When You Don’t Want to Support Someone Through Suffering with Dr. Colter Ray

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Helping each other out is a good thing, right? What happens when it doesn’t feel like such a good thing, though? What happens when someone in your family gets sick or a friend goes through a hard time, but you don’t want to help them? These are the types of questions my friend Dr. Colter Ray and I are making mentionable in this week’s episode.

We also talk about the pressure of feeling like you have to know what to say and how we can be better supporters if we decide to lend support to a friend or family member going through a tough time.

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Alyssa Patmos 0:04
We are back on Make it Mentionable and I am with my friend Colter Ray. I guess I should call you Dr. Colter Ray. Does it work very hard? Sorry. 911 and Colter and I go way back to the days before I was a PhD dropout. And I do think we have to say, I think we have to, I think we have to, like share the story of how we reconnected because up until like, last week, we hadn’t talked or seen each other in seven years.

Colter Ray 0:35
Yeah. Yeah, um, I was supposed to go to Denver, to a show at Red Rocks with three other people. Two of them are Canadian. And we’re not able to travel into the states because of the quarantine rules upon returning to Canada. And then the other one, I was dating for a very long time, and then suddenly was not dating. And so a trip to Red Rocks just didn’t make sense. So what ended up happening was, I was gonna not go and then I was at the dog park here in Baton Rouge, where I live. And this woman said, you have to go and I said, Okay, lady who I just met, I will take your advice. And she’s like, it’s just you have to do it. I was like, okay, so I did that and sort of reaching out to people in Denver, and we reconnected

Alyssa Patmos 1:20
which was so fabulous. I’m so glad that this random lady in the park told you like the synchronicity like that is so so magical in life, I love it. But even before then, though, you You didn’t even know I was in Denver, because you texted me like the week before? That you were hiding the album name of one of our artists that we both love, you are hiding their album name in one of your latest man manuscripts.

Colter Ray 1:50
Oh, that’s right. I forgot about that. That’s right.

Alyssa Patmos 1:52
And, and so then we got on the train of like catching up. It’s been years. And I just love. I love the name of the album. So the artists that we both like is nothing more. And the album name is the stories we tell ourselves, right? That’s great. Which I think is so funny, because we both have our work weaves in together the stories we tell ourselves, like I’m constantly rambling on about how success comes down to the stories you tell yourself and the stories you tell others. And your work is all about the dark side of social support.

Colter Ray 2:27
Yeah, yeah, we like to think in general, like helping each other out is a good thing. And it’s useful. And I think the biggest misconception is that if you try, that’s good enough. And in reality, you can find many ways to mess it up and be a bad supporter. And then on top of that, a lot of people just don’t even bother at all, they just fade away, and they essentially ghost their friends whenever they need them the most.

Alyssa Patmos 2:52
So how did you get into what what drew you to the dark side?

Colter Ray 2:58
Yeah, I just in my entire life, I’ve always found it really useful, like self exercise to think about when learning anything like what are the pitfalls to avoid as like a good first step, I tell the story frequently about in Little League, when I was like six years old, playing t ball, I struck out, like there was a stationary ball and on a tee in front of me and I swung and missed it three times. The reason why is because my coaches were telling me like 1000 different things I was supposed to do correctly to swing a baseball bat. And I just never thought it and anyone who’s ever played golf, will also know that exact same feeling. So the next time I went up to bat, I just had a little six year old or five year old kid, I was just like, I’m not gonna miss the ball, right? That’s the main pitfall to avoid is Don’t miss the ball. And so that same idea translates to so many aspects of our lives, including, how are we going to show up for our friends and family members whenever they go through something really terrible, like a cancer diagnosis. And there’s some kind of obvious things that we can avoid as a starting point. And then from there, you can, you can go on and learn, you know, better techniques from there, but at the very beginning, like don’t miss the ball, right? At least, at least hit the ball.

Alyssa Patmos 4:09
So So I guess we can dive right in to some of those things because I want to talk I eventually want to talk about one of your latest projects, which I think will be a shock to some people around when people choose not to give support. But first, when someone is when someone is making an attempt to support someone and I know you look at it from the lens of cancer, but I’m also thinking about it in terms of, of things with mental health that we experience, like that’s another really common one right now where people are uncomfortable like it can be really uncomfortable to know what to say. When a friend drops on you like oh my god, I’m really struggling with this or you know, hey, I have to let you know I was recently diagnosed with cancer so So what are some of the things that you found in your journey? Like help us out? What can we do?

Colter Ray 5:08
So you walked into a trap that you didn’t even know you walked into? And that almost everyone else walks into as well. And that is, you phrased that question as what can we say. And in reality, the further I get into this, which this is maybe slightly ironic, as a communication professor, I realized, being a good supporter is really not about what you say so much as your presence, and also how good of a listener you are. And that’s really a common thing, even in my own classes. And whenever I do other workshops for groups or nonprofits, people want to know like, what is it that I say, in order to help my friend, which is a very, like noble approach, right? Like that makes sense, right? You want to be there for the person you want to say the right thing. In reality, you should be focusing on really when it comes down to what do you say it’s Are you asking the right questions that will open up a space for you and that other person to share some presence together and for them to share their experiences. So let’s dive into just a few of those like tools for the toolkit, right? If you really don’t know what to say, you got a, you really got to buy some time here. Something that a lot of people will just forget to do, is to say, I’m so sorry, this has happened to you. Right? Like, that’s oftentimes unsaid, but it’s sometimes really important that it is said. So you can say that just to just to begin, I’m so sorry that you’re going through this, I’m so sorry this happened to you. But then let’s pivot over to some questions you can ask and they’re gonna sound like some of the questions maybe you used whenever you have supported people, but there are some nuances to these that make them up completely, not completely different and better than what most people say. So the first one, and maybe my favorite is how are you doing today. And the reason that I emphasize today is because that’s the magic word. Because if you’ve ever watched someone go through a cancer journey, or a tricky divorce, or prolonged unemployment, or whatever it is in their life, that’s a multi month, multi year process, you know that there’s ups and downs along the way, it’s not every day is not the worst day ever. But it’s also not the best day ever, every day, either. So ask that person, how are you doing today? And they might say, look, in general, this has been a really rough go. But today’s actually been a pretty good day. I mean, they’ll do the opposite. I’m really starting to turn a corner and process what I’m going through. But today’s been really tough, something happened, and just reminded me of, you know, someone that I miss or something that’s gone wrong in my life, and I’m just kind of down. So what how are you feeling today is a great one, it opens up more space than just saying, How are you doing? Because people will just say I’m fine. And they’ll move on.

