I learned something valuable this week and I would like to share it with you. But, first, a little reflection on last week’s blog post because it is connected to what I learned this week.
In my blog post last week I wrote about “How to respond to those we love when they are in pain“. I’ve had a few people thank me for the words I suggested because they don’t always know what to say to someone when they are suffering. In this same vein, I recently watched a Dateline episode about Newscaster, Tom Brokaw, who shared his experience and what he learned through his recent battle with cancer. One thing he found upsetting was how people responded to him as he suffered endlessly with his disease. He said no one could empathize unless they had cancer. I think what he was trying to say was that he felt that people did not understand what he was going through during his incredible challenge with cancer. I believe that he may have experienced people “trying to make someone feel better when they are suffering” which ultimately made him feel as if people did not understand what he was going through. But, you can be empathetic even if you’ve never had cancer. You can tap into something painful in your life to try to understand another person’s pain, it may not be the same, but you can still connect with another person’s pain. He may not know it, but because of his painful experience he will be more empathetic to those in pain even though he has not had the same experience that they have had.
All of this being said; this is what I learned this week. I work with someone in therapy and her focus is to be more aware of her emotions. I had her watch Brene Brown’s Ted Talk entitled, “The Power of Vulnerability“. It resonated with her. She recognized that she has learned over the years to numb her emotions so that she never feels hurt, sadness, shame or any of those icky emotions. But what she learned was that when we shut down our negative emotions, we also shut down the positive ones as well. You can’t pick and choose which emotions you shut down.
Over the course of our hour together she recalled a time when she was angry. Most people can feel anger even if they numb themselves to emotions because anger is only a response to feeling those other feelings. You know, the ones that we don’t want to feel such as fear, shame and hurt. Anger is what we feel second, we always feel something else first, but there are times when we completely bypass those feelings that we don’t want to feel and go straight to anger. But it was a place to start with her. So I asked her to go back to the time when she was angry. I asked her to try to remember what she felt. She said she felt disappointment. My intuition told me that was not what she felt. I described what it felt like to feel disappointment. For me, it hits me hard. I feel a lack of energy, a heavy feeling, almost as if I am walking through quicksand. I asked her if she felt disappointment or if she was disappointed in the person. She said, “Yes you are right, I didn’t feel the disappointment that you describe. I was disappointed in this person.”
She sat a bit longer remembering when she was angry. Then her eyes welled up with tears; she said, “I was hurt.” My eyes welled up with tears too as they often do when I feel another person’s pain. I could feel her pain. We talked about why she was hurt. We went a bit further as she recognized that the hurt that she experienced in response to this person was an emotional trigger (read Facebook post from 2/18) from the past. As we talked through this experience, I asked her how she felt when she saw my eyes tear up. (This is where my learning began.) She said it frightened her; you could have knocked me over with a feather. I asked her “why” and she said, “Because it made the hurt real, I couldn’t deny it, I couldn’t run from it, I couldn’t numb it.” Ahhhh yes, she had to feel it and then talk about it. She had not done this for so very long, so not only was it real, but it was frightening. If you’ve numbed yourself for so long, your fear becomes “Can I handle these emotions?”
I asked her if she could try to find comfort in my being present with her in her emotions. I picked up my iPad and a pen; I told her that many therapists take notes during sessions. I asked her if I had been taking notes and showing no emotion, how would that feel. She said “actually better.” Again, you could have knocked me over with a feather. She said it would have felt better because, as I said earlier, she could have run from the feelings. She said she didn’t feel comfort but uncomfortable. Of course she did, she was vulnerable, she was out of her comfort zone. I was in it with her, I was feeling her pain and she was feeling her pain. She would have rather done what was familiar which was to run. But she is brave, and she said “but I need to do this.” One of my favorite mantras is “comfort zones are expanded through discomfort”. If you allow yourself to be uncomfortable with anything, eventually it will be in your comfort zone, even feeling our emotions. And one of the big payoffs is that once you allow yourself to feel the scary emotions, you get to feel the positives ones as well, such as joy, happiness, excitement and so on. They return.
So here’s the lesson, if you respond to someone as I suggested in my previous blog when they are in pain, and they want to run, let them run. But maybe, just maybe they won’t run. The only way to get through painful experiences is to go through them, to feel them. Maybe they will stay with the pain for a few minutes, that is a gift that you are giving to them. Don’t be afraid when you sit with someone in his or her pain. Mostly we fear sitting with someone in their pain because it may take us to our pain that we want to avoid, or as I said in last week’s blog, we feel helpless. There are times when I get scared when I sit with someone in their pain, especially the deep dark places that make us feel like we can never come back from the dark. As a therapist, I fear that I won’t be able to help. As a wife, mother and friend, I fear the same thing. I don’t like feeling helpless, inadequate, lost, or frightened. But I do know that whether it is at work or home, when I sit with someone in their emotions, they know I care, and they know I love them. And eventually, it does help a person move out of their pain. I have to trust knowing that being with a person in their pain will eventually get them through; I have to trust and sit with my feelings of fear and helplessness.
BUT, I learned that what I see as comfort by being with someone in his or her pain, and feeling his or her pain (empathy), this is not comfortable for everyone. For some, it is comfort and for others it is frightening. I know that people are uncomfortable with emotions. I know that people do not like vulnerability. But I learned that for some, not all, when I feel a person’s pain with them, there is now no denying the pain. If I feel it, I become a mirror for them, they feel it. But that is okay as long as they can stay in it with you. Empathy allows a person to feel emotionally safe with you, they know you won’t hurt them or judge them when they reveal their pain to you. And isn’t that what all of us want? To be understood, not judged, and cared for when we are in pain.
And you can keep up with my writing on relationships, random thoughts and more by subscribing here. I’m here to help and to know that you are out there reading means so much to me!Share