Go Ahead, Let Me Have It

I want realistic descriptions not false optimism. I’m unhappy when anticipated rosy outcomes lose their glow. M doctor said, “You won’t even feel this,” then forced a turkey-baster-sized needle into my arm. I jerked, glared and snarled. His mild deception made me act like an indignant child. As a senior citizen, that’s embarrassing.

Cookbook authors should admit making a soufflé is a bit tricky rather than describing their recipe as foolproof. Does a sunken soufflé mean I’m a fool? If my dermatologist had mentioned, before “… a minor treatment with no side effects,” that a huge scab would adorn my nose for most of a month, I wouldn’t have attended my class reunion wearing Mt. Vesuvius on my nose.

I’m not alone in dealing with hard truths  better than reassuring pleasantries. As a teacher, I saw most students react with persistence and determination when told a new learning would be difficult but achievable with work and practice. In contrast, when assured a lesson would be easy and everyone would master it quickly, some students displayed frustration and wanted to quit when they experienced difficulties.

As a fledgling staff developer, I once told participants in my adult workshop we would finish by 4:00, probably sooner, then kept them until 4:10. It was the only time in my forty years as an educator I felt endangered.

Most of us can stand anything if told what to expect in advance. The truth allows us to handle problematic circumstances with dignity. This is evident on delayed airplanes. When people are stuffed on a plane and stranded on the runway for more than an hour without explanation, they begin to exhibit the behavior of caged animals: snarling, pacing, glaring. Children cry; couples bicker; belligerence balloons.

Yet I’ve waited with passengers on a packed flight for almost two hours, with no breaches of civility, because the pilot promised to update us every fifteen minutes and did so. He described the problem with the cargo door, explained why possible options wouldn’t work, reported on the progress of the repairs and apologized for the uncomfortable wait. Some mumbling, sighing and impatient shuffling occurred in the crowded cabin, but calm acceptance, if not good humor, reigned.

If I do encounter honesty about difficult circumstances, I’m appreciative. When a sign along I-70 advises me it will take thirty minutes to reach Denver, I don’t fume at the slow traffic; rather, I’m delighted when we arrive in twenty-five. In airports, I’m less anxious standing in a line that loops forever when posted signs tell me it will take ten minutes to clear security from where I stand. That knowledge helps me decide if a quick shuffle will get me to my gate on time, or if I must abandon all pride and gallop.

The first time I endured the discomfort of a colonoscopy, I appreciated the health care professional who described the escalating unpleasantness of the preparations I had to do the night before. Her explanation allowed me to think, “Well, this isn’t so bad after all,” rather than, “This is awful. Something must be wrong with the directions. This can’t be right.”

I don’t want to be soothed with snake-oil promises. I want the truth. I want to feel either relief when I weather the storm more easily than I anticipated or composed acceptance when it’s as bad as I was warned it could be.

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62 thoughts on “Go Ahead, Let Me Have It

  1. I agree with you completely.

    Long ago, I got in an argument with a male friend (friendship began in the late 90s and ended when i moved here) about the truth. He insisted that people didn’t LIKE the truth. I believe they do. When he fell in love with someone else, he wouldn’t tell me. The irony is that I KNEW and even though I had feelings for him, I valued the friendship. I wouldn’t have changed anything. A grown up person would have told me, “I’ve met the ONE.” But his fear was that our friendship would end so I ended up being strung along in a quagmire of uncertainty. When I left CA I knew I could make the break in real life that I’d already made in my mind. I felt his lies were disrespectful of me as a person.

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    • I myself have wondered if I really prefer the truth to social niceties. I know I haven’t always told the truth in social situations when doing so would have felt unkind.In your example, like you, I would have preferred the truth as I would in most situations, but I’m not sure everyone would. It’s a thorny issue I’ve given lots of thought to. I know I always felt an honest evaluation of learning progress was better for my students than mindless cheerleading.

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    • I remember that scene in the movie “A Few Good Men.” It was powerful. My mom was a truth-teller to her children in terms of our behavior, but managed to do it in a way that left us intact. I find it can be hard to always tell the truth, and sometimes opt to say nothing instead. But in terms of what an experience is going to be like, I try to never sugar coat the possibilities if I know them.

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  2. I am with you, to a fault. When I was pregnant for the first time and far from home, the book that allayed my anxieties was an obstetrics nursing manual with illustrations of the worst possible outcomes. You describe the result perfectly: I felt prepared.

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    • Oh, yes, and therein lies a danger of the truth, which, to be useful must have, in your words, “details and objectivity.” i may need to suck my thumb and feel sorry for myself when given those things, but usually i can learn from such feedback.

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  3. Recently, I was on a crowded suburban train which had stopped just before a station. The guard told us there had been lightning damage to a signal box and reassured us that he would keep us updated on progress. When we began moving he announced “they haven’t told me anything, but we are moving, so I guess the problem is fixed. ” laughs all round.

