Permission to feel bad

Cat sleeping face down on a blanket on the sofa. Her front paws are stretched out but folded in, touching her legs, also folded in, as if forming a triangle.
She’s here, okay. What more do you want?!

I used to try to look for the silver lining a lot – or worse, I used to try to get other people to find the silver lining. Now, in and of itself, attempting to find something positive in a bad situation is not a bad thing, nor is it wrong. It can often be helpful as we try to gain perspective, or try to motivate ourselves to keep going when things get tough.

But there are times when it’s hurtful.

There are times when we use the silver lining to ignore the warning signs. To convince ourselves to keep going in unhealthy situations instead of honestly evaluating whether it makes sense to continue on that path (e.g., stay in that job, stay in that relationship, accept being treated poorly) when we have a choice about it. Sometimes staying positive is about survival (particularly when maybe we don’t have a choice, or when the other options are worse). But there are times when it can be a form of giving up.

And it’s also a different thing to choose for yourself than for someone else.

When people are grieving, we want to take away their pain. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to give them permission to feel it. To grieve. To miss that person (or place, or life they imagined, or whatever they have lost). To hurt.

There is so much talk about empathy vs. sympathy and a fraughtness about how we should feel when we haven’t had that experience or cannot ever know what it’s like to be in the other person’s situation, can never understand its full depth. It’s easy to get carried away in one’s own head about the correctly shaped response, and how one could possibly contort oneself into that correct shape. It’s also easy to believe we can approximate someone else’s experience because something (we believe to be) similar happened to us. To fail to recognize how bad a situation truly is for someone, because we (believe we have) survived the same. Or fail to recognize structural and systemic differences. Which can be dismissive, or worse, lead to us potentially gaslighting the other person. I’ve done all of these, and I’m sure I’ll continue before catching myself—though I’m working on it.

Platitudes are about us, about easing our discomfort at not being able to do anything about this terrible situation that the other person is in. But to be a better friend would be to sit with that discomfort if it gives the other person space to grieve. To give them permission to feel bad, to be messy. To free them from feeling guilt about making you uncomfortable on top of whatever they were already feeling awful about.

Someone I respect a lot used to open meetings with a check-in and often led the way herself in what it means to be open and vulnerable, to answer the question of “how are you” honestly even when she was having a really, really tough time. What a gift.

What I’m working on these days is to get better at replying, “that’s really awful” or “that sucks” or in some way recognizing the situation and how someone is feeling. To acknowledge their reality. I’m working at making space for people to feel as they feel. To answer “how are you” as honestly as they wish to. Even when they feel bad. And also, to get better at sharing with the people in my life when I’m having a hard time.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, or struggling, then please reach out to your local lifelines. If you’re in the US, you can call or text 988, or find more resources at 988lifeline.org. If you’re in Japan, you can contact the TELL lifeline via phone at 03-5774-0992 or chat.

What I learned from 50 (mostly) first dates

It’s odd getting to know people as an adult, isn’t it? As a kid, it’s often by proximity – we make friends with the neighbors, kids in our class, or kids who take the same route home after school. As we get older, it’s often through school, perhaps a place of worship or an extracurricular activity, and then at work, or maybe kids’ schools/activities in the case of people who are parents. But what about outside of institutions?

A latte with latte art in the foam on the top to look like two hearts, with a spoon on the saucer, and a tall mug of black coffee to the right. Both cups are on a wooden tray on a wooden table.

Last month, I watched a friend’s six-year-old run around making friends with random children, all readily jumping in to play with each other even though none of the parents knew each other nor necessarily interacted with each other. Nobody had set up a play date. I envied his ease – their ease, I should say, since while he wasn’t shy to jump in, every kid he interacted with was eager to welcome another person to play with. They were simply happy to be playing.

I envied their seeming ease – but actually, in terms of what I saw happen, I’ve found that this generally resonates with what I’ve found as an adult attempting to meet new people.

Earlier this year, I set a goal for myself of having coffee (or lunch or a virtual chat, etc.) with 50 different people. Having moved to a new city (and country) in 2022, I figured that it would be good to get to know people, whether personally or professionally. This was not for romantic purposes (I’m fortunate to have already found a wonderful partner!), nor did I have any specific agenda beyond getting to know people.

