My friend Josie and I went out for lunch this weekend and she got to the restaurant first. She sat with her back to a wall. My back was to the patio and the hostess desk. Above the clatter of plates and the conversation around us, the bass thrummed from a nearby speaker playing classic rock. Josie was telling me an important story from her life, and my brain was struggling so much to filter the background noise that I could hardly follow one sentence to the next.”
About ten minutes in I said, “Josie, I’m sorry but can we switch seats? There is so much noise in here that I can’t concentrate on what you’re saying and I’m about to burst into tears.”
She gave up her much better seat for me. I was so grateful and only slightly embarrassed.
I have self-diagnosed as a woman with misophonia, a condition where certain sounds trigger strong emotional responses like rage or hyper irritation (please don’t eat chips out of a crinkly bag near me). It might also be a part of the ADHD that runs in my family: an inability to filter multiple noises at once, which people on the autism spectrum also experience. I hear conversations going on next to me on the same level as what the person across from me is saying. My kids make fun of me for how picky I am about what table we get at a restaurant, but if I don’t put myself in a fairly sheltered place, I’ll be inattentive and cranky on a biological level.
If you and I are going to be close friends, it’s essential for you to know this about me. I’m a bit embarrassed by it. But it’s not something I can control. What I can control is exposing this to you so if I’m irritable or inattentive, you know it’s not you, it’s me. More specifically my highly sensitive reticular activating system.
If you and I are going to be friends, I want to know your “stuff” too, so you can be comfortable and I won’t start telling myself stories about why you are the way you are. My friend Kristan is hard of hearing in her right ear. So, I drive us places so she can listen out of her left ear. I’m so grateful Kristan is brave enough to admit this “weakness” so she doesn’t spend our whole friendship straining to hear all of the obviously entertaining and wise things I have to say, and feeling irritable.
Being authentic about our limitations, capacity and preferences is critical to intimate relationships – essential to loving each other well. I have another friend Jane (not her real name), and I can always tell when she’s upset about something that isn’t about me: She gets argumentative about inconsequential stuff. I’ve learned to recognize when she’s on edge and ask her, “Hey, what’s going on? Did something happen?” A few times she has burst into tears, because something major is on her mind but “she’s trying not to dwell on it.”
“You’re the only one who can tell that I’m upset about something,” she’s said. I think that’s probably not true; other people just think she’s angry at them, and I’m the one who actually asks about it. I love her too much to let this particular quirk be a barrier to our relationship any more, but I’m willing to bet other friendships have suffered -- or possibly ended – because this indirect display of emotion has made people misread her.
Jane is a Christian woman in the generation above me. She highly prizes having “a good attitude” and “not complaining.” In other words, she sees her emotions as weaknesses, and she doesn’t like to share her weaknesses. I look forward to the day when she can be more authentic from the get-go – just tell me she’s sad and bypass the cranky. If ever there was a person who is okay with you being sad, angry, or irritable, it’s me.
In fact, I’m really, really okay with you being in a bad mood. You know what I’d love? For you to tell me up front. Let’s talk about what’s bothering you so I know it’s not me, and also, in case I can be comforting. And then, I’d also love to know all about what puts you in a bad mood for the future.
What bugs you? What sets you off?
What places do you not like to go?
What games do you not like to play?
What physical limitations do you have?
What time of the day are you at your worst?
How do you feel about crowds? Germs? Loud music?
Are we making jokes and chatting with the servers and cashiers, or will that embarrass you?
Are we using swear words or not?
Do you want to walk faster, or slower?
Am I driving too fast or talking too loud?
I want to know all this if you’re my friend, because I love you. You are allowed to be a person with preferences and I can respect them. Also, knowing what you like and don’t like makes me feel safe. I’m a recovering codependent, which means I was raised to read the room and figure out how to make everyone feel happy so I don’t feel anxious. If you will tell me up front what works for you, my nervous system relaxes, my soul gets lighter, and I can be fully present with you in the moment.
You may not always know what’s bothering you, and that’s okay too. I may not always be able to accommodate all your preferences – honestly, I really like making jokes to the servers and cashiers, and some days you may just have to blush and put up with it. But let’s do our best to be real with each other, so we can love each other well.
And Josie, thanks so much for giving me the good seat. I love hearing your stories.