Alyssa Patmos 7:51
Right? I love I love the nuance there. Like I’m constantly talking about how nuance fun lights me up. And that’s one of the things that I loved about studying communication, too, is because it is it’s that one simple word shifts the meaning entirely, you know, it’s like when we’re at the grocery store, and we’re in the cashier asks us, how are you doing? Like, we don’t answer honestly, because we can tell that the other person doesn’t really doesn’t really care. So it’s switching up our social scripts, which which I love. And I kind of loved that I walked into this trap backwards. Because as a coach, listening is the most important thing as well, like we can’t like, you’re right, it the impulse, our natural impulses to come in and want to say more, because it’s uncomfortable to be in the silence. But the best thing we can do, and I experienced this with coaching as well as is to be present and to allow our energy to go with where with where the other person needs us to be at the moment. And we can’t possibly know what that is, until we start listening. So I love that. I want to hear the other two questions. But I also I wanted to talk really briefly around what you said first, which is saying I’m sorry that this is happening to you. And I don’t know, I can’t be the only person who has felt this but sometimes it feels I feel awkward saying I’m sorry, this is happening to you. And I’m not totally sure why I’m sure there’s a belief or something for me to unpack underneath that. But do you do you find that in your research? Like do you feel like people sometimes hesitate to say I’m sorry, or what’s the response when, when that comes out?

Colter Ray 9:43
I don’t know if I have like an official like empirically backed scientific answer to that. I think maybe not to try to unpack your life or mine because I sometimes feel awkward saying that too, is I think that maybe there’s this This worry that saying that I’m sorry this happened to you is almost like it’s going to come across as pity for the person when instead it should be coming across as like an opening to compassion and empathy for that person. But I think there’s I don’t know, maybe that’s I’m just kind of trying to pick apart my own feelings about the times I’ve felt awkward saying that too. And maybe that’s it? I’m not sure.

Alyssa Patmos 10:25
I like that. I think I can relate to that to that as well. So I don’t I don’t think we have to necessarily pick it apart. I just wanted to touch on it because I know it’s something that’s come up for me in the past. Yeah. So So the other things that segue into being great supporters in times of trouble.

Colter Ray 10:46
Yeah, I’ll give you one more. Another one is just what is this been like for you. And you can kind of couch that within the context of how the conversations going as well. You don’t want to ever sound too robotic, obviously use your own natural voice and, and how you normally speak. But the reason why is, especially when you’re looking at this through the cancer context, is that so many cancer patients experience their loved ones and supporters just assuming that their experiences are substantially similar to other cancer patients experiences, just because they hear that the person is going through chemo, they assume that all chemo is the same whenever that is not the case at all, or they hear that they’re going to have a radiation therapy. And they assume Well, you know, if my father had radiation therapy than I guess I know what that must be like for you then what you’re going through. And that’s not the case, there’s different differing degrees of intensity for these things, different lengths of treatments, even if some, even if two people have the same cancer diagnosis, even there’s something really specific, and maybe not a common cancer, those prognosis can be so drastically different for those two people. You just don’t want to make the assumption that because you think you know what’s happening, that you do. And so instead ask, what is this been like for you specifically? Like, what is your experience been with this? And you can even couch that within like, well, I’ve known other people who’ve had, you know, similar courses of treatment, or the same type of cancer, but what is your experience been like? And people going through that are going to love that question, because they so rarely get the opportunity to like have the floor and to really be like, Oh, yes, I can finally share my unique, shitty experience with cancer. And it’s not that like there’s no assumption that people are making about what I’m going through, I can finally just lay bare what my experience has been, what my emotions have been, what my physical reaction has been to these treatments, and really tell my story to bring it back to the narratives that we talked about earlier. That’s a question that opens up a space for a narrative to be shared.

Alyssa Patmos 12:54
That’s beautiful. And I think that’s a great question to have in our toolkits across the board as a human. Would you agree?

Colter Ray 13:04
Yeah, for sure. I mean, yeah, if you really back it out, if this even just one step back to just all illnesses, were like three steps back to just the human experience in general, and life’s various traumas and tragedies, like yeah, you probably shouldn’t assume that you know what someone’s going through, just in general, like, you just have no idea who is going through a divorce, or who’s lost a child, or who’s going through what, even if they look happy, and like they’re getting their work done. Don’t make those assumptions and don’t assume that their experience is the same as other people who’ve gone through the same thing.

Alyssa Patmos 13:39
I know I’ve experienced this from the perspective of having OCD, where you know, sometimes the popular shows come out like I think there was one called monk for a while, and it’s it frames OCD in the light of constantly having to things having things be placed in perfect symmetrical order, which is one faction of it, but it’s not what many people with experience. And so people you know, I think people oftentimes they want to relate because we feel like that’s the most compassionate thing we can do. But what I’m hearing is sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is, is listen and allow the other person the chance to truly speak and and be seen in that way.

Colter Ray 14:22
Yeah, well, something I found just through interviewing many cancer patients throughout my career is this really interesting phenomenon we’re like this polar tension occurs relatively sometimes relatively quick within sentences of each other where a cancer patient conveys first, that they just wish their family and friends would treat them. I’m going to put this in quotes but like, like normal, they I wish they would just bring me like normal, like my pre cancer itself. And then sentences later, they say something to the effect of well, you know, at the same time, like I have cancer and that makes me a special case in many ways. And like, I There’s some special treatment or unique things that I need from the people in my life. And so I think that there’s this tension between treat me normal at times, but at other times, it is going to be drastically obvious that I have special needs or things that I need in my life because I’m battling cancer. So that’s an interesting thing to deal with in the on the supporter side of things, it could create this dilemma of like, What do I do? Do I avoid the topic and treat them quote, like normal? Or do I dive into the topic and perhaps put them into a kind of sad, depressed mood? Because I’m bringing up the the C word again? And the answer honestly, is if you’re really a good supporter, you’re going to be showing up more than once, you’ll be showing up multiple times, hopefully, pretty consistently in that person’s life to support them through their cancer journey. So you’ll have opportunities to do both, you’ll have opportunities to say, like, let’s just quit working and go drink and play miniature golf. And, you know, as I don’t know where that came from, I think that’s what I want to do right now after unworking today, but there’s other times where it’s like, hey, let’s have that deep life conversation about your greatest fears and uncertainties and what’s next. But if you only show up once or not at all, then you won’t have the opportunity to address potentially both sides of that coin.

