The four scariest words in the English language
Let's Talk About Hard Things
Anna Sale 2021
"When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short-term discomfort into long-term dysfunction." Peter Bromberg
"We need to talk." There are no words in the English language more disturbing, especially for men, than these four words. For much of our lives we avoid certain topics and discussions because we know they will make us emotionally uncomfortable. Perhaps they will address behaviors that we'd rather not address. More likely, they could cover sensitive topics that we'd rather not think about at all. But we avoid these topics at our peril, as the hard stuff that never gets addressed never really goes away, and often gets worse.
Let's Talk About Hard Things is a deep dive into those touchy topics, led by writer and podcast host Anna Sale. Sale's podcast, Death, Sex, and Money, covers some of the thorniest topics through interviews with guests who are living with them. This is her first book, and it can be a tough read because it uses her personal experiences and podcast to illustrate the issues that goes with the Big 5 topics that scare everybody into silence.
The first taboo subject that she covers is death. We all fear a talking about our own death, or that of anybody else that is close to us. Close to 60% of people die without a will or any planning related to their demise. The thought of somebody ceasing to exist, and being lost forever is one of the toughest to confront. But confronting death robs it of much of its power over us, especially if we let in the emotions and grief so that they can get processed properly. When people are facing death, many of those around them get so uncomfortable about it that they abandon that person, amplifying the grief and loneliness that comes with dying. We all will die eventually, and by finding some peace and acceptance with it, we're allowed to live more fully.
The second taboo is sex and sexuality. It's odd that in an age where sex is portrayed salaciously almost everywhere, many of us are afraid to talk about it. We feel shame about our bodies, our experience level, and our skills during sex because we compare ourselves to unrealistic ideals thanks to the media and friends who are equally unrealistic. As with death, talking about sexual desires and needs makes us intensely vulnerable- more so than we are comfortable with. So we pretend we know what others want, and limit our ability to experience one of the most wonderful human gifts that there are. Talking about sex with a partner may involve some uncomfortable negotiation, rejection, or feedback, but it is essential for healthy sexual relationships to develop. In some relationships an unhealthy power dynamic develops when one partner sets the rules unilaterally, and the other partner often leaves the relationship rather than try to try to make things more reciprocal and enjoyable for both.
A big problem with sex is our insecurity, paired with an expectation that everybody is enjoying it more than we are. The enormous pressures on proving your desirability and prowess tends to crowd out the other crucial parts of relationships- fun, love, communication, and companionship.
Third on the list is money, which is a huge taboo for many. Many of us don't talk about money to anybody but a financial advisor, because we judge ourselves and each other by our wealth and income. The problem with that is that there's never enough wealth or income, because we're always comparing ourselves with other people. And the competitive nature of our capitalistic, individualistic society means that to a lot of people our finances say a lot about who we are.
Money is like oxygen- we all have to have it. It carries emotional weight, and discussions about it need to tread lightly. We all have different values around money, and those values need to be taken into account during conversations about it. Life is unfair when it comes to money, and very few of us understand the ins and outs of our economy. Sale encourages us to learn all that we can about the reality of finances, explore our own assumptions, and not to be afraid to ask questions or admit vulnerabilities when it comes to the topic. As with death and sex, the more we learn and talk about money, the less scary and imposing it becomes.
Fourth in the list of touchy subjects is that of family- specifically family conflicts from childhood and beyond. Our families help shape us for better or worse, and it's up to us how we enrich or abandon those relationships as we grow older. In cases of physical or mental abuse, conversations with family members are best made in front of trained professionals. In cases of politics and religion, which can divide families for years, we need to stay true to our own values while taking in those of the people in our family. Sometimes the divide is too great, and it's wiser to step away for a while. But we are here to love each other, no matter how people end up voting, and political arguments needs to look for areas of compromise or agreement before they can get to a place where both people feel validated and heard.
As parents age, the power dynamics in families change. We can either see our parents as flawed beings that tried to do their best to raise us, or as clueless jerks who ruined our lives. Childhood traumas can ruin entire lives, so the sooner people deal with the uncomfortable conversations surrounding them (with family or with therapists), the sooner they can heal.
And finally the fifth taboo is identity, which can double for a lot of emotionally charged topics like race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion or disability. Talking about race when there are two races involved can get very tricky, especially when one side has no idea what it's like to face discrimination or marginalization. We all have different identities that we hold onto more tightly than others, and any challenge to those identities can get uncomfortable very quickly.
Sale tells the story of Native Americans in Wyoming who have to answer offensive questions from clueless tourists. Should they correct misperceptions every single time, or pick their battles with the most offensive people? People from privilege have blind spots, and it takes curiosity and humility to be open to the difficult stories that can come from those with different identities. Living in a bubble may feel safer, but people miss out on so much more by not engaging with those who have different perspectives on things.
This book is an eye opener, and took me a long time to digest. As a hopeless optimist, I have a hard time even thinking about pain and uncertainty. But that's where the deepest connections between humans lie. Would I rather be right or happy? I spent a lot of time constructing my views of the world, and to see them disrupted can be seen as an existential threat. Every book like this that I read lets me know that I've got a long way to go, and so I'd definitely rather be happy, even if that involves letting in pain and vulnerability.
Difficult conversations typically don't resolve anything 100%. The troublesome reality remains, but we see it much more clearly. The fear caused by ignorance, loneliness from shame, and hurts of past actions can all be improved by talking about hard things, but it's not easy or instantaneous. That's why they call them hard things.
Here is the author and podcast host explaining more about this idea