He walks through the door. A little earlier than I thought. Perhaps 15 minutes before I expected him.
I’m happy to see him, but I’m also mortified. Because he’s caught me just as I’m coming out of the shower. I suppose I’m technically dressed, but not really. Wearing an odd assemblage of clothes (one of my “hobo outfits”) on the way to changing into what I’m actually going to wear.
He wasn’t supposed to be here yet. I still need to put the new sheets on the bed, change into something cute, and finish up dinner by chopping up potatoes and quick roasting them in the air fryer to go with the roast I’ve had going in the slow cooker. And I still need to microwave some corn. Ugh.
I’m frustrated, so this “ugh” happens aloud.
He laughs. “What? What’s wrong?”
I quickly tell him I’m not ready. That I’m behind on my personal schedule for the day. That I have a bunch of things I wanted to do before he got here, but now he’s here, and that’s literally impossible. That I guess I’d lost too much time in the morning to writing and in the afternoon to running errands. More time than I thought. And now I’m screwed. Flailing around mentally self-flagellating because I’m a planner who has planned poorly.
“Would you like some help?” he asks.
I frown, start shaking my head. “You don’t have to.”
“It’s okay, I want to,” he says.
“This is on me. My stuff,” I say. “I thought I’d have enough time, but I just have too much to do. And now you’re here.”
“Well,” he says. “What do you have to do?”
I rattle off the list, becoming increasingly flustered by the second.
“You know,” he says. “Tell you what. I’ll make the bed.”
I almost tell him again that he doesn’t have to, but it sounds reasonable. And running it quickly through my head, it will completely solve my time problem. Since I can quickly do the rest of what I need to do while he’s taking care of the bed situation.
“Okay,” I say. “Thanks.”
And as I quickly change, I start to feel calmer. I run downstairs and start chopping potatoes when it hits me.
He’d texted me earlier on the day telling me liked the daily article, and I’d been floating on clouds for a few hours, bolstered by the compliment (it’s rare that weighs in like that on one of my articles): Post was good today, he’d written. Sorry I’m difficult to help.
Oh my God, he just did the thing to me that I wrote about doing to him in today’s post , I think, as I toss the potatoes in a tablespoon of olive oil and an ad hoc mix of spices.
While the potatoes are roasting, I tell him of my suspicion, that he’s doing the same thing to me that I did to him.
And he laughs and nods in acknowledgement. “You know,” he adds. “You don’t have to do the whole 50’s housewife thing.” He reminds me that yes, I work at home, but all that means is that I don’t have a commute. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have a real job and my own responsibilities. That I still have a job. That I still work. “It’s okay if I come home to see you behaving like a normal human being,” he says.
I laugh and change the subject. I still don’t quite believe his reassurances, not at least on the level I suspect he wants me to, but I appreciate where he’s coming from.
It’s funny how these things come full circle, sometimes at a humbling speed.
The day this happened, I posted an essay called “How Do You Help the Person Who Feels Like They Need to Do Everything Themselves?”
In it, I describe a situation where my husband is having a truly atrocious day and is completely overwhelmed. I ask what I can do. He says there’s nothing I can do.
But since it’s hard to watch him struggle so much, I brainstorm and think of some items on his to-do list I could easily knock off. Instead of asking him if he wants me to do them for him, I do both tasks (writing an important email and mowing the lawn).
Even though they’re both done without his consent, he is grateful and appreciative when they’re done.
That piece garnered a lot of interest when it was posted. It received a lot of comments on social media, with some of the folks chiming in saying that they were the person on the other side of it, the person that always feels like they need to do everything themselves.
I smiled when I read these comments — because while I’d written the original post from the perspective of a person who wants to help another person who is trying to take on the world alone, I’m just as bad sometimes.
I think that’s part of why I was able to find a strategy that would work to help him, at least one that was better for both of us than doing nothing at all.
I’m just as bad. In fact, I was in the other role just a few hours later.
