Perfect Time #4: The Moment You Stumble into the One Fragile, Vulnerable Room in the Burning House

Have you noticed something? Problems, unlike yogurt, don't come in single servings. I'm going to give a painful example. I have a friend who constantly has family crises. Her marriage is a struggle; her kids have learning difficulties; her husband is in and out of work. We will meet for brunch, and the news on her end will go something like this: "I don't know, maybe everybody has problems. People fight, don't they? Do you think Jim and I fight too much? Basically, I think it's about power. He wants it. I want it. I think sometimes it affects the kids, because little Sammy is wetting the bed again."

I used to just let her go. She was right on every count, and I wasn't sure if she would listen if I said something—not that she's a narcissist; she was simply upset and didn't get much time to just talk and be listened to.

That is, until I realized after several of these "chats" that I was really worried about little Sammy. Now I do this:
Her: I don't know, maybe everybody has problems.
Me: [Nod]
Her: People fight, don't they?
Me: [Nod]
Her: Do you think Jim and I fight too much?
Me: [Nod]
Her: Basically, I think it's about power. He wants it. I want it.
Me: [Nod]
Her: I think sometimes it affects the kids.
Me: I think so too. Kids sense upheaval. It's really stressful for them. Have you thought about taking him to talk to somebody?
Waiting to be honest about the one point in the whole dark cavalcade that feels the most crucial to you, instead of trying to tackle every problem (in other words, trying to focus on one room of the burning house, instead of the whole burning house), is more likely to help your friend, even if it's in a smaller way, instead of overwhelming her with commentary and not helping her at all.

Perfect Time #5: If (and Only If) You Can Pull Off a Dan Rather

Sometimes you find things out. They are never the things you want to find out. By chance, you discover that your friend's mother has cancer and she's keeping it a secret from the family. Or you suspect your friend might be losing her job. The usual dilemma is whether or not to tell your friend.

Assuming that you want to be honest, that you want to lead a life without the fuss, agony and guilt of cover-ups, consider sticking to a plan I call The Uninterpreted Facts. This is what newscasters do, and everybody loves them, even when they're sitting up there saying things like "a famine has spread through the Sudan, and all the children are dying."

Let me give a few examples: About your friend's mother, instead of saying "I think your mom has cancer," you might say, "I ran into your mother at the hospital yesterday. We were both in the chemo wing." About your friend's job, instead of saying "you haven't been working very hard, and I think your boss—who's friends with my boss—is going to lay you off," you could say, "There's a memo about layoffs in the break room. Your boss is in the office with the head of Human Resources." In the face of this news delivered in a neutral tone, the friend is either going to wonder why this happened and/or why you brought it up, then reach some conclusions on her own—or she will not because she's not ready to deal with it. Either way, you'll have given her the honest information, and she will have the choice about how to move forward.

Perfect Time #6: When Your Friend Is Not There...

In other words, when you're alone. Being truthful with others starts with being truthful with yourself. This is one of those excruciating realities that we all have to live with—because to be honest, nobody wants to be honest with themselves. I certainly don't. I'd much prefer to think I gave my sweater to my neighbor because I'm a nice lady, not because I don't like the sweater and I want to use my neighbor's garden next week and she likes the sweater.

The real truth is complex and clunky and doesn't come with three free smaller bits of wisdom and a set of apple corers. It's not sexy, and it doesn't make you look younger. But it is one of those things that gets more valuable as you learn to use it on yourself with the same compassion you would use with other people. Telling yourself the truth as your husband walks out ("I pushed too hard," "I didn't listen," "I was never really committed," etc.) isn't at all enlightening—and may possibly ruin your self-esteem. Three days later, after you've calmed down, that same unwelcome but much-needed bit of honesty could change your life.

Leigh Newman is a columnist for Follow her on Twitter: @leighnew

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