Alyssa Patmos 16:15
Right? If we’re showing up once, we’re putting all the pressure on that one conversation, we have to meet all the needs in this one conversation, which, that’s a lot of pressure, versus if if we’re showing up numerous times and allowing ourselves as supporters, the grace and compassion of knowing, okay, we’re going to show up multiple times, then it takes the pressure off that that one conversation for it to be perfect. Right. So So with this, though, because one thing I am abundantly aware of, especially as a coach is we are not taught to listen well. And, and that is something like listening is is a skill. And you know, both of us have taught comm 101. And that is that is much of what we go over is how how to listen. And so what are some tips that you have for people there, then because when you’re saying show up with presence, I find that a lot of people they’re so in their own stuff, they don’t actually know how to do that. And to then not just give lip service to the question, but truly follow that through with listening.

Colter Ray 17:31
Yeah, there’s a, there’s a handful of things that that come to mind right away, we’ll start with the basics. Shut up. actually stop talking, which is easier said than done. I know I’m actually pretty bad at this, I, I get so excited to contribute back to the conversation probably as a way of like building rapport. And like demonstrating that I’m involved and interested that I have found myself sometimes interrupting the person and cutting them off because I want to add in my two cents to the conversation. And so I have to consciously remind myself to do that. And if you struggle with that, too, then feel fine about that, because people who have their communication PhD also make the same mistake. So the first thing is just shut up, stop talking, and make the conscious decision to actually listen. And so that means put your phone away, like don’t even have it out. There’s been some research done that is showing just the presence of cellphones like on the table during the conversation, restricted the breadth and depth of the conversation, so fewer topics were discussed. And this topics were not discussed as in depth of whenever you had compared to whenever cell phones were not present. So put any distractions away whether it’s a cell phone, or whatever else is going on in your life, and really zoom in really zone in and listen to this person. As you do that, another common thing that people experience is what we would call listener apprehension. So maybe you’ve heard of like speaking apprehension or communication apprehension, like the fear of public speaking. There’s also a listening side to that and it plays out like this. I used experiences all the time at my first job in the corporate world before I went back to grad school in my office is right next to the president of the company and he would sometimes just yell My name running in there and you’d start telling me all these things I needed to do. And about three seconds into that list I’d be like Oh shit, I already forgot one of those things. And as I’m thinking oh shit already probably one of those things. Now I’ve lost like the next two things I was supposed to do. And now I’ve just completely switched from listening to thinking Oh god, I’m being a bad listener. What did he just say I already forgot. I’m you know, I’m up the creek now. And the same thing happens a lot of times whenever someone’s dumping something really emotionally heavy on like, they’re going through divorce. So they’ve been diagnosed with cancer. The reaction, rightfully so is like, Oh, God, I want to be there for this person. But what do I do? What do I say and as you’ve had that train of thought, you’ve already maybe missed out on some really important information that they’re telling you that can help you be a Better supporter so really zoned in. Try not to think about your fears of what you’re going to say that can come later. And then the last thing is when they’re done speaking or when you think they’re done speaking, just wait sit there and silence for another three seconds, that’s an amazing thing. And it’s gonna feel like an eternity, like that three seconds is gonna feel like, like a whole Lord of the Rings movie length of time. And so, but the reason the reason why is because it can give you a moment to process what you’ve just heard, it also leaves the door open for them to add something more to what they what they’ve already told you. Because sometimes people as they tell you, things are unsure if they want to weigh everything on you all at once. And so if you give them a little bit of silence and a little bit of a breath to, to think you’d be surprised how often they decide to say something else that maybe they weren’t sure if they were going to share in the first place. So to recap, shut up, don’t get freaked out if you don’t know what to say instead focus that energy on the other person and then whenever you think they’re done speaking, just chill for like three seconds and really see if there’s anything else that they want to add.

Alyssa Patmos 21:13
The three second thing is huge. I’ve I’ve had to practice that I’ve even had to practice that in my personal relationships where any sort of conflict comes up. Because so often the natural inclination is to jump right back in. And if the cadence of a conversation has been going one way, then you might think that person’s done. But if they just paused for a second, and they weren’t, then you jumping in right away does doesn’t help anything. Or, and then they might think that you’re interrupting them, it can it can cause a whole host of things in conflict. But then also, I found that that sometimes i think that i like i i think faster and so I want to respond and it’s not that I wasn’t actively listening, I just was like really excited and something came to me instantly. But it doesn’t give the other person a chance to feel like you fully absorbed it. And part of a conversation is how does it feel for both people because whatever that then triggers in them is going to remind them of another conversation they’ve had which is going to end up subconsciously influencing it. So the three second three second tip is is glorious across the board, as well

Colter Ray 22:35
it works it’s really just a good habit. Just in general like again the kind of maybe one of the things so far of this conversation is so much of like powerful communication or like good or competent communication is not what you say it’s kind of everything else surrounding it’s how good of a listener Are you being okay with silence and those things are really useful in same thing if you’re in a business meeting or if you are in conflict with you know, a sibling or parent or a loved one. Silence can be a good thing it can convey that you are really absorbing and thinking through and you’re not just saying something to fill the silence you’re really being more cognizant,

Alyssa Patmos 23:15
silence is powerful it can also be it can also be a way to really demonstrate presence, because sometimes presence is jet is sitting in it. And and the reality of you know, a cancer diagnosis is they’re sitting in it, they have no other choice. And so sometimes us being willing to sit in it with them, I’m imagining that the silence can be super powerful, as well.

