I was lying in bed this morning and for some reason started thinking about how, when someone we care about is suffering or is experiencing something we perceive as suffering, we can buy into their emotions and/or feel as though we need to fix it.
I used to be a “fixer”. I wanted to fix everyone’s problems for them. I would enter into what I imagined their pain would be, experience it as stress in my body and mind, and try to fix their problem. This would happen spontaneously without any effort on my part. Commonly known as empathy I believe. I probably felt quite noble really. I thought it was a sign of emotional depth to have the capacity to feel another’s pain.
What I didn’t realise for a long time was the price I paid for being that way. I didn’t realise that while it was more evolved to be like that than to live selfishly and oblivious to someone else’s pain, there was actually a better way to be.
Living with Ian, his illness and subsequent death taught me a vital lesson. It wasn’t my pain, it wasn’t my suffering, and I was a lot more able to support him when I didn’t take it on.
I guess none of us like pain or suffering ourselves, and when we care for someone we see them as an extension of ourselves and therefore want them to be pain-free too. (Plus, to be brutally honest, it makes our lives a whole lot more comfortable if people we care about aren’t suffering). The faulty thinking in this scenario is that they are not an extension of us. They are individual free standing human beings. This means that they don’t think, experience or see life exactly the same as we do. We can only imagine what they are feeling, can only imagine what their suffering is, but our imagining is only that….. imagining.
Imagination is great. As Albert Einstein said “Logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you anywhere”. However, like anything to do with our minds, we need to use our imagination wisely, and not let it use us.
If we have been in a similar painful situation at some point, we also tend to project the emotions we felt when we experienced it, onto the person who is now going through the situation and relive our own pain. This was very apparent when my partner Ian died. I did not experience grief. In fact I would go so far as to say that I entered a period of Bliss where I saw that everything unfolded perfectly in the universe, in perfect timing, I loved everyone and believed everyone loved me. I was full of joy, and yet people would come to me in tears feeling sorry for me, mourning for my loss and sharing my grief when in fact that was not what I was experiencing. They were re-living their own grief or imagining how I would feel. I even had a counselor tell me that I would experience grief that would come over me like a tsunami and recede – repeatedly. When I told her that this wasn’t my experience, she told me that it would come. Well, that was almost 5 years ago and I still haven’t experienced it like that.
I used to be a sucker for emotional pain. Not so much physical pain because I haven’t experienced much of that so I couldn’t really imagine it well, but I could imagine emotional pain because I have experienced plenty of it. So if someone came to me in emotional pain, I would be diving right in with them. I’d be feeling it too. My mind bought into it, and before I knew it my body was feeling it too. I’d get a pit in my stomach, my muscles would tighten, my heart rate increase, palms sweaty, heavy feeling in my solar plexus. I’d be right there in a state of stress and anxiety. “I’m with you sister – I’m feeling it too”. But it was a totally misguided attempt at solidarity….
Instead of one person suffering, we now had two!
Two people in a state of anxiety. Two immune systems suppressed as two bodies prepare for flight or fight. Two bodies enveloped in negative energy.
Where is the benefit in that?
I did this for the first 40 years of my life, and the rewards I reaped were anxiety, stress, burnout and eventually cancer.
Bit of a disappointing reward for helping others and being a kind person I thought.
There is nothing wrong with helping others and being kind. Absolutely not. There is nothing bad about crying with someone in a moment of pain. But we need to be very clear about what is our pain and what is their pain. Their pain is not our pain and we do not need to take it on to be a good support for them. In fact the opposite is true. We can be much more present with them, much more clear thinking if we have not entered into their pain. And this is even more important in a situation like a loved one having cancer or some other chronic or long term illness or problem, because if we buy into their pain over a long period of time, we are going to risk our own emotional and physical health. And that isn’t smart.. or helpful.
As I am writing, I remember that Byron Katie has written about this in her book A thousand Names for Joy, so I find the book and search through it. This is what she says: “Some people think that compassion means feeling another person’s pain. That’s nonsense. It’s not possible to feel another person’s pain. You imagine what you’d feel in their shoes and you feel your own projections. What I love about separate bodies is that when you hurt, I don’t – it’s not my turn. And when I hurt you don’t. Can you be there for me without putting your own suffering between us? Your suffering can’t show me the way. Suffering can only teach suffering.”
Maybe I should have just quoted her straight up and left it at that! She writes so succinctly.
I learnt this through living with Ian. I realised that if I didn’t change the way I thought, his suffering became my suffering and that wasn’t helpful to either of us.
If you are in this position, try to be aware of how your body is feeling. Our emotions become physical in the body due to the release of chemicals, so if your body has symptoms of stress when you are supporting someone in pain be it physical or emotional, be aware that you are reacting to their stress and emotion. Being aware is always the beginning to changing your mind.
We need to remember that how we are feeling emotionally and physically is our experience only. We need to own it and remember that because it is our experience we have the power to change it by changing the way we think.