A person I love works hard, against difficult odds, to achieve a goal. It doesn’t happen. This person feels disappointment. I feel it too, and regret: perhaps if I’d followed up on an idea I had months ago the odds could have been reduced, this sadness prevented. I allowed others to dissuade me, wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure, and feel churned up, sad.
Another friend tells me there’s no point in looking back and feeling regret, no point thinking about what I should have done. What’s done is done. Go forward.
Of course, I know there’s truth in that, but instead of easing my ache, it adds a sense of being slapped over the knuckles. I don’t feel supported, but misunderstood.
I write in my journal, letting sadness and confusion spill onto the pages. I notice grief about lost dreams: dreams that aren’t mine but that I’ve been carrying the way we so often carry dreams for someone else. Memories of my own losses, my own broken dreams, mingle with a longing to prevent that pain happening to someone else.
As I journal, I notice thoughts swirling around, saying, “You shouldn’t be like this. You shouldn’t be upset.”
I realise these thoughts have been there all day, and have the same meaning as those my friend spoke. All she’d done was give voice to the words that were running around my mind, chasing each other, tripping me up.
Writing them down brings my mind to a stop. I see the self-criticisms for what they are: echoes of the past.
I allow the sadness, the grief. As I welcome it into awareness, it shatters into a million particles. They reform into relief, release, calmness.
The worst is over.
As my own grief subsides, I open my arms to the person who needs support. We sit together, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Just loving.
That night, as I lie in bed, the particles reform into waves that hit me again. They are less intense, and I feel grateful to realise my emotions have softened.
It’s easy, even when we practice mindfulness, to think that we should always feel calm and never anxious. But emotions come and go, and neither pretending we don’t have them nor trying to get rid of them helps us or our relationships.
I’m in the middle of reading Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden. It’s an insightful book and clarifies a lot of things for me – such as why my friend said what she did. I don’t blame her. I’ve done the same thing – tried to soothe someone’s sadness away by telling them to think differently, without really listening to what they are saying. It’s such common practice that I doubt any of us haven’t done it.
Why is it that we feel so uncomfortable not just with exploring our own short-comings, but also with hearing someone else explore theirs? Why do we rush in with poorly thought through reassurances? Far from it being unhelpful to look back over what I wished I’d done a few months ago, it helped me resolve to do it now – when it might still make a difference.
In Mindful Compassion, Gilbert and Choden say that sometimes our capacity to feel compassion is blocked because we cannot tolerate another person’s distress. We feel so overwhelmed by suffering that instead of turning towards people in pain we deny or suppress it. So to be able to help others, we first need to be able to cope with seeing them suffer.
That’s not always so easy and the closer you are to someone, the harder it can be. Many of us just aren’t able to do it – at least not all the time. We might be going through our own stress and seeing someone else suffer just feels too much. Or we remember some difficulty from the past and assume the person will have that happen again now. In our inability to handle it, we cause other people added pain. In our rush to deny, minimise or reassure, we can invalidate the other person’s reality.
Gilbert and Choden make a distinction between sympathy and empathy. They see sympathy as an emotional reaction that comes spontaneously when we see someone else suffer. It’s not something we think about, it just happens. We feel moved to alleviate that suffering, though the actions we take aren’t always helpful.
Empathy, on the other hand, requires thought. We imagine what it might be like to be that person, to walk in their shoes. This enables us to understand the causes of a person’s suffering more deeply. Though they also point out that empathy can be used for cruel purposes as well as compassionate – a torturer who can empathise will put the gun to your child’s head rather than to yours. Still, I can’t imagine you plan to use empathy to torture anyone, so go ahead and cultivate it!
The point is that to be able to be with someone when they are in the midst of negative emotions is a hugely important skill that all of us would be wise to learn. I know that there have been times I’ve made things worse by feeling panicked at someone else’s panic, and I also know that when someone either dismisses my emotions or tries to stop me feeling them it doesn’t make them go away.
So what can we do when someone else is going through the pits? I make mistakes and say things that people don’t like – but I also sometimes manage to find words that help. I’ve helped people through panic attacks; I’ve stayed calm while people yelled at me, until they calmed too – sometimes without me saying a word.
This is what I find helps:
Stay in tune with your own emotions, and let the other person have theirs. It’s not my job to stop your emotions and not yours to stop mine.
It’s not my job to stop your emotions and not yours to stop mine.Tweet
Allow your own emotions, welcome them even. As much as you are able to, give yourself compassion for feeling how you do. This in itself makes a huge difference. When we are so busy trying not to feel how we do, we can’t bear any added burden. When we feel loving towards ourselves, compassionate through our pain, we are able to cope with someone else’s feelings.
So, how on earth do you welcome emotions when what you feel is burning rage or trembling fear? Won’t that make them even worse? Oddly enough, no. It’s very easy to think that allowing an emotion means expressing or indulging it. But venting isn’t the same as allowing anger, and hiding in a cupboard isn’t allowing fear.
Allowing an emotion just means not resisting it, letting it be there – and letting it pass through. That’s exactly what I did when I wrote in my journal and instead of making things worse, it brought insights and relief. After I’d done that, I was able to bear the other person’s upset more easily, and to help work out possible solutions.
We mostly hold onto negative emotions like anger or fear because we think we shouldn’t feel them. Makes no sense? Well, in a warped way it does – if we think we shouldn’t feel angry, afraid or sad, we get into an argument with ourselves – our minds flip from trying to force ourselves to feel differently to justifying why we feel how we do. It feels horrible.
There’s a scientific explanation for why this keeps us stuck. When you feel fear or anger, the fight or flight response is activated. Tell yourself off for that and it’s going to keep getting more intense. Allow your emotions instead, and it gives your nervous system a chance to become calmer.
The same applies to other people. Tell them they shouldn’t feel how they do, and they’ll most likely feel even worse. The chances are they might not even hear what you say, because they’re too busy listening to the anxious thoughts running through their own mind. Allow them to feel as they do, offer them loving support, and they will begin to feel calmer. Then they will be far more likely to hear your wonderful words of wisdom!
This isn’t always easy to do – we’re so tuned to thinking we need to take care of others that we forget that starts with taking care of ourselves. But it is so, so worth it!
This post is for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion’s August theme of Blessing, and for the #BeReal Relationships initiative.