I’ve Made a Wide Variety of Personal Mistakes
It’s interesting. When you’re a person who gives advice for a living, other people often take it to mean that it means that you’re perfect or something. Better at life than other people. Or that at least you’re a person who thinks you’re those things.
But I don’t think that’s the way it works at all. I think in some ways that any insight I have into interpersonal situations comes not from personal superiority but from a mix of the following three factors:
- A love of good old-fashioned book-learning, promiscuously sourced. I’m an unbelievable nerd. I studied to be a researcher so have a taste for really dry stuff but in general have an irresponsibly varied diet of reading material. What does irresponsibly varied mean? It means that while I’ve been known to read college textbooks and peer-reviewed studies for fun that I have been known to also enjoy reading tabloids and the pamphlets that get stuck under wipers. And everything in between. I’m wildly entertained by most media, especially books since you can better control the speed than you can with something that expects you to be more passive like a movie or TV.
- I’ve been fascinated by other people for as long as I can remember, what goes on inside their heads, why they do the things they do. Or, in other words: I’m extremely nosy. It’s actually a personal quality that comes with downsides (I have to be really mindful not to get carried away in my curiosity and step over people’s boundaries or invade their privacy). But you do learn a lot if you’re listening and reading, if you’re genuinely interested in what other people have to say and are not simply waiting for the next conversational pause to speak.
- I have made a wide variety of personal mistakes.
That third point is absolutely crucial. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a single act of wrongdoing that I haven’t been on both sides of. Where I haven’t been in both roles at one time or another.
I’ve screwed up a lot.
OR Is Often More Comfortable Than AND, But AND Is More Realistic
It’s been interesting writing about my life for a public audience. I’ve found that readers have a tough time parsing the fact that I’ve been in both roles, and the pieces in which I’ve attempted demonstrating this directly have been unsettling for them and seemed to throw readers into a state of emotional confusion, even distress, that undermined whatever lesson I was trying to teach.
Readers seem much more comfortable with the idea that a person makes one mistake and never the other. For example, that you are either a person who is incredibly difficult to help OR a person who wants to help someone else and is becoming frustrated that the person won’t let them.
But there are a lot of us who are AND. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of us are AND.
But that idea makes most people profoundly uncomfortable. That duality, that ability to err on both sides of the equation depending on the situation, can look and feel like hypocrisy. So it’s tempting to shy away from admitting that. From really owning that conflict, that complexity, that I’ve found in every single person that I’ve got to know well enough to see it.
Everyone’s Hypocritical From Time to Time, What’s More Telling Is How They React When It’s Pointed Out
These days I’m not at all likely to be squicked by a person having such a duality, for example, when they’re perturbed by behaviors in me that they themselves possess (or vice versa). Not even the times when such judgement looks and feels like hypocrisy. Unfairness.
Because I’ve been on both sides of that, too, irritated by another person’s hypocrisy, and yes, I’ve been the hypocritical person caught red handed in a double standard (guilty, way guilty, mega guilty).
These days, when someone I’m close to is being hypocritical, that alone doesn’t bother me so much. Instead, I pay careful attention to how the person reacts when they are (politely, gently) called out on the conflict: Maybe they’re disappointed in themselves, even ashamed (my normal reaction when I’m called out on a double standard). And maybe in the extreme short term (talking minutes or hours in most cases), this makes them defensive or hard to reach. That’s difficult but understandable.
But what do they do when knee jerk tempers cool? What happens next?
Are they open to those uncomfortable truths? From learning from it?
If they are, if they can realize and admit it and learn from it, well, I think that’s a wonderful sign.
Because everyone’s hypocritical from time to time. (Seriously, if you haven’t experienced a specific person being hypocritical at least once, then you don’t know that person very well.) What’s more telling is how they react when it’s pointed out. Where they go with the simple reality that they don’t always make sense and don’t always act the way they’d like others around them to.