Under stress, are you a cookie or a teabag?

By Caitlin Kelly


In other words, do you shatter like a cookie/biscuit into helpless crumbs?

Or, like a teabag, as hot water surrounds you, gain strength?

It’s not a question I ask lightly, but one that seems to separate those able to find life pleasurable — even  as it’s filled with inevitable stresses: illness, the death of loved ones, divorce, miscarriage, job loss/search, un/underemployment — and those who choose to sit in a corner, wailing in the fetal position.

I’m aware I may here sound heartless, lacking compassion or understanding.

It’s not for lack of facing a pile o’ stuff in my own life, starting before my teens, that included parental mental illness and alcoholism, abandonment, an often cruel and competitive step-mother, blablablabla.

I’ve been the victim of four acts of criminal behavior. Had four orthopedic surgeries since the year 2000.

I didn’t love getting fired from several jobs and surviving three recessions in 25 years after leaving Canada for the gilded streets of New York.


But I’ve reached the limits of my tolerance for whining, moaning, hand-wringing and helplessness.

If you’re addicted and/or mentally ill and/or barely surviving on poverty wages and/or suffering chronic illness….life can be hard as hell! Anyone facing a serious illness also faces multiple issues at once, and just getting through a day can be an ordeal.

But if you’re blessed with health, strength, saleable skills, (even if they don’t always add up to a well-paid or secure job, the Holy Grail of a crap economy), let alone a family who supports you financially, emotionally or intellectually,  do you step up and do whatever’s necessary to improve your situation?

I do support public policies that help — unemployment insurance, disability pay, and more — and the taxes that pay for them; good people do land in terrible straits.


I recently joined an on-line women’s group that I celebrated here a few weeks ago as a pillar of on-line community. Most of the women in it are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, all decades now behind me. I was excited to find a group filled with fun and interesting people.

It has evolved into something else, a minefield of hurt feelings and expected apologies. Plus, the draaaaaaama! The angst! The unhappiness!

So, whether it’s an issue of age and experience, or personality, or my putative white/middle-class/heterosexual privilege, I just don’t have time.

How much patience do you have for others’ dramas — or your own?

How do you get through tough times?

38 thoughts on “Under stress, are you a cookie or a teabag?

  1. As I’ve collected more life experiences, I’ve found that I actually hold up pretty well under stress. I mean, I might have a moment where I cry in the bathroom or I stress-eat a bag of Doritos, but for the most part the coping mechanisms I’ve developed over the past few years have really served me well. Some of the stuff I see online – the endless raging and ranting – is not part of that toolkit, and in fact actively makes me feel worse. I ended up leaving tumblr several months ago for this very reason. The constant raging about even the most trivial shit was affecting the way I looked at and approached the world, and to what end? It’s not like anything was improved by all of the sturm und drang. I don’t know, I guess I just don’t have the time or the energy to spend hours engaged in that kind of thing anymore.

    1. Thanks for weighing in! Always so cool to have your thoughts here.

      I have no doubt that your athletic commitments (hello, ice bath!?) are also fortifying your spirit and your stamina and endurance, emotionally as well as physically. Fencing saber changed how I thought about anger — in the mid-1990s. So glad of that. Might be worth a blog post.

      People who choose to marinate forever in anger/rage/resentment are toxic, in my view, to themselves and to others. I don’t expect sunny or perky, but…We all have issues, but friends/books/therapy/meditation can help.

      1. I would very much be interested in reading a blog post about that. Please do write it.

        “People who choose to marinate forever in anger/rage/resentment are toxic, in my view, to themselves and to others.”

        Agreed. When I learn a person is like that, I usually end up keeping them at an arm’s length. I might still admire them and like them a lot but I won’t ever allow myself to become close to them.

  2. Ha! I reached this point, and I remember how shaken I felt by my lack of patience (after all, I drove the empathy train!). A very good therapist pointed out that I had discovered my boundaries, and this was an incredibly healthy thing. Boundaries are as structurally integral to compassion as is trying to understand people from their perspective.

    1. So true! For years, decades, I tried to help/save a relative drowning in alcoholism and lousy choices. The day I gave up turned my life into a much happier one. Boundary-setting can be difficult to learn, but so essential to mental health.

  3. Great post…life is overwhelming at times and when that happens to me I seek meditation and some spirituality. This helps me reassess and prioritize before moving forward. I also seek out a professional to complain to so I get some non judgmental opinions!

    1. Thanks!

      I also fear a female (?) pattern of venting/whining/rage-writing that’s meant to be cathartic for some people, but often for me at least, reading or hearing it en masse completely exhausts me. For the past month, I walk every Wednesday morning with a friend and we help each other solve that week’s issues. It’s really helpful, and one on one works better for me.

      A wise therapist or other professional is so helpful.

  4. The little stuff gets to me; the big stuff seems easier for me to handle. Odd, huh? I think it’s because the little day-to-day annoyance sneak up on me when I’m not looking. The big stuff catches my attention. Once I’m aware of my reactions, I can choose to be calm and not cause myself unnecessary suffering. Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway!

    As for drama, there is enough drama in the world about which no one can do (disease, death), so I have very little patience for anyone who creates drama for the heck of it. I know some people can’t live without drama. I stay very far away from those people. They drain me!

    1. I also think this fades with age….I’m in my 50s and a lot of the agony in my 20s, 30s, 40s (career/ lousy first marriage/unproductive friendships, etc) are gone! Yay….The career is not gone but I am calmer and more in control. Thank heaven.

