How I respond to the “Everything Sucks” phone call
Dr. Lisa Damour's metaphor changed how I approach my young adults' venting sessions
This post contains affiliate links. Read my affiliate link policy here.
I don’t seek out much parenting advice these days, but one expert I consistently nod along with is clinical psychologist, academic and author, Dr. Lisa Damour. Her new book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents, just came out last week. I haven’t read it yet, but I eagerly await it from the library.
Lisa co-hosts the Ask Lisa podcast where she answers parents’ questions in her relatable, practical, straightforward way. Recently, she answered a question that made a light bulb go off in my head. I’ll get back to that shortly. First, some context.
This is Parent of Adults by Asha Dornfest, a newsletter for parents who wonder what’s beyond the empty nest. Subscribe to receive new posts.
The “everything sucks” phone call
My adults don’t call often. One’s a busy student; the other is a college graduate navigating the early months of independent life. Add the million things they’ve got going on to the generational allergy to phone conversation and I have a damn quiet phone. Maybe I should switch their ringtones to crickets chirping! Ha ha, empty nest humor!
Point is: when they call, it’s often to problem-solve, and the conversation often begins with a litany of complaints about how EVERYTHING SUCKS.
The “everything sucks” phone call was a regular feature of my son’s freshman year. He’d often call in the evening when my energy was lowest, full of frustration and WTF.
Look, I get it. He was adjusting to new academic and social pressures and dining hall food and a cramped triple dorm room with a problematic roommate, etc., etc. Things did kind of suck. I was there for him and proud of him, and I really did sympathize.
These dump sessions were hard on me.
I’d breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth. Some days I could listen, but other days I felt my tolerance leaking out of my ears and my anxiety going through the roof.
I had about three minutes of tight-lipped silence in me till I shifted into “helpful suggestion” mode. This usually made things worse and brought the conversation to a rapid end with a clipped goodbye. I felt drained and inadequate and self-righteous and disappointed I wasn’t hearing more good news.
One time he complained about stuff his roommate did that he used to do himself when he lived at home. “Can you believe that?!” he said, and I wanted to reply, as my Hulu boyfriend Bradley Whitford as Captain Lawrence in The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 said to Serena:
Do you have an irony deficiency??
I went through something similar with my daughter. Her “everything sucks” phone calls differed in tone but were similar in function.
We were all in bumpy transition — them, adjusting to the pressures of independence; me, adjusting to the pressures of parenting remotely.
Back to Lisa’s podcast
Lisa recently fielded this question from the parent of a fifth grader:
My kid complains constantly. How do I get him to stop?
This parent is over it. And even though I rarely get “everything sucks” phone calls now, I HAD TO LISTEN TO THIS PODCAST IMMEDIATELY.
The emotional garbage bag
Lisa and her co-host Reena Ninan riff and commiserate in a way that’s validating without blaming. At 3:40, Lisa put forth her “Grand Theory of Complaining.” She reframed the “everything sucks” dump session as a healthy tool for disposing of what she calls “emotional garbage:” the residue of stresses that build up over time.
Then she offered parents a way to interpret their role on the receiving end.
You want to picture yourself opening an emotional garbage bag, right? You are there just to collect all the energy debris of the day.
Holding the emotional garbage bag! That’s something I can do! It’s an act of service! I can do this for my kids!
I know they’re keeping it together like heroes as they navigate the obstacle courses of their lives. I know they need a way to release the pressure that builds throughout their days and weeks.
I know this because I need to empty my emotional garbage, too. We all have days when we don’t want advice. We just want a little acknowledgement and validation and sympathy, and then we can move on with our lives, ready to face another day.
But there was still a problem
The problem was, when my kids were done “discarding,” they’d walk away feeling lighter but I was in the dumps. Sometimes for the rest of the evening. You could say I was left holding the bag.
AND THAT’S WHEN I REALIZED THE TRUE GENIUS OF LISA’S GARBAGE BAG METAPHOR.
I had mistaken holding the garbage bag for becoming the garbage bag myself.
That’s right, I mistook myself for a garbage bag
I’m not calling myself garbage here. What I’m saying is that I took on the emotional weight of my kids’ complaints when it wasn’t necessary. They weren’t trying to shove their garbage feelings onto me; they simply needed a safe and reliable way to get rid of the garbage feelings.
In other words, my job was not to take those feelings in and make them my own (raising my blood pressure and killing my mood).
My job was to collect the emotional refuse in the garbage bag, seal it up, and throw it away in the can outside.
Reframing “emotional energy transfer” in this way helped me figure out how to be a better listener while safeguarding my own energy.
Of course, it still doesn’t feel great. I still get tripped up by anxiety when my kids struggle. Not as often as before, and I recover more quickly, but it’s there.
I appreciate that Lisa offered this advice and also acknowledged how hard it can be to implement.
But it did help. So did Lisa’s reminder that I’m not alone in this.
And neither are you.
Can you relate? How to you approach “everything sucks” dump sessions?
The New York Times just reviewed The Emotional Lives of Teenagers (gift link). I have a problem with the review’s opening lines but it does include this: “[The book explores] one of the most perplexing hallmarks of teenagerhood: Why would my kid tell me the most horrible thing that’s going on in his life, rant about it, forbid me from doing anything to solve the issue — and then feel better, while I am left with another sleepless night?”
Yup, I've been working on stopping the automatic reaction to this stuff as a To Do List to fix whatever the problem/vent is about...which would sometimes lead to me complaining to myself (and ok, my husband) that no one (my parents) ever did this for me & I figured it out, blah blah blah. AKA quiet internal resentment...even though no one actually ASKED me to do anything. So in reality, I should resent myself, not them. LOL. I'm learning to sit with their discomfort & feel grateful that they want to talk about any of it. Basically, I'm learning to pause. It's hard to let go of the worry bag.
I am "Supermom: Solver of All Problems". It took too long to realize that I needed to do more listening than talking, primarily with my son. Now I remember to ask, "What's my job here? To solve your problem, to tell you how to solve your problem, or just listen?" Clarifying my role has improved our relationship immensely!