Colter Ray 23:43
I will never forget a conversation I had and this was just with one of my best friends. It’s actually probably the longest continuous relation or a friendship I’ve ever had in my life. So shout out to Kristin McGuire, good job Kristen. And encre Happy Birthday to her. But there was one time we were driving somewhere together It was like a two three hour drive probably between like Houston and Austin or something like that. We’ve known each other so long we just went like 20 or 30 minutes without saying anything to each other. And there was no awkwardness about that and it’s just something beautiful about that. And then I actually I think I broke the silence by of course saying like, isn’t it cool that we can just like sit here in silence together thus ruining the silence but you know, it’s one of those things that is, I don’t know I mean to you or to all the listeners out there like how many people in your life? Are you completely comfortable being around in silence for an extended period of time? There may not be many.

Alyssa Patmos 24:40
I love using that as an exercise with people because if you task someone with intentionally sitting around someone and trying to be silent, you will see so many of your insecurities come up. Like if you’re not truly comfortable with that person like they’re some thoughts are gonna fly through Your head. And those are very fun things to dive into, and to start making aware within yourself, because it’s the subtext of all of our conversations that really impact the result, like you said, even more so than our words sometimes. And the cumulative effect of our actions over time. And so that brings me to like, really some of the dark side of what we’re talking about. And you recently did a study where you were looking at what happens when people don’t want to give support. And it’s, I mean, in our society, it’s like, it’s largely expected that we give support if someone is going through something. So can you dive into that a little bit? Well, yeah.

Colter Ray 25:49
Yeah, it was, you know, when I had the coolest job in the world, I get to sit around and think about things that are perplexing to myself and to other people. And then I try to figure out why that is, and what’s happening. And so a conversation I had with a friend who was in the doctoral program with me, I think it was on my second year, we were debating for whatever reason, if you were a cancer patient, and going through cancer, what would be worse, whether someone tried to be supportive, and said the wrong thing, or if that person we thought would be there for you just never showed up at all. And so we devised an experiment to actually see, and it turned out, they were equally as terrible, like just quantitatively like almost identically as bad, which goes back to my baseball analogy of like, at least swing the bat and try to hit the ball, right? If you strike out swinging, that’s an out. But if you just sit there with bat on the shoulder, and you never even swing it, that’s just as bad, you’ll still strike out. And so we found that those were equally as bad. That kind of morphed into a follow up study of like, Okay, why is it that people avoid reaching out to someone they know with cancer, thinking it was going to be straightforward answers. So like, actually, I’ll probably the best way to convey what we found was to tell the story of looking at that data. For the first time, we had maybe 600 people or 600 reasons for not supporting someone with cancer. And these are from people who actually made that decision. So I opened up this data set, it’s just, you know, a really big spreadsheet, essentially, I’m like, Alright, first reason. First Response, I don’t know what to say. And even if I didn’t know what to say, I wouldn’t know how to say, like, okay, that’s that was expected, there’s gonna be a lot of people were like, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. Second response. It’s just kind of outside of the norms of our relationship, we mostly just talk about sports and other superficial things at the watercooler at our at our office, for me to ask her about her cancer, it’d be like really, too weird and not normal for us. Third response, my mother is a bitch, she left me when I was a teenager for her boyfriend. And just he said, just because she has terminal cancer, doesn’t mean I have to suddenly love her. I remember reading that and just like pushing back in my flower, and just thinking like, That is insane. It was so unexpected, super intriguing, and surely a one off, that will not come up again. And it turned out out of those 599 600 reasons. However many we had, it accounted something along those lines accounted for 10% of the reasons, roughly roughly 10%, so it’s a pretty common human experience was I didn’t support this person who I knew with cancer, because they don’t deserve my support. They’ve hurt me in the past. Or they’ve treated other people really poorly in the past, where they brought it upon themselves, through their own decisions and actions. Fascinating and so unexpected. And so of course, that led to one more recent study that’s being peer reviewed right now, which is a series of interviews, that look at the narratives or the stories that we tell ourselves that are surrounding that decision to not support someone who’s going through something difficult, not necessarily just cancer, but maybe a divorce or, you know, depression or things like that. And it was really interesting to see the different narratives and stories that people created, the ways that they framed themselves within those stories and how they framed the other person. And the patterns that arose between the interplay of those two characters that were being developed as these people told their narratives. It was really fascinating.

Alyssa Patmos 29:27
Well, and and so much of it is, is our relationships. It’s how we come to understand ourselves. It’s how we relate to the people around us. And so it’s, it doesn’t surprise me but it goes against everything we’re taught to do from from a proper social standpoint. And so one of the things that I love that you did in the study is, is categorize some of these narratives that people put on themselves and categorizing them into some You did self identities for themselves, like what they were telling themselves about themselves. And then you also did, the stories that they were making up or the stories that they were telling about the person who they thought didn’t deserve support, support. Did I get that right?

Colter Ray 30:16
Yes, yeah. So essentially, when you are making up your story or telling your story, you cast yourself in one light, but you also are creating a character or a persona or however you wanted or a narrative about the other person as well. Like it’s there’s multiple characters in the story. So how do those develop? And how do they affect each other?

Alyssa Patmos 30:34
So are so are you willing to talk about you have you had for I think you’re at four, you had four or five self identities that people came up with around themselves? Can we go into those a little bit?

Colter Ray 30:46
Yeah, sure. Um, maybe the best way to approach this or what I think would be the most interesting way to like, just go ahead and tie it in and look at the most common patterns that we saw between like this, and other identities. So we saw quite frequently, people casting themselves as these burdened givers, or these obligated victims. And that was most frequently as a response to casting the other person who was going through cancer or whatever, as an egotist. So someone who was habitually almost narcissistic throughout their lives who were so self centered and self focused, that whenever something like cancer struck, these people realize that they they felt burdened and obligated to help these people to the point where they were starting to feel like they were victims themselves. And so what that what that leads up to is eventually a breaking point where it’s like, I just can’t do any more for this person, or this person has been so self focused their entire life, that I’ll still support them because they’re my father, or they’re my brother or my cousin. But I really just feel obligated, I’m doing out of obligation. Now I feel victimized or I feel burdened. The process of being a supporter is not a joyous one. It’s, it’s just a burden. So that was a really common pattern that we saw.

Alyssa Patmos 32:12
So I’m curious, because there’s, there’s a way where that’s painted as a bad thing. And these people are judged, but I’m sure there are some people listening, where it’s like, no, this is, this is real life. And I’m identifying as one of those. And it is it is what it is. But But then there’s a lot of shame that comes with that, because they know they’re going against social norms. They know they’re making a choice to not do this. So have you found anything about what emotions? Are they battling when they make this decision?