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  4. “Most of us can handle anything if told what to expect in advance. The truth allows us to handle problematic circumstances with dignity.”

    Absolutely. This should be taught to every healthcare student from CNA to Physician. I stood ready to help a doctor with a procedure when he told the patient “you’re going to feel a little pressure.” I wanted to shout no! this is going to hurt like hell.. Of course, the patient thought something had gone terribly wrong, and would have shown more tolerance if truthfully prepared.

    With every sentence of this post I want to say yes, yes, yes. The truth shows respect for a person. Trying to soften the truth results in confusion and is not doing anyone a favor. You can be kind when telling facts, but truth is the kindness.

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    • Of all the thought-provoking sentences in this response, Mercy, the one that stood out for me was, “…truth is the kindness.” How i wish you had prepared me for my bone marrow biopsy several years ago; a situation where I was told I’d feel a little pressure. Because my reality was so different, I reacted poorly and now live in fear of ever having another. You are so right that when medical procedures are worse than I was prepared for, I imagine something terrible has happened.

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  5. The truth is something I wish for. For in knowing the truth, I can plan for the outcome and then I’ll be ready, rather than not knowing and then not knowing what to do, where to do it or how to go about sorting the problem out.

    I hate it when I go for blood tests (the Dracula brigade as I affectionately call them) – and just before they stick the needle in me, the nurse will say: “Sharp scratch” … and I now reply every single time: “I hate it when ‘they’ say that, for it’s not a sharp scratch at all. What it’s like is someone sticking a needle into your arm!” …. and only one nurse has actually said: “I know! I don’t know why we say that, because you’re right. It’s nothing like a sharp scratch!”

    Grrrr.

    I’m with you all the way Aunt Beulah – the truth is far better for all concerned.
    BUT … there are circumstances where the truth should be ‘bent’ slightly. EG: “Does my bottom look big in this?” – the answer should be ‘no’. But you could add – I’m just not sure about the cut. Somehow it looks like they’ve made it all wrong.

    Do you think I’ve put on weight? A resounding no. But again, a qualification could be popped in there saying … ‘if you feel you have, it could be water retention’

    I think there should always be a reason to be kind … but where medical procedures are concerned, or waiting for an appointment, even waiting in a queue or on a plane when there is a delay – the truth is perhaps the best option, as it helps people, and placates rather than further irritates them.

    GREAT post Aunt Beulah. As always.
    Sending heaps of love and squidges ~ Cobs. xxx

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    • I, too, bend the truth in social situations when to not do so would be hurtful, and I appreciate and will use your idea of adding a qualification when I am quick enough to think of one. You and I have identical responses to the “sharp scratch” or as it’s usually said to me, the “little poke.” Again, I like your response and may well use it in the future. As always, I appreciate your thoughts and love hearing from you, Cobs.

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  6. Oh you are so right! Being told the truth about something, no matter how unpleasant makes it easier to handle. Sugar coating something changes your expectations and when our expectations are not met, we are not happy. We may not be happy with the situation to begin with, but if it what we expected it is so much easier to handle. Just give me the straight facts!

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    • So many of us prefer the straight facts, Nancee, that it makes me wonder why we don’t hear them more often. Perhaps it’s more difficult to state them than to hear them. I have a doctor friend who told me it is easier to break bad news slowly to people over time. When I asked easier for whom, she chuckled ruefully and said, truthfully, “For me.”

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      • Oh my! I was always taught to tell it straight and if you know someone isn’t going to like what you have to say be prepared for at least two options for the person and give them the choice of what to do if they don’t like it. It should always be done in a nice way, but the truth is always better than going around the truth. Of course you need to do it as nicely as possible if you know it will hurt someone’s feelings. You need to be compassionate, but truthful.

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      • I like the way you were taught, and I wish all those in a position to be asked what a medical experience will be like had been given the same training.And I have no doubt that you delivered the options as kindly as possible, which I always appreciate.

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  7. No kidding. When I was prepping patients for procedure, I gave them a comparison. “Some patients say it’s about like having a tooth pulled,” or “This will burn about enough to make you say ‘Crap!” But it’s better than no anesthesia.” It seemed to help.

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  8. This is an interesting topic, Janet. I like your example of the airline pilot keeping passengers “in the know”. It seems that when we humans are kept in the dark we become more agitated, irritated and upset.

    When patients ask me what to expect from cataract surgery I’m not always sure what to tell them. Because people’s reactions to the same medical procedure can differ wildly, it’s not always possible to be perfectly candid.

    One thing I do tell them though, is that it’s virtually guaranteed that the surgery will not take as long as going through all the paperwork. (They seem to like hearing that!)

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    • I can see what you mean, Rita, because I know my reaction to medical procedures have differed from those of my friends. My family doctor used to describe various reactions he had encountered when I questioned him, and his answer satisfied me because I knew the range of possibilities. I love your answer to the question about cataract surgery. Humor always helps.

