Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Sam was at a get-together with some friends and acquaintances recently to celebrate the birthday of one of his close friends. During the course of the evening, he happened to touch base with Alex, whom he had met at a previous get-together but didn’t know very well.
Alex came up to Sam and shook hands with him.
“Sam,” Alex said. “It’s good to see you. How have you been feeling?”
Now, Sam doesn’t love being asked this question. Sure, he has a chronic condition that people who know him are aware of. Sam is not ashamed of his diagnosis, and is actually quite proud of how well he is managing it. He is also willing to be an inspiration and mentor for others who live with a chronic condition. However, he doesn’t define himself by his condition. As a result, he doesn’t like it when people who don’t know him start a conversation by asking about his health.
“I’m great,” Sam answered. “How are you?”
“Also great,” Alex answered. And then he continued to talk about Sam’s health. “I know it must not be easy dealing with your health issues,” he said. “It’s gotta be rough.”
“I do fine,” Sam answered.
“Sure,” Alex said. “I was just thinking you must need a lot of support from good friends. So anyway, I just wanted to let you know that if you ever want to hang out, we can do that. I’d be happy to get together and do something you might enjoy,” Alex continued. “Your choice. And if you have a girlfriend, then I’ll ask mine to come too.”
Sam is a patient person. He told himself Alex might simply be trying to make a connection with him. But boy oh boy, Sam sure felt like Alex was patronizing him.
“Thanks,” he responded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Friendship or charity?
Later that week, Sam was telling his girlfriend about the party and his conversation with Alex, and it suddenly struck him why he was uncomfortable with the situation. “Alex was treating me like a man with a medical diagnosis. And I felt like he was trying to do me a good deed. Maybe friendship. But a lot more like charity.”
While Sam could appreciate that Alex was attempting to do an act of kindness, this brought up feelings that his condition made him an outsider, not able to participate fully in life—feelings he had worked hard to overcome. The last thing Sam needed was charity in the form of friendship. “Will I be friends with him?” he asked himself. “Maybe when pigs fly.”
Dealing with questionable motives
My clients often express concerns about the motivations of other people in relation to their chronic condition. The motive behind an offer of friendship, or even dating, is sometimes questioned. As Sam experienced, an offer of connection can feel like an attempted charitable act.
Have you ever felt that way? If so, here are some ideas for you.
Accept that other people can be flat-footed. One of the things you have probably learned while living with a chronic condition is that other people don’t always know what to say. Consequently, they may say something that doesn’t sit with you so well, or outright offends you. Nobody likes to feel patronized. But keep in mind that everybody’s just kind of winging it where chronic conditions are concerned. You may feel that way yourself some days.
Don’t feel obligated. Just because someone made an offer to get together doesn’t mean you have to say yes. If you don’t want to pursue the friendship with this person, or don’t have time, it’s okay to say so. It’s as simple as saying, “Thanks, but it’s not a good time for me.” You don’t have to give a reason.
Don’t accept being disempowered. Some people assume that no means maybe, or that you are hesitating to pursue the friendship because you feel shy or “unworthy” of their friendship. This is where you may begin to feel like you are not only being patronized, made a charity case, but are a substitute for the volunteer work the other person should be doing with people who really need help. You may need to gently, but more firmly, let the other person know you aren’t available.
Gently disclose your reaction. Humor can help. If you’re not quite sure of the other person’s intentions, and you’re interested in potentially pursuing a friendship, you might test the waters by disclosing your initial perception of their offer. You might say something like, “You mentioned the chronic condition I am living with. I hope you don’t think I don’t have any friends because of it.” Or with a smile, take a more direct approach: “I do have a good circle of friends, just case you’re concerned about that. I don’t want you to think you have to turn me into a cause.” Again, disclosing your feelings in a way that mirrors the attitude in which the offer of friendship was made can help the other person not to feel confronted and defensive. It might even be the beginning of a real conversation.
But also consider having an attitude of goodwill. Look at it this way: the individual offering friendship at least made an attempt to acknowledge your chronic condition. Think of all the other people who clam up and avoid you rather than risk saying the wrong thing. Is that enough reason to give this person the benefit of the doubt?
People who are a little on the flat-footed side can be honest and loyal friends.
If you think this person might be a good friend, accept the gesture. Nobody I know has too many friends. If this person seems like someone you might have something in common with, consider agreeing to the next step in creating a friendship. Chances are you’ve developed a good sense over the years of whom you can and can’t trust.
Keep in mind: the same rules apply to dating. If you’re single, you might have had similar experiences with someone who asked you out on a date. If so, the same guidelines apply. Follow your instinct and your heart. Feeling any chemistry? If so, consider looking past the initial flat-footedness and give them a chance.
You and your friendships. Insist on being treated as an equal with the individuals you choose to bring into your life. Don’t allow yourself to be made to feel less than. But also recognize that behind what might initially feel like a patronizing gesture might be the beginning of a real friendship. Follow your instinct. And remember: you’re a worthy friend! Who wouldn’t want to get to know you?
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