Colter Ray 32:50
Yeah, that’s actually something else that we that we started, or that we did ask about when we did these interviews? And to be honest, we just haven’t really delved into that yet. And that’s just because this is such fresh data. I mean, it’s really, like I said, it’s not even officially published yet. But obviously, that’s those are some of the that’s part of the battle, right? And I think that informs, pretty strongly informs the different characters or personas that are the identities, I guess, I should say that people are forming for themselves, right? So whenever someone says, Why didn’t you continue helping your father? or Why didn’t you continue helping this person, you can say, Look, I’m I became the victim in this situation, I was being, you know, really taken advantage of, and it just, and the person doesn’t really, you know, at the end of the day, they’re not doing enough for themselves, or they are too self focused, or they have done terrible things in the past. And I you know, even though it goes against norms, I’m not going to support them.

Alyssa Patmos 33:52
So what would you say to people than about to pick two people who either know they’re struggling or, you know, those of us where potential struggle might be in the future? And we need social support, which happens to all of us at some point or another? So how do we need to reset our expectations for who’s going to be there who we can rely on? Like, how do we reset expectations of what is reasonable to expect from other people?

Colter Ray 34:22
Yeah, I mean, I think I think there’s kind of, I don’t know I again, this is a hunch, but I feel like there are actually just maybe two different types of people or maybe there’s a continuum. When it comes to people going through difficult situations, so tends to be a difference. At least I’ve noticed in the amount that people engage in what I call scorekeeping, which is I know some people in my life who whenever they lost a parent or went through something terrible, it’s like they had a mental spreadsheet of like, who actually reached out what did they do? Is it was it actually helpful? Who didn’t reach out? Is that person my friend, or am I gonna chastise that person? Or how upset Am I And other people are just kind of like, well, if they didn’t reach out, I’m sure they were busy, no big deal. And even this person who brought me over this disgusting pineapple pizza, I’m not gonna eat that. But like, it was nice of them to do that. And they seem to be, I don’t know, not as judgmental about the support they receive. And I said, even the thing I’ve done with my students, as well as this exercise, and it’s just kind of seeing what people think about different offers of support. And some people are really cool with just anything and other people are like, Oh, that’s kind of a burden, or kind of a pain in the ass, or like, why would I never eat that? Or, you know, so. So I think that might be one part of it. I think another part of it is, and maybe the story or the the lesson learned from this most recent study is that like, if you were an asshole all your life, that what goes around comes around, right? And so I think one day, I’m going to write a book called assholes with cancer. And, and it’s just going to be maybe based initially on some of the interviews from this study, but it’s going to focus on whenever, whenever, whenever bad things happen to terrible people, and how do we deal with that if that terrible person happens to have been your mother, or your father, or a boss, or an ex, or whoever it might be? Because there’s this narrative in society that you should support those people? But what if they abandoned you or abused you or something terrible? Like, how does that play out? So what goes around comes around is definitely something that we have found in this research. And that goes against some of the prior research, which is typically, you know, reciprocity norms. If, you know, for family members, we have such a long drawn out relationship that we will eventually, you know, support each other and both ways, and it would be like a two way street, because we have that lengthy relationship to do so. Oh, maybe not, you know, if you’ve been terrible for like, a decade or 50 years, don’t be surprised if your kids don’t support you, at the end of your life. Whenever you have terminal cancer, as harsh as it is like, that’s, that just might be the reality.

Alyssa Patmos 37:13
And I imagine, I imagine the concept of boundaries comes up in social support research a lot, because I could envision where someone goes through the turmoil of making the decision, Hey, Mom, or Dad, I’m not actually going to support you in this. And then at that point, they almost have two choices, where it’s like the ghost, sort of, like you mentioned earlier, where it’s, I’m gonna pretend this isn’t happening, I’m ignoring all things not showing up for you. Or there’s a conversation. And that conversation could be very haphazard and very blame oriented, or it could be filled with boundaries. So have you found anything? Or is there is there a large body of research around boundaries in social support as well?

Colter Ray 38:01
Oh, yes, um, there’s just a large body of research on boundaries and communication in general. And some of that would look at social support instances. I think that I think that will from these interviews that we did, most recently, we found that there was mostly pretty hard boundaries being set in the sense of what that boundary looked like is no, I’m not going to support you. And sometimes people would have the conversations why with the person, but more often than not, they wouldn’t. They would, they would just choose not to. And I think about how that’s a really a conscious choice that that people make, it’s not a haphazardly done decision. I’m thinking of one participant who they and their sibling had a parent who was diagnosed with a terminal cancer diagnosis. And their first to give you an idea of the status of the relationship, their first conversation with each other was, is this person even telling the truth? Or is this just a ploy to try to get us to get back into into their life. And so once they realized that it was likely actually the truth that this person had this terminal diagnosis, the two of them sitting in sitting down and talking and making the conscious decision that no, they were not going to reconnect, they were not going to support their their parents as they died from this disease, which is just, you know, it seems harsh until you find out the other side of the story, which is that parent was emotionally abusive to those kids and all the way into adulthood. And it’s just, it’s sad, but the reality is, is again, if you have been terrible to people, there’s two parts of reciprocity, right? If you’re nice to people, people be nice back to you. But if you’re not, don’t expect the world whenever, you know, things go awry.

Alyssa Patmos 39:59
Yeah, and it sounds Like they It sounded like those siblings were then providing social support for each other to be able to have to determine what what they were going to do. I think I asked the question because it would seem like, it would seem like, if you if you were if you consciously set the boundary and maybe even have a conversation about it, you know, obviously, if it’s not a dangerous situation, or it’s not something like that, where reconnecting in any way starts to open a channel, but I’m wondering if people who are willing to have the conversation, I’m wondering if it negates some of the shame in a different way? I’m wondering if it takes away some of like, the judgment or how that might shape the story that they tell about themselves?

Colter Ray 40:45
What do you think?