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  9. Years ago I went in for a surgery for which I had been given NO preparation by the doctor. I approached the whole thing as somewhat of a vacation in the hospital. My best friend grimaced and said “Oh, what they are going to do to you!” Thus giving me a preliminary shakeup. It may have been better to have said nothing.
    It IS annoying when they assure you that you can “hop down off the table”, and you lose your hopping ability. I find as I age, that I dislike medical surprises.

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    • Aging has elicited that same response from me, Kayti, especially about “hopping” here or there. I also tend to expect the worst and am often surprised; when I was young, I assumed the best and was often disappointed.

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  10. Oh I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I had a CT scan a while back and they injected me with something they said would give me a brief feeling of impending doom. I’m the inquisitive type and was heartily disappointed when I didn’t get that sensation. But good on them for preparing me for the worst.

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    • “A brief feeling of impending doom,” has a terrible ring to it! I’m afraid I would have reacted with great dread, not disappointed curiosity. I admire you! But, no matter whether the feeling actually descended on me or not, I, too would have appreciated them for telling me about the possibility it could.

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  11. I agree completely! I’m the kind who is less nervous with more information. Although, having worked in health care, I must acknowledge that some prefer either no info or unrealistic info. However, I’m not one of them. I want the TRUTH. i function better if I can anticipate and plan accordingly.

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    • Anticipating and planning accordingly are important to me as well, Laurel. I wonder if there is some way to let health care workers know that clearly and non-critically, because I can see where it must be difficult for them to know what each patient wants.

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  12. So true. And doctors are the worst about this sort of thing, aren’t they? I suppose they’re afraid people won’t go through with the treatment if they know the truth. Still, is it really okay to lie like in your first example? What a jerk. Apparently that pilot, at least, has learned the truth of how to handle those situations. Glad someone has.

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  13. Now I am elderer I expect the truth, however harsh.This will hurt, it’s dead, what stinks in here?, a customer licked this, your poetry is dreadful…plane delayed? That was me, my teabags were mistaken for a bomb- again! Just got to laugh.

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  14. Excellent post Janet. This topic came up last week at our weekly Garden Club meeting. Our group is mainly nurses, social workers and councelors and we were discussing pain medication drug addiction. The nurses that I worked with agreed that patient education was lacking about what pain medicine could and couldn’t do. Many were told by their doctors that they wouldn’t have any pain after surgery, the pain medicine would take care of it for them. The truth is that pain medicine will help, but it will not take away all of the pain. Many were surprised, angry, and worried that something was wrong. I can’t blame them. People need coping mechanisms to handle pain instead of trying to avoid it. This, however does not include severe or chronic pain from cancer or other conditions, which is a whole another kettle of fish.

    I’m with you, I’m for the truth. Better to handle a situation head on than being blind sided.

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    • I knew you would view it that way, Janice; and I find it interesting that you and your friends, all in caring-for-people professions, had a similar discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the thoughts you shared with one another.

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  15. “Most of us can stand anything if told what to expect in advance.” Yep. And when we aren’t told, we snarl, whine and are generally unhappy campers…or at least this old lady is! I’ve always told people that I’m like my “special needs kids”: tell me in advance what you’re gonna do to me and what I need to expect from you and I’m a sweetheart. Let me find out the hard way, and I bark! (Haven’t bitten anyone, yet, but I definitely bark!) :>)

    Hope you and the mister are feeling better these days. Miss you and hope to get my writing “mo-jo” back one of these days….. ❤ Lucie

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    • So, my friend, we find another way we are similar. I like the comparison to your students with the additional thought that not only do I want to know what’s going to happen, but I’d also like to know what I can expect from the person delivering the news. I’ll bet you were an outstanding teacher. We are better, Lucie, Our world is getting back to normal; but, like you, my writing mo-jo remains weak. It seems there are so many more interesting things to do in my world of the moment.

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  16. Absolutely! It took me a long time to realize it is much better to under promise and over deliver. I would hear words of promise come out of my mouth and wonder why the heck did I just say that – there is no way I fulfill that promise. And I always like the truth of a situation – much easier to cope.

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    • Thanks for this interesting comment, which looks at my idea from the viewpoint of the person making the promises or assurances. I, too, learned early on to err on the side of caution when promising results. It’s happier for everyone when things happen quicker or easier than expected. As always, I enjoyed hearing from you..

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  17. “Almost there …” is one I roll my eyes at, when Cheerers towards the end of races try to encourage, bless their hearts! Unless the Finish Line is within sight, I am not Almost There!

    So, I hear you and I wholeheartedly agree! While I do not want a gross overestimation of timings or a bleaker picture than necessary of unpleasant things to come, erring on the side of a little longer, or a little less cheerful, is much preferred!

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    • I’d never thought about it until I read your comment, but when I used to run, I, too, didn’t want to hear I was almost there when there was a quarter mile to go. I also don’t want the dentist to tell me “almost finished” and then continue drilling, probing and scraping for ten more minutes. So, once again, I absolutely agree with your thinking, my friend.

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