by Jennifer Crystal
It’s all about perspective. Sometimes, changing the way you say something, can change the way you think about it. Writer Jennifer Crystal has some good advice for Lyme patients who need empowerment.
Recently a friend complained to me about a co-worker who also happened to be his brother. “He drives me crazy,” my friend said. “But he’s my brother, and I need his help with the business.”
“And,” I replied. “Not but.”
My friend looked at me quizzically.
“If you substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’, it changes the whole meaning of the sentence. It allows both clauses to be true, without being tied to each other. You need your brother’s help. AND he makes you crazy.”
I can’t take credit for this good advice; a therapist gave it to me years ago when I was wrapped up in conflicted feelings about my tick-borne illnesses. I was living with family, largely dependent on them and others, and I was wrestling with a lot of guilt. If I said something like, “My neighbor doesn’t get Lyme at all,” I felt I had to quickly add, “But he did run an errand for me, so I should be grateful.”
Though I was sidelined with a debilitating illness, I didn’t feel like I had the right to complain, because I was getting help and treatment. I added caveats because I felt bad saying anything negative when there was anything positive involved. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I qualified that concern with “but”.
My therapist helped me to see that I was allowed to have both negative and positive feelings about a situation or a person. I could be sad, mad, and frustrated that I was sick. I could also be grateful that I was starting to make some strides in my recovery. By connecting those statements with “and” instead of “but,” I gave equal power to them both, instead of negating one with the other. Of course, sometimes we do need to use the word “but”; it is innocuous in a statement such as, “I tried to go to a movie, but it was sold out.” However, when talking about feelings for a person or situation, “but” implies guilt or shame for having those feelings, while “and” validates them. That can be empowering for a patient who is feeling not so powerful.
This trick can work for any adversity or strife, not just chronic illness. One might say, “That co-worker is so rude to me, but she’s helpful on this particular project, so I feel like I have to put up with it,” or, “My boyfriend can be so controlling, but he does pay most of the bills.” Statements like this show how powerless a person can feel, whether they are struggling with illness, a difficult work situation, or a bad relationship. Shifting “but” to “and” is a way to start taking power back.
If the co-worker is both rude and helpful, the person complaining can recognize the helpfulness as its own entity, which may free them to talk to their colleague about the rudeness as a separate issue. The person in the controlling relationship can appreciate her boyfriend’s financial support, and still have the right to talk to him about power struggles in the relationship.
“And” doesn’t solve problems, but it does help us to look at them clearly. It also allows us to have conflicted feelings without shame. For me, this shift in perspective took away a lot of the guilt surrounding my convalescence. I didn’t need to chide myself for feeling one way, and try to convince myself that I “should” be feeling something else. Instead, I could take ownership of all of my feelings. And that was a very liberating moment!
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Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. She is working on a memoir about her journey with chronic tick-borne illness. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org