Alyssa Patmos 40:47
I think that, well, this, this show is called make it mentionable. And to me, to me that is that is, when we can mention stuff, we can manage it. And so doesn’t mean that it always has to be a conversation to that person directly. But I do think that when we are able to look at things consciously and know like, okay, I’ve made a choice. And then and then sometimes when we do have to share that choice, to be able to fully allow ourselves into it. And I think sometimes this I think I do think there’s a world where some of the shame could dissipate. If it’s if there’s a boundary set, and the conversation is had because then it’s clear, and there and there’s less guilt. There’s not this, like, I’m constantly wondering what they’re thinking like, Am I a bad daughter? Like, you know, there’s so many stories that come into play, when we are at the point where we have to make that decision?

Colter Ray 41:46
Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I think that I think you’re right, I think that would mitigate at least for the the person who might withhold support or not give support. If you’re at least setting those boundaries, I think it does kind of help out maybe with the guilt part, I think I really would agree with that for their own internal feelings of guilt. But you also brought up something interesting, too, which was like the safety issue. And so there’s some great research on ghosting by and I’ll I can never I need to just ask her how to say her last name, because I’m never sure if I get it right. It’s either I believe it’s Leah Lafave or the fever at Alabama, I believe, and she looks at the different reasons why people ghost and things like that. And, you know, we tend to think of ghosting, smees happening in a dating context, like, you know, they start, they stop talking to you all together. But one of the reasons people ghost sometimes is out of safety, like they just have to immediately and forever cut off all communication, because they’re worried if they tried to break up with someone in person, they might experience physical danger. And I think a lot of that applies here in this situation of like ghosting your friend or family member or whoever with cancer, but it’s more of a psychological danger that you’re avoiding. Right? Like, why would I? Why would I even have a conversation with someone who has been emotionally abusive? Because the only thing that could happen to it potentially is it would reopen those psychological wounds. And it might be the safer play from my own mental health to ghost and 10 just to completely avoid that conversation altogether.

Alyssa Patmos 43:22
Yeah, yeah. And it’s, it’s ultimately I think, the the most important thing, the reason why I love this study and exposing this to begin with, is because this is real life. These are the things people are dealing with, you know, and by and by talking about it, even in this context and releasing research around it, it becomes more normalized, and people don’t feel like they have to hide in this very painful situation. I mean, I don’t think any of your participants are are ridiculously Cavalier around making this choice, you know, like pain has led up to it, correct me if I’m wrong, but

Colter Ray 44:03
yeah, I think, although this would be an interesting follow up study is to interview people who did not receive support that they expected to receive, and to see what would count as a good reason in their eyes, like for someone not reaching out, and it again, could differ based on and kind of If a person’s a scorekeeper or not. One thing I think that’s worth mentioning, while we’re talking about this study is another the probably the second most common pattern that we saw, was a lot of times people would portray the person that they’re not supporting as a lost cause or as do nothing. So this person, whether they’re going through cancer or divorce, or whatever the other stressor is in their life. They’re just not doing enough to help themselves, or they’re not taking the advice or the support that they’re receiving and using it so they’re stuck in like a cyclical pattern of destructive behaviors, right? And so we saw this frequently. with people who had like drug issues, and at what point do you give up and just say, I just can’t, I can’t support you anymore, right? Like I just, you know, you’re not doing anything or you’re not doing enough to help yourselves. And so what ends up happening is we saw this pattern where if the person is painted as a lost cause, or as a do nothing, the Narrator The person who did not provide support, they tend to identify or create this identity of being the defeated helper. So like they This is important, because it showed that they tried, they did their best, sometimes they went longer and trying to support them, they wanted to, but eventually, they just had to concede defeat, and say, Look, this person is a lost cause. They’re not doing enough for themselves. Nothing that I can do, or that I have done has helped. I give up. I’m out. And I did. And that’s important, too, with like the shame and guilt aspect, right? I think that identity inherently combat those things. Because if someone’s like, why aren’t you? Why are you no longer supporting your son who has a drug addiction, I supported that guy for that kid for five years, and tried to put them through various rehabs and all the late night phone calls and all this stuff. And it’s just I just hit a point where I just, there’s nothing I can do, and I give up. And that’s, again, as with most of the research, I do a very heavy and sad thing to encounter. But it’s the reality of it is that people have a breaking point. And they just have to sometimes to concede defeat. Well, and,

Alyssa Patmos 46:27
and, and yeah, I imagine that some of those people probably identify as a savior for a long time where it’s like they, they were helpers, they’re like, I want to save you from this. And they, they put themselves out there in that way. But there also becomes a point where, you know, that person who’s constantly trying to help constantly trying to save, like they should have their own wounds, they have their own struggles that are putting them in this position, trying to get needs met by trying to save other people. And so there does come a point where, where for their own safety, they have to, or safety, sanity, sanity, and then then they have to make that decision to and so it’s so like, this is why communication is fascinating, because it is so do what’s our reality is constructed based on these stories that we’re choosing to tell ourselves. And if we’re gonna keep that narrative going, I think that’s what you mentioned that in the study, one of your one of your co authors. It looks like she studies narratives, and she talked about one of the important things being not just what the story is, but how long someone’s able to keep the story going. And that narrative blowing up.

Colter Ray 47:46
Yeah, it’s the quote that she provided from. First off, shout out to Christina sharp at University of Washington, she is an excellent interpersonal researcher and a joy to collaborate with. And that was one of my main partners in crime on this study. And she quoted another researcher, I can’t remember who was off the top of my head, but essentially, yeah, your, your identity is not necessarily in the narrative, but to the extent that you can sustain that narrative. Oh, that’s a real mind blowing thing to think about when you’re laying in bed at night, is you can already go down that rabbit hole, like what are what is this identity that I tried to construct for myself on a daily basis? And how do I want other people to see me? Then you add in? What are all the things I’m doing to sustain that into, like, keep that story going. And it’s like, oh, man, you can go, you can go deep and dark real quick. And I’m sure like, there’s some good that comes out of that. But that would also almost be like a great it was just a great counseling session for for anyone and everyone who everyone should go see counselors, I think, but I think just to talk about what are the stories that we create for ourselves, and what are the behaviors for better or for worse, that we engage in to keep those narratives going.

