"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Stop Sharing Your Misery–It Makes Matters Worse

New research suggests that misery does not love company.  Just the opposite.  By sharing your woes, you focus more on them and what’s worse, you depress your patient and compassionate friends. The obvious conclusion – keep it to yourself, Mabel.  Think of other people for a change.

Common sense tells us that this has to be true. We really don’t want to hear anyone’s tales of woe because they remind of us of our own precarious life.  We may soon enough get the cancer that Mabel recounts in excruciating detail; so we don’t want to hear about the day at the doctor’s office when Mabel learned of her illness; the months of her debilitating, painful chemotherapy, the loss of a breast, on and on ad nauseam. A death in Mabel’s family reminds us of what’s coming down the pike our way.  Divorce, family disputes, brutal fights over meager inheritance, disobedient, drug-taking children are all depressing enough in the abstract, but when Mabel starts going into detail about the most heinous, immoral and deceitful behavior of her husband, her nephews, and her own daughter, we want her to shut up.

On the other hand, what about the received wisdom which says that baring your soul, sharing your troubles with someone who has a sympathetic ear is good for you? Crying on someone’s shoulder, getting a good hug and a cuddle?  Nonsense, apparently.

Sarah Kershaw, as reported by Anna North in the New York Times (10.14.14) writes:

The research distinguishes between sharing or ‘self-disclosure,’ which is associated with positive friendships and positive feelings, and dwelling on problems, concerns and frustrations. Dwelling and rehashing issues can keep girls, who are more prone to depression and anxiety than boys, stuck in negative thinking patterns.

In other words, if you feel sorry for yourself alone, you are likely to be distracted by other things – boys, for example, or the coming Beyoncé concert. The young mind is simply too resilient and too intelligent to whip itself silly over some insignificant slight; and wallowing in the details of your parents messy divorce pays no emotional dividends whatsoever.  What Mommy and Daddy did to each other happens all the time, so it is better to chalk it up to human history and move on without moping.

Girls, however, far more than boys, love to talk.  Whether genetically programmed or influenced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, they chat on the phone, text, or email.  They gossip, slam boys and parents, share exuberance and disappointment all the time.  What the research is telling them is to shut up for a change, focus on the positive, deal with their misery – which, by the way, every human being who has ever walked the face of the earth has had in spades – and leave the rest of us alone.

It gets worse.  Not only do girlfriends get a little depressed after a crying session with Mabel, they may be so dragged down into the tar pits that they begin to do acts unthinkable before the tête-a-tête:

Kershaw mentions other work on “‘emotion contagion’ or ‘contagious anxiety,’ in which one person’s negative thoughts or anxiety can affect another’s mood, sometimes over a long period.” She writes: “Research has shown that people who live with others suffering from depression tend to become depressed themselves. Teenage girls who intentionally cut themselves are said to draw friends into the behavior.”

This is what stuffed animals are for. Most girls sleep with the stuffed raccoons, bears, and dogs that they had as children way into their young adult years.  They cuddle them before going to sleep, talk to them about the nasty things Mabel said to them in the girls room, and share with them how stupid and unreasonable their parents are becoming.

Research is only worth the investment if it is actionable.  It is all well and good to confirm a hypothesis – in this case that misery does definitely not love company – but something practical should result.

In a suburb of a major Midwestern town in the United States, a group called Mothers Against Depression was formed to address the implications of these findings. First and foremost, the women have all taken a pledge to stay upbeat no matter what the circumstances; and although the organizers never planned it this way, the liturgy is very nihilist. Cancer, death, divorce, social antagonism are nothing more than events on the perpetually turning wheel of history.  Nothing to get exercised about because they happen to everyone and have happened since time immemorial.

On a less lofty plane, the mothers promise to take only the best lessons from what used to be called ‘misery’ or misfortune.  “Aunt Betty was a wonderful woman”, said Fern Brattle in a practice session. “She had beautiful hair, wonderful friends, and lived a long, happy life.  We should celebrate her life, not mourn her passing.”

The truth, however, was far different.  Betty Makum was a miserly misanthrope who did all she could to make others unhappy and miserable.  She died a slow and painful death and even those closest to her said that she deserved it.

This inconvenient truth was shoved under the rug, and Aunt Betty’s nieces and nephews were told a revisionist story about her goodness.

What made this happy talk venture easy was the school district’s renewed emphasis on self-esteem.  Everyone in the Jeremiah S. Baker School was a unique, highly valued individual.  This was merely a more academic way of instituting the old saw, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. In other words, dumb, fat Laverne should ignore the playground taunts hurled at her every day.  She is special because of her wonderful, generous personality, avow her teachers.

So the Mothers Against Depression had a lot of help.  Everything in the small town was happy and upbeat.  It was as though the City Council had outlawed unhappiness.  ‘Smile’ stickers were everywhere, local newscasters were politely encouraged to leave aside the ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ protocol for one month of the year, especially February which was the time when workshops, fairs, and socials were held to promote the community’s positive, upbeat program.

As the psychologist Wendy Wood has said:

‘Staying present’ during good experiences may help keep them from becoming dull habits, and maybe focusing on someone else’s impressions is one way to maintain that present-ness. Maybe eating your favorite chocolate with someone else will help you appreciate it more.

None of this worked, however. Girls still gossiped away, cried their eyes out with their best friends, shared their misery and their mournful diary entries, and kept up a steady routine of chat and tears.

No matter how strict the schools were about self-esteem, Laverne, Yolanda, and Margaret got teased about their flubber; Randall, William, and LaTrey ridden about their bag of hammer dumbness; and Prince Marfie laughed at for his stumbling lack of coordination.

So, nature trumped nurture in Bofort, Kansas.  Everyone – parents, teachers, and city councilmen – finally came to the conclusion that girls will always blubber to their friends and be catty; boys will always be cruel and pick on the weak, and both sexes will be largely indifferent to others.

Wendy Wood closes with this comment:

Sharing a bad experience with someone else might make your burden heavier rather than lighter. If you’re going to do something fun, you should invite a friend to do it, too “but if you’re doing something unpleasant you should do it by yourself.

Good advice. Let the world turn as it always has.  Let boys be boys and let girls be girls.  No matter how much we hector them about inclusivity and self-esteem they are still going to behave as they have for millennia.  Human nature is not something you can fiddle with.

Mothers Against Depression disbanded recently, and the mother who founded it shared her disappointment with the press.  “Yes, I’m disappointed”, she said, “but this doesn’t mean that I am going to change.  I will remain the happy, upbeat, positive person I have always been.”

No one took her seriously because most of the residents of that small Kansas town knew of her many travails; but everyone thanked her for her service, albeit in a losing cause.

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