Your friend is recently diagnosed with a chronic illness. Your response to this person is:
A. You are so strong; you will be fine.
B. Well at least its chronic and it’s not going to kill you; for now.
C. I get migraines every month and they are worse than anyone else’s.
D. I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine what you are going through. What can I do to help?
You probably picked D because you are so smart and we are playing make believe. I know of plenty of real situations that I didn’t chose “D” because I was coming from a place of defense. Perhaps you can relate.
I received all sorts of comments when greeted in my plaster body cast from my neck to my pelvis, while healing my broken back. I had so much support but I was also aware of how unskillful some people were in offering their version of support. More than once, I heard: “Do you know how lucky you are?”
At twenty-five I cared less about my own honest emotions and more about accommodating others. I just nodded, feeling guilty. “Yup, really lucky.” I could barely go to the bathroom by myself and I really wanted to say was “Shut the **** up!” I didn’t need any reminding of my good fortune. The moment I could wiggle my legs with my body stretched out on the street, as I gazed at the truck that hit me, I figured out how lucky I was, all by myself.
There was no fast-forward button, as is the case with many life circumstances. We need to learn to “be” with them. As supporters, sometimes that means we need to let others “be” with difficulty and serve as witnesses without action. Sometimes we can’t bear to see someone suffering and we want to make it better by going into “fix it” mode, feeling productive as if we are helping. If “fix it” mode doesn’t work we flip the channel to “cheerleader mode”.
If the idea of doing nothing except listening and supporting sounds foreign, it is probably due to a lifetime of patterns of fixing suffering. That is understandable, as nurses, we do it all day long. That magic 5th vital sign, on a scale of 0 to 10, pain is what the patient says it is. What do we do about it? We get rid of it with pharmaceuticals. We are paid professional suffering busters!
However, when you can’t simply “be” with another’s suffering, you are rejecting their experience in a very subtle way. We are turning our back on their pain because WE are uncomfortable. By denying their experience, we are actually creating more suffering for them even though our intention is to remedy their pain.
If we can find a way to quiet the mind and open our heart, there can be so much healing in just listening. Check in with your own emotions and see what comes up. Leave the advice giving until later when they actually ask for it. You may find yourself biting your tongue. Be patient with yourself as it may be challenging to change habitual patterns but as with everything, we get better with practice.
Here is a 3 minute video of Brene Brown explaining the difference between empathy and sympathy. Not only does it have a lot of wisdom, it will also make you laugh.