Alyssa Patmos 48:57
That is like the crux of my work. And one of the one of the things I have people do many times in exercise I give is is writing the story of their life out how they’ve told it for years, and then giving them the task of Okay, now I want you to tell these same events, but I want you to write it in a completely different way. Because that’s the thing like we can we can tell ourselves 50 different stories about the exact same event. And I think that’s interesting in the context of social support, too, because one thing I wanted to ask you about so I when I was in when I was in my early 20s, the guy I was dating at the time his dad, someone that you and I both both know of his his dad was diagnosed with cancer, and he was supposed to pass away within three weeks, but he ended up living For 15 months, and so when the family grieves, initially from the shock of, oh my god, he could be gone in three to nine weeks. But then the support ends up going on for 15 months, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s this interesting dynamic that I saw were so many times, it’s about the person with cancer. But the family was going through so much too, and they were exhausted. And it was, it was, it was like preparing every last meal as if it was his last meal, because he just didn’t know. And what I saw was so many people focusing on just the person with cancer, and not knowing at all what to do, or how to be respectful of, of the family, it was almost like, you know, they would get calls. And it’s like, she said, Can I stop by and say hi, to have, it’s like, we have a life. I’m exhausted, we just had three people over. So what see in the context of, and I feel like this falls into the dark side, because family members can feel like crap acknowledging these things. So So what do you see in the context of this, like when you see made mentionable around? How to support families and the people closest to to cancer patients as well?

Colter Ray 51:20
Oh, yeah. awesome question. There’s not nearly enough research at looking at how to support the supporters. Some people have looked at that even in recent years, Alana Valuscek is a researcher who’s done that. But it’s, I think, at the end of the day, they people who are like not the center of attention, so let’s say like not the cancer patient, but like that cancer patients, spouse, or parents or kids. They’re almost the center, they’re like the next ring out, essentially. And those people need a lot of support, like a lot. And it’s just not typically thought of, it’s kind of or if it is thought of, it’s usually like a secondary thought right? After like, Well, after we do something for the person who’s about to pass away, you know, let’s also like, do something for the kids, or the whoever is closest. And the thing that I think is like most important, and probably most practical to think about is those these different layers of like how close you are to being the person who is going to die of cancer or who has cancer. And the closer you are to the middle, the more rights you have. So if you are the person with cancer, or like an immediate family member, you get control of that situation. And you can tell people like no, you don’t, you’re not coming by today, we’re too exhausted, we just have other things that we have to do some self care first. And if you’re not one of those people, you’re kind of more peripheral, you have to realize you don’t have as many rights in this situation. And yes, maybe this is someone who you’ve known a long time and worked with for 15 or 20 years, who’s maybe going to pass away in the next nine weeks. But you have to be respectful of the fact that that’s someone’s spouse, or that’s someone’s father. And those people do get a little bit of priority. And so if they tell you no, this is not a good time, you can only get angry with them, right. And then at the same time, you should be supporting kind of all the layers that are closer in where you are not just the person at the very center. So there’s been some research that kind of looks at that. There was a great article published years ago in the Los Angeles Times by I believe someone in the nursing profession, and it was essentially something along the lines of like a ring theory of support, which in many ways is pretty similar to what I just described. There’s this, but the first step is just realizing the supporters need support as well.

Alyssa Patmos 53:53
Supporters need support and then the concept of Yeah, when you’re close, right, you’re

Colter Ray 53:58
in self care as well, right? And so like, you know, as the world reopens here, and we all start, a lot of us start traveling again, and we’re hopping on flights and going to wild and crazy places like Denver, Colorado you know, we maybe have flown enough that we don’t really consciously hear this anymore, but whenever you get on a flight the flight attendants say in the case of losing cabin pressure, make sure you put on your own oxygen mask before you put on someone else’s. And that’s kind of almost been a cliche in like the psychological literature like you know, help yourself first before you help someone else. But what people don’t realize is if you’re playing actually last pressure, the reason why they tell you that is because you have about like three seconds if you’re a normal healthy person before you will black out. And so it’s not like oh, you know, you read it’s not this weird, like don’t help your kid with their mask. Help yourself first. It seems a real reason for that is because you have such a limited amount of time before you are completely incapacitated.

Alyssa Patmos 54:56
Physically not going to be able to help them unless you did it. Yeah. So you

Colter Ray 55:00
Got a really prioritize self care, like imagine that you’re in a plane that just went, you know, no longer is pressurized, you got three seconds, right. So that’s how quickly you should be aware of whenever things in your life depression is and your your life starts to fall apart, you really got to take care of yourself first or else you’re just going to be not useless but you’re not gonna be at your best to help the other people.

Alyssa Patmos 55:25
And that’s where that’s interesting. And so so so important because in that situation I saw, I saw how hard it was for them to take the time for self care. And unfortunately, I was in a position at that time where I had, I had known the family for seven, well, it was four years at that time, they were I was very close to them. And so I could, I could give them the gift of time to then go do that. And so that I think that’s one way that people can support the supporters that we often forget about is like, I don’t need you to cook me another meal, I just need you to sit here with him so that I can go do what I need to do, defined by me. And it can be hard, especially for the people, you know who who identify more as saviors to do those things. That the one other thing I wanted to add on to this is when the grief period comes about, because that’s when it almost reverses it’s like people rush in because they want you know, they they want to, they want to be able to have a clean relationship with that person when that person goes, especially if it’s a terminal case, which not all cancer diagnoses are, thank goodness. But when the grief period does come around, then it’s almost like it flips and all the focus is on the family. And then there’s a lot of judgment. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but in my experience, there was a ton of judgment then on the family for how they were grieving, and how quickly they were grieving. And people had forgotten that they thought he was going to pass away in nine weeks. And it ended up being so long. And so there’s so much there’s so much judgment that goes around, like this concept of social support. have you encountered anything like this?

Colter Ray 57:19
You know, I’m not in the research circles, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, I will never claim to know every thing in my in my own area. But it is not a very as far as I know, a very common thing that people look at that specific, like judgmental actions during the grieving process. But it absolutely happens for sure. Right? I think another thing or another context, you see that in it’s like with relationships ending. And it’s like, that person was in a relationship for four years. And like, a month later, they’re, you know, on a date with someone, and it’s like, how could they have? How could they do that. And it’s like, well, what you don’t know is like maybe they were in an abusive relationship. And they’ve been mentally checked out and emotionally checked out of it for like a year. And they’ve already gone through the grieving process, and they finally felt safe enough or confident enough to leave that relationship. And they’ve already done a lot of the grieving, right, like that was something that happened just while the relationship was still going in the same sense that with, with the person that you were mentioning, is, you know, they were expecting that person to live for somewhere like 21 days to two months. There’s maybe a really accelerated grieving process to some extent, that’s happening. And then whenever that gets drawn out, and that person lives for over a year, when that day comes, and the person passes away, they’ve maybe already grieved at a much different pace and in a different way than someone who loses a parent suddenly to a stroke.