As someone craving connection (a.k.a., a human), I also counted people that I already knew, though I tried to make a point to reach out to people I crossed paths with once and wanted to get to know better. So I counted every substantial conversation for the first time I met with that person in 2023, and I counted them whether we met for coffee, shared lunch or a beverage, had an extended conversation during an event, went for a walk in the park, had a virtual meeting. I counted any conversation where I felt like I came away knowing something about the person that I didn’t know before. They included people I met while in the US and while in Japan, and some I’ve only met virtually, but have included people from numerous countries.

Of the 50 conversations, 32 were with people that were new (new as in, we’d never really had a substantial conversation or talked 1:1 before). I’m proud of that. It’s easy to talk to someone for a few minutes at a networking event, connect on LinkedIn, and then never go beyond that. But what’s the point if you’re not even sure why you might want to stay in touch with them besides that they work in the same field? (On top of that, field being fields for me, and even then, pretty loosely defined in my case.) However, I’m also grateful to everyone who made the time and for the things I learned from each of them and along the way.

What did I learn?

  • People are generally pleasantly surprised when you have a great conversation at an event, exchange contact information or connect on LinkedIn, and then actually follow up to schedule a coffee or virtual chat.
  • It works best to reach out for a chat when based on a real connection, when it’s clear that this is not transactional (i.e., not trying to sell something nor use Meetup or LinkedIn as a dating service), and when you reach out within the next few days after meeting them.
  • In a couple cases, I met people through a mutual acquaintance and this can be another strategy for meeting new people. For example, if you’re interested in meeting people who live in a particular area or who say, share a hobby, ask your existing networks!
  • I felt most awkward reaching out to people whom I’ve known casually (in that we crossed paths once or have a mutual acquaintance, etc.) for some time but whom I don’t actually know well. But most of the time, the other person expressed that they had wanted to get to know me better, too, and they were glad I had reached out.
  • Like exercise, reaching out gets easier over time and with practice and remembering that the point is to get to know people – not to have every person you meet like you.
  • There were people I never heard back from. Maybe they didn’t remember meeting me, or maybe it got lost in a cluttered inbox, or who knows what else is going on in their lives – I didn’t take it personally. If I eventually hear back, I look forward to talking with them!
  • You won’t become long-lasting friends or end up working with or hanging out with everyone, and that’s okay. But even if we haven’t really talked much after that initial chat, I’ve still always learned something. I know more about that person and the things that they’re interested in, and hopefully they know something of me—both of which are always wins in my book. The conversations are interesting and sometimes I get to learn other things as well, such as about a field unfamiliar to me, or practical tips for life in Tokyo. (The latter has been especially useful the past year!)
  • Over time, I’ve gotten better at recognizing a genuine connection in the moment (it often involves a lot of laughter in my case) and where we might both enjoy having a more in-depth or 1:1 conversation.
  • There are few things that bond people as quickly as a common and emotionally intense experience. You know, like moving to a country where you don’t really know anyone and can’t really speak/read the language.
  • We are each of us so much more than a job title, or a family role, or our passports, or the things that happened to us. It’s a reminder I’ve really needed for myself this past year.

Someone I once worked with on a project shared with me that, when he worked in sales, he was trained on always having a brochure or something to physically hand a potential customer so that they would have to extend and open their hand to receive it. In doing so, the potential customer would be opening up their body language and, so the theory went, their mind would follow.

I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is human to want to connect with people. Often, people are interested in connecting or talking further, but they may be nervous about reaching out or simply haven’t had the time to follow-up. But that’s not the same as not being open to it.

If you’d like to get to know more people or get to know people better, reach out first. People are more open than you think. There are many kind, gracious, and generous people in the world. Be kind. Be curious. Be real and people will be real with you.

Thoughts? Done something similar? Have other recommendations for meeting people or getting to know people better? I’m open to hearing from you (and to having a chat)!

