I noticed a social pattern last week I’ve never seen clearly before.
I was involved in a situation at the pool facility where I work in which a distressed person (person #1) needed support. The situation did not arise in a private place, and there were onlookers. It continued for about 30 minutes, which is a long time when someone is visibly and audibly struggling with pain and grief.
The situation resolved, of course. We cannot fix the challenges and difficulties others face, but we can be with them while they feel their feelings and lend our strength, compassion, and energy until they can move forward. My team and I provided the needed support.
A few minutes later, a witness to the interaction (person #2) attempted to monopolize my attention and monologed about their pain, medical history, and personal difficulties.
I had completely different reactions to these two circumstances.
I have never known the first person to engage in attention-seeking behavior. On the contrary, in spite of significant disability person #1 is generally upbeat and determined, working very hard to gain strength and independence and supporting those around them who also face physical limitations and challenges. When things fell apart it was an anomaly, my empathy arose immediately, and I stepped in without hesitation or thought. I entered into their experience as fully as I could with nothing held back, completely focused on support.
In the second case, person #2 was no better or worse than usual, and is much more able than person #1 at baseline. While other witnesses had expressed compassion for person #1 (“that could be any one of us”), person #2 did not, but launched into a harrowing personal account that felt both competitive and demanding. I was wet (I’d gone into the pool in my clothes), cold, and emotionally worn out, as well as sad about the difficult experiences some people go through. I felt I was expected to supply more emotional energy, not as a temporary support on a bad day, but as a continuing source.
I silently declined, putting my empathy behind a boundary to rest and recover, and employed my usual level of compassionate listening. After a few minutes, I politely excused myself and moved away.
We’re all familiar with the adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. These interactions made me consider the failing wheels that do not squeak. Years ago, when I did fire and rescue work, I learned the loudest victim of an accident is probably not the most seriously injured. The person in hysterics clearly has an airway and a pulse. It’s the quiet victims one needs to assess first. This is true of drowning victims, as well. If a drowning victim is yelling for help, they’re in less immediate danger than the one sliding silently below the surface.
I’m one of the quiet ones. Stoic, mistrustful, often blaming myself for my own distress, I conceal it as best I can for as long as I can. I’m much better about asking for what I need than I used to be, thanks to my extraordinary group of friends, but I can relate to the one who is in deep emotional trouble and needing the most support and never asking for it. Pain and grief build up in the silence of our own heads and hearts. Our wordless anguish swells until it finds some kind of an outlet, and that outlet can be messy and humiliating.
I vividly remember being a school kid in a classroom. I was frequently bored. Some teachers allowed me to read or gave me extra credit or advanced assignments when I’d finished the assigned work, but some did not. I watched the clock while students who struggled with reading read aloud. I gritted my teeth. I daydreamed. I did my homework. I refrained from raising my hand, even though I generally knew the correct answer. I ignored the whispers about being a “goody-two-shoes” and a “teacher’s pet.” I continually defended against my neighbors trying to copy my work. I watched in resignation as the “squeaky wheels” acted out, floundered academically, and otherwise consumed all the teachers’ energy and attention. If allowed, I read a book. If not allowed, I read ahead in my textbooks. Anything to make the time go by. Of course, if I read ahead I only invited more boredom in the weeks ahead. My teachers said I was a “good kid,” I was a “pleasure to have in the classroom.”
I was not and am not a squeaky wheel. I was invisible. I could have learned so much more. I wanted to learn so much more. But there was no leftover grease. The squeakers and squealers got it all. Every day.
I know people who are comfortably well-off financially (comparatively) and are always talking about money, trying to make more money, dreaming what they would do with lots of money, blatantly pinching pennies to save money, gloating over the money they have, using their money to manipulate others. I know other people who are quite financially distressed and never complain. All their energy goes into working to earn more and doing without to spend less, but they don’t talk about it. If I didn’t know, I’d never know.
It’s an interesting social paradox that those among us who are most in need are sometimes the quietest about it, while attention seekers fight to remain center stage under the brightest spotlight. Yet the attention seekers frequently are the least able to utilize support and validation in such a way as to build self-reliance and independence. They crave the attention, but it doesn’t satisfy. They can’t use it effectively. It only feeds their hunger.
Others can transform with a little bit of care and attention. They use every kindness and expression of support to move forward and grow. They don’t want to be dependent on external attention.
We all need support sometimes. Any wheel can develop a squeak. Some people want support all the time and some wheels squeak continually no matter how much grease they get. As we make choices about investing our time and energy in our relationships, it’s important to know the difference.