Though many who know me would be shocked to hear this, I must divulge that for the greater part of my life I was extremely shy. Most of my habits from these years have dissolved and disappeared, but there remain a few traces. For one, I loathe speaking to sales staff – I have saved many dollars walking out of stores in order to avoid this interaction. For another, I find it difficult to confront others when I feel uncomfortable for unusual reasons.
This can range from things like sitting at a circular table, where I’d really rather your knee didn’t bump into mine under the table, that’s why I’m getting up for water so often, to things like my friends teasing me about my private life, especially the infamous “love life”, which I would really rather you never bring up. Ever.
Both of those things happen to many people on a daily basis, and objectively, there is nothing really wrong with either of them. The latter can be a way of expressing interest in someone’s life and well-being. The former is a popular eating arrangement. That’s fine. That’s cool. This article isn’t about forbidding friendly chitchat or abolishing circular tables (check back next week).
I’m pretty good at dealing with this somewhat odd, little stuff in my life. I can keep my knees glued together at dinner parties even if it means sore thighs and shaky calves for a few hours the next day. That’s a problem I can solve.
What I can’t solve is that feeling of unease that sits in my stomach the second a friend’s mouth shapes any question or remark regarding my romantic involvements. But it doesn’t really seem fair to tell my friends not to talk to me about that part of my life. They like me (or so they say), and as a result care about how I’m doing. They don’t mean to pry, it’s often just a topic of conversation.
I was lamenting this issue with a good friend of mine, beleaguered by a particularly uncomfortable comment made by someone close to me. As she is wont to do, my friend made an excellent point, illustrated by the following analogy:
“Sam, some people are afraid of frogs. There is no reason for this, as many and most frogs are harmless, but if someone told you, “Yeah, no, please don’t tell me stories about the giant frogs at your cottage,” would you laugh at them or would you respect their wishes?”
Pretty obviously, I would do my best to respect their wishes. I don’t want to make this hypothetical person uncomfortable by haunting them with amphibious imagery. Their request certainly isn’t hurting me, so it’s not really a question of fairness at all. It’s a question of me respecting this person’s boundaries. Their boundaries aren’t stepping all over mine, so I am going to do my best to make sure I’m not stepping all over theirs.
That is totally reasonable and part of being a decent human being. Perhaps I was so used to being able to facilitate my own solutions that anything involving changing the actions of others, even in a totally harmless way, seemed unfair. But my boundaries, so long as they don’t harm others, are just as worth respecting as other people’s.
This seems pretty obvious now, but I guess even my hindsight needs glasses sometimes.
It doesn’t matter if you understand why someone is uncomfortable hearing about frogs, maybe they themselves don’t even understand why they are, it’s just important you understand that they are.
Don’t make fun of people’s froggy fears. We’ve all got some.