The power of actually sharing photos

Even if you haven’t done marketing and communications work, I bet that you’ve felt that magnetic pull of an image – especially on those sites and apps with infinite scroll and where the supply of cute animal photos (and now videos) feels endless.  We’ve all felt the power of an image that compelled us to click to see more, understood stories that told only in photos, and most of us have probably also fretted about what photo to use when sharing certain things on social media.  (Don’t worry, I fretted plenty over what photo to use for a post about the power of sharing photos!)

The St. Mary's River at the tail end of sunset, the sky pastel pink and yellow and purple and reflected in the calm water
The St. Mary’s River at the tail end of sunset, the sky pastel pink and yellow and purple and reflected in the calm water — I spent many many evenings and nights walking by the St. Mary’s River during college (at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a.k.a. the best St. Mary’s!) because I love, love, loved watching the sunset in the water, the jewel tones at dusk, and the lights that shined across the river at night, and the sound of the water gently lapping. Even just seeing it now brings back lots of fond memories of long walks with friends and the types of conversations it seems that you can only really have late at night.

As a writer, it may not be surprising that when it comes to social media, I mostly use words.  However, I’ve really come to love sharing photos one on one.  With my parents, we often share pictures of what we’re eating and meals we’ve cooked.  My friends share photos of their pets and kids and gardens and bathroom renovations.  I’ll send a friend a picture of something I saw in a store that I know they would have liked or gotten a kick out of.  I’ll send the pet lovers photos of the cat.  One of the sweetest birthday presents I ever received was a video of my niece and nephew singing happy birthday to me, while I was half a world away.

Why does it feel so different than if I had seen the photo on social media, instead of in a message sent directly to me?  Isn’t social media still a way of sharing what’s going on in our lives or what we’re experiencing with friends and family?

Several years ago, I took a course on knowledge management where they had a number of really wonderful guest lecturers (I learned so much! Thanks, Tara and Piers!).  And one day, there were two people from an NGO I have unfortunately forgotten the name of, but they basically did work around storytelling and public health and helping organizations get better at storytelling to get their messages across.  And they had us all do an activity: We were paired up and then told to find a photo on our phone and share it with our partner and tell them about it. 

The magic that lit up that room.  Everyone was abuzz and they had to really get our attention to wrap up the activity.  Although the speakers were showing us the power of photos in terms of storytelling, here’s what I remember.

I remember how a group of us who had just met a couple days ago were now telling a near stranger about our favorite places, about how proud we were of our kids, about life changing trips, about loved ones who maybe were no longer with us.  In the span of a few minutes.

I remember that the room felt warmer.  That I felt looser and more grounded at the same time.  That while we had all been sharing, the space felt alive. 

Because we were building relationships with each other – with the person sitting next to us.  Even if one person was showing the photo and telling the story at a time, it was still a two-way street.  The other person made eye contact, nodded, smiled, made verbal acknowledgements, and/or asked questions.

And that’s the thing that gets missed sometimes in social media.  Don’t get me wrong – there can certainly be a power to sharing our stories and letting people in when we say, post a photo or even a written story on a social media site.  Obviously, I would not write blog posts if I did not believe there was also value in sharing things with a wide audience.  There’s a place for that and it is needed.

But sharing a photo with one person (or even one small group of people) directly is a way to connect, to build relationships, to let people in—to say, “I choose you to share this with.” 

There’s a conversation you can have in that space that you have created with the other person that you can’t have with an audience because you can each be equal participants.  The other person can contribute to the conversation and move it to another place – beyond simply responding to what you had posted or shared (though they can do that, too).  It’s easy for social media posts to get performative without necessarily intending for them to.  But in a conversation with another person, it’s not about metrics.

When I worked in offices, I tried to make a point of acknowledging people when I or they walked in.  Maybe it was a hello or head nod or a slight rap on the top of their cubicle wall as I went by.  Because all of us, we need to feel seen, too.  Feeling seen is different from being seen.

And that’s why conversations will never be replaced by posting and publishing. 

So I say…in this blog post…which I am publishing.  But if you want to talk, or have a photo to share, you can always drop me a line so we can have a conversation.