We all know those people. If we’re savvy we avoid them at all costs, evading eye contact and sitting on the other side of the room, because we know from painful experience that the slightest contact (even asking ‘how are you?’) will trigger a litany – or possibly even a liturgy – of Bad Experiences. These people have perennial problems. They are lonely, perhaps, and need company. First time round you feel sorry for them. You have a chat and try to cheer them up. You suggest groups they might want to join. You introduce them to people. And the next time you meet, nothing’s changed. ‘Oh,’ you enquire, ‘did you go to that group/talk to that person/ join that class?’
And did they? Did they hell.
You might try suggesting other things. You might be nice and have a cheery chat every time you meet. But basically you’re on a losing wicket, because the person isn’t prepared to change. They are blaming their circumstances for something that’s inside them. Because if you’re in a bad situation (and I’m the queen of bad situations) and you can’t get out of it you need to look for the good you can do. If you’re lonely, join groups, talk to people. If you’re shy, join a drama group – or a choir – or something where you can be part of it by doing something unobtrusive like mixing the sound or mashing the tea. But you need to do something because you’re the only person who can – and because there’s nothing more boring than a person with perennial problems.
Which is partly why, when I have problems I don’t talk much about them. There’s probably not much anyone can do about whatever it is: but there’s more to it than that. Perpetual complaining has an effect on the complainer as well as the listener. You become a problem, instead of a person living with a problem. Your problems not only define you, they end up defining everyone you meet – because you separate them into sheep and wolves: those who help and those who don’t.
A propos of this, I came across an interesting idea the other day. It was in the context of alcoholism but it works with a number of situations (I think it’s from Gestalt theory). You have a tall, thin isosceles triangle – and at the apex is The Victim: the One With The Problem. Then at the bottom you have the Enemy (the person or thing who’s causing the trouble) and in the other corner, the Friend. So here’s the thing: if the Victim approaches you as a Friend, asking for help; and if (having tried everything) you stop helping, there’s only one other place to go. You become the Enemy. There are only three places on this chess board and the only way to win is to stop playing.
This is a central idea in dealing with alcoholism too. It’s like a revolving door in which everyone – the alcoholic and those trying to help – is stuck. You can’t stop the revolving door while others are still pushing it round: all you can do is get out of the way. It feels like selfishness but it’s actually very necessary. Your actions may not stop the door because the alcoholic may find someone else to help push, or they may just keep pushing it themselves. In the end, all you can do is look after yourself.
That’s what I’ve learned lately from going to Al-Anon. It’s a brilliant organisation and I recommend it to everyone who’s affected by someone’s drinking.