  5. Reading your words made me think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s EAT PRAY LOVE memoir which was, in my opinion, a major whine-fest (albeit well-written) but also an international bestseller! A white, privileged young woman who, after receiving a $200,000 advance from her publisher, whinged and whined her way across 3 continents and wrote about it. What was the appeal for this book? And what does this tell you about Western narcissism, self-indulgence and shallowness?

  6. I once was big on drama, too, namely in my teens until my mid-twenties. There was a point when I just couldn’t take my own drama and that of other people anymore – and instead of whining I started to take a look around and see what actually could be done to put an end to drama. I’m in my late-twenties now and instead of whining I do some thinking/contemplating first. It also helps to have a partner who was born and raised in a developing country who points out what real drama is – namely war, hunger, child labour from the age of 8, and so on…
    I think many people just don’t realize how lucky they are, and that’s why sometimes there is so much drama about things that actually can and will be fixed once they stop whining and start doing things. And the thing is, once you realize you are whining about “nonsense”, it is also harder to take other’s complaints that are similar.
    I agree that health, a supporting social environment and saleable skills are crucial. But many people have all this covered and still are unhappy and still not willing to change what they can so it gets better. Or maybe they just don’t know how.

    1. Thanks for this perspective! So true…

      My husband grew up with little money, attended university on full scholarship and is far more appreciative of his (hard won) good fortune than many people I meet. My week in Nicaragua this March was also a powerful reminder of how incredibly affluent (comparably) even middle class Americans still are.

  7. ThinkBradical

    I think my 20’s were really about figuring out the kind of people I wanted to be around. Not to say I’ve got it down, I’m sure I’ll allow some drama into my life throughout the rest of it, but I really try to only surround myself with people who bring the best out of me: those who are positive, inspiring and happy. What’s funny is it’s selfish, but it leads me to being genuinely more selfless. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  8. I have little patience for drama but it seems like some people thrive on it. I’m in a private group on Facebook for cult survivors and drama cycles through the group on a regular basis. The core group members are great about being supportive and humorous and it’s generally a fun place to be if you remember that the drama-seeking & drama-causers will drift away eventually.

  9. I dunk my cookie in my tea and I’m golden. But seriously, I find that people exhibiting these behaviors lack perspective and sometimes more. I don’t have time for it even if sometimes there are benefits. It’s never worth it.You are not heartless.

    1. 🙂

      I suspect none of us is all one thing, all the time. We do crumble. But the people I truly admire are those who are resilient and resourceful…illness is disastrous and wrecks many of our other support systems. But keeping a sense of perspective is important, I think, when things are relatively difficult.

  10. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Caitlin, I’m almost 50. I could say I crumbled easily when it came to relationships with men. Think it has something to do with my upbringing, yada, yada, yada. The thing is…life goes on. You’re either moving along with it or you’re sinking deeper and slowly marching toward death. Hell no! Drama is for the birds. It’s always a new day, my dear. I love your posts.

  11. I try not to do drama of my own. I find drama generally makes me tired and ill, if not actually depressed, so I do my best not to engage. If someone is in trouble and I can help, or listen sympathetically, I’ll do what I can, but I do not participate. Sometimes that has meant walking away from people.

    I can do ‘tea bag’ a lot of the time – i respond well to challenges. What turns me into a soggy biscuit is spending too long on unwinnable fights, other people’s drama, and overloads of physical pain. However, I’ve learned when to step back and have some ‘being pathetic’ days, and I find if I give myself space to whimper and lick wounds, I heal and become able to return to the fight, rather than cycling down into further dysfunction. We all have our limits, some of us have triggers as well, some of us are more well, or more damaged than others, so I try not to judge anyone else. That also helps reduce the drama.

    1. Thanks…lots to think about in your comment…

      I’ve chosen to end a few friendships and family relationships when people behaved like that. I would try to help and finally realized, they don’t want it. But listening to endless negativity (esp. from a position of privilege) was too much for me.

      Great point about triggers. I had an experience two days ago, a near-miss accident in a parking lot (of all things) that shook me deeply based on another incident. The driver of our car had no clue why I could be so upset.

      I plan to take a “hooky day” this week to just recharge. That helps, when possible.

  12. Found myself to be a teabag. Didn’t ask to be one. But there it is. Little patience for drama of any kind. Recently reached out to help a good friend who is ill with cancer and one of her other friends was snippy because she wanted to be in charge of the “announcement” and request for help. She wanted to bask in the glow of having a friend with Cancer, capital C. Ugh. I hate that. It’s glory by association. Earning sainthood is not be done publicly. So I guess you and I are peas in a pod. That said, I have the utmost empathy for those truly struggling. And those trying to dig themselves out of a hole.

    1. I suspect many fellow journo’s are also pretty drama-averse. If you can’t just get ON with it, you will never survive our profession.

      I so agree about public acts of “look how generous I am!” I did actually take the bodhisattva vows in summer 2011 but have not blogged it…for that reason. 🙂

  13. Some good questions and some very good answers here. One of the best things I have learned is to say, “It’s not my problem and I’m not going to make it my problem.” When I encounter dramatics I often simply say, “Get over it.” Of course, I have the advantage of being old enough that it no longer matters to me what people think of me. I long ago gave up trying to please everybody. An old cowboy song comes to mind that said, in part, “They say I drink whiskey, well, my money’s my own and them that don’t like me can leave me alone.”
    Now that I’ve said that, please, please . don’t say bad things about me. I would simply die if I thought you didn’t like me. Please tell me it’s okay or I won’t be able to sleep tonight.

    1. 🙂

      I recently heard a version of this — “Not my monkeys, not my circus”…or “Tend your own garden”. I do say “get over it” but it also assumes the person has the capacity to do so. Some do, some just don’t.

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