in her 50s wearing a bicycle jersey sat to my left. My husband gave up his seat in an act of chivalry for her. He stood near the rear exit of the bus.

The bus headed East towards the fancy-pants neighborhoods of Medina and Hunts Point. Once the bus was off the bridge, it passed an exit. Then another.

“WHAT?” Bicycle Jersey exclaimed. She leaned forward and barked at her friend, an older woman with glasses reading a newspaper, “Why is the bus driver not turning around? Doesn’t the driver know that we’re supposed to go to SEATTLE?”

Someone pulled the wire to signal the bus to stop. People snickered.

The bus slowed to a halt at an intersection with several other shuttle buses. It did not move for nearly 15 minutes.

“This is so disorganized,” Bicycle Jersey said. “This is not worth it. This has ruined the entire day for me.” Her right thumb scrolled through an article by Nick Kristof: “When Whites Just Don’t Get It”.

The bus then crept north towards Kirkland.

“WHAT?!” Bicycle Jersey shouted. “Why are we going to Kirkland? We’ve been on this bus for over half an hour! We should’ve gotten on a bus that was going the other way. They’re already back home.”

“I never take the bus,” a woman standing over my dad said to no one in particular. “I’m never doing this ever again. Unless it’s a shuttle bus at a really nice wedding. And I mean a REALLY nice wedding.”

A young man with facial stubble near my husband hugged a pole. “We’re almost out of water. We’re going to die on this bus.”

“It’s like we’re hostages on this bus,” Bicycle Jersey spat.

The bus stopped at the Kirkland Park and Ride, but not at the curb.

“He better not make us get off this bus,” Bicycle Jersey said.

One man got off the bus.

“Did we come all the way here just for that one guy?” Bicycle Jersey continued. “What about the rest of us?”

The bus rolled back down the hill and stopped at an intersection.

“WHY WON’T THE DRIVER GET BACK ON 520?” Bicycle Jersey shouted. “TURN RIGHT HERE.”

“We’ve been on this bus for almost an hour,” Facial Stubble announced.

When the light turned green, the bus turned right and we were back on 520.

“We’ve been on this bus for almost an hour,” Facial Stubble announced again.

The bus rolled past the line of people waiting for buses. It was nearly a mile long now.

“DON’T GET ON A BUS HEADING EAST,” Bicycle Jersey shouted at them. None of the windows of the bus were open. The bus was going over 40 miles an hour.

“We’ve been on this bus for an hour now,” Facial Stubble said. “This is the worst mistake of my life.”

Some people have to wait over an hour every day just to get food and water.

I’m going to guess that you ate breakfast this morning. I’m also going to guess that you’re going home. Because you didn’t have to work today.

You’re not showing any overt signs of dehydration. Shut up. You’re not going to die.

The only person holding you hostage right now is you. Your bitterness isn’t going to make us get back to Seattle faster.

If you are joking about suicide because you’ve been waiting in line outside on a beautiful day for 45 minutes, how do you deal with actual stress?

Maybe you sustained a brain injury in your frontal lobe and that’s why you have low frustration tolerance.

Maybe your prefrontal cortex hasn’t fully developed yet. That process isn’t complete until your mid-20s, at which point you’ll hopefully have better impulse control.

Maybe no one ever taught you emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills. So maybe this is a skills deficit.

Maybe you’re having a rough time in life right now. Maybe a relationship you value is ending. Maybe someone you care about is sick and dying. Maybe, under different circumstances, you’d exercise more patience.

Maybe you’re a victim of specific operant conditioning: Maybe you’ve learned that people only pay attention to you and value what you say when you’re expressing snark or distress. And that people will only take you seriously the louder you talk.

My dad shrugged.

“We just had bad luck today.”