Alyssa Patmos 58:53
Right? Right. Very, very different experiences there. So I want to first thank you for being here. And I want to summarize because the some of the things in the beginning the toolkit, but the conversational phrase toolkit, and let’s recap those so what are what are the things we need to have in our back pocket, there’s the three second pause and the gift of

Colter Ray 59:23
let’s kind of divide them up into listening and then some questions that you can ask to open up space. Right just a little extra structure for our for our listeners,

Alyssa Patmos 59:32
make it even easier. I love it. So let’s start with listening. Yeah,

Colter Ray 59:36
okay, listening, make the conscious decision to listen that means putting more often than not means having to put your phone away. Now out of sight out of mind, really tune in to the person 100% shutting up by don’t actually say anything. Even if you know what you want to say or you want to say something that identify with the person. Don’t do it. Don’t interrupt. Let them get their story out there. If you’re really experiencing That apprehension of like, oh god, what am I going to say? What am I going to do, we have some phrases and questions you can ask that we’ll talk about in a second. But the main thing is try to squash that apprehension, that fear and really use the energy instead to focus in on what they’re telling you. And then at the end of whatever they’re you think there might be done talking, wait three seconds in silence, use that silent pause, it will give you a chance to metabolize what you just heard. And to process it, it also gives them a chance to potentially tack on some extra information and maybe share something a little bit deeper that they’ve been hesitant to share with you. And then the moment comes where you do at some point, have to do something and say something, most likely. And so what are some of the things you can ask and say, you know, how are you doing today is a big one, because we know throughout a cancer journey, there are bad days, but not every day is the worst day ever. So you might be surprised, they might say today was a particularly good day, I had my energy back, I reconnected with an old friend. But overall, it’s tough. But today, it was a good one. And look, they just shared with you so much more than if you just said How are you doing? They go? I’m fine. You can also ask them, what does that been like for you? Specifically, what is your unique experience been? And they’ll probably internally think thank God, someone’s finally giving me the chance to share that. Because up until this point, everyone’s just been assuming that they know what it means to have cancer because they had a family member with cancer. And now I can share my story and how I’ve reacted to the news and how I’ve managed uncertainties and whether my expectations of care and support have been met or not, and what do I need and really personalize it. And then at the end of the day, that even though supporting someone is supposed to be a good thing, you can mess it up. But you now have the tools to hopefully not mess it up.

Alyssa Patmos 1:01:56
Yes. And the question when it’s really like the gift of curiosity, which is like the antithesis of making assumptions, and I think like, even from your avian from your baseball metaphor that sort of runs throughout the entire conversation, that’s if you can approach it with the lens of of being curious. I think you’re setting yourself up to do better at the plate than you would be in in most other situations. Would you agree with that?

Colter Ray 1:02:25
I would, I would. Absolutely. And you know, just to extend it just a step further in is that, like, if you’ve ever followed baseball, if you get a hit three out of 10 times throughout your career, you’re going to be a Hall of Fame player, like an all time great. That’s how difficult that sport is. So realize that being a good communicator doesn’t mean hitting a homerun every time or even getting a hit every time. Like, realistically if you’re supporting someone on a daily basis, or a weekly basis for a year or two, at some point along the way, you’re gonna say some dumb shit. Yeah, that’s gonna mess it up at some point. And that’s okay. You can be honest with the person and ask for forgiveness and say, maybe I shouldn’t have made that joke or you know, I should have been more sensitive or I wish I think I could have phrased that better like yeah, we’re giving you tools for your toolkit here but realize there’s a learning curve and at some point in time, whether it’s in this situation or in your romantic relationships or as a parent you’re going to you’re going to mess it up and that’s okay they don’t freak out manage it you know and and admit that you could have done something better and then continue to be a great supporter.

Alyssa Patmos 1:03:34
Yeah, and sometimes at the beginning of an episode you forget to call your friend a doctor. So Dr. Colter Ray.

Colter Ray 1:03:41
Yeah, like I said, I hope for pretty much my entire time as a doctor all my friends remind me that if there’s a medical emergency that I still have to call 911 and I’m like, What? Yeah, come on, guys. Give me some credit.

Alyssa Patmos 1:03:54
Yes, I have loved this conversation because I think it’s the epitome of what I’m trying to do with make it mentionable which is to make people feel less alone and then also to increase self awareness because when we make it conscious we can we can manage it. So if people want to connect with you want to keep tabs on your research and what’s going on what is the best way for people to connect or where can they find you?

Colter Ray 1:04:21
Yeah, the advantage of having a weird name is that if you google me, I will pop up pretty quickly. So Colter Ray, Colter is C O L T E R ray are a why you can google me or colterray.com that has a little bit more about me. I also publicly make all my research available. I just will continue to do that forever until a publisher actually threatens to take action because I just don’t like that my research wouldn’t be available. So I just post all the PDFs. So you need to go on my website and click and download everything.

Alyssa Patmos 1:04:55
Actually a big deal I want to I know that everyone may realize how big of a deal that But I want to thank you for that, because having left academia and not having access to the papers, that is, that is incredible. So thank you,

Colter Ray 1:05:08
just so anyone can click on them and just and download them and view them. And then also, and we didn’t really get into this, but actually quite a few of the different tips and tricks we talked about today, the tools or the toolkit, were developed, co developed with Kelsey Crow, who is the founder of the great organization called empathy boot camp, for which I am a trainer and a consultant. And so you can also find me through any of the work that empathy boot camp does as well if you’re listening to this and you run an organization or you’re in an organization that needs better communication and better ways of showing up for each other and supporting each other and being a more empathetic person. Definitely check out empathybootcamp.com, and you can also link over to that from my personal website as well.

Alyssa Patmos 1:05:53
And we will link it in the show notes too. So thank you so much for being here. I loved this conversation. Thank you. Thank you.

Colter Ray 1:06:02
Yeah, good to see you.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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