After a tale of childhood woe, abandonment and grief, she lifts her head and says; but I don’t want people feeling sorry for me.” Between the lines I hear “not even you, the therapist, the kind listener who I pay to treat me with respect and compassion”.
Why? Because somewhere along the journey we might have come to learn that support is not to be trusted. Despite the longing to be ‘seen’ in our valiant struggle against the pain, protecting our integrity and strength always wins out. For my client I will have to prove that my compassion is pure and not contaminated by my own needs before she will mellow enough to show her vulnerability.
Not trusting others to understand
We fear having our carefully constructed coping armour dismantled by one kind word, or one kind look. And yes, that may stop us from inviting the care and compassion that we so badly need. I think the journey from being pathologically independent to allowing yourself to be vulnerable and fragile is a heroic one. But our internal ‘Survivor’ will only register defeat and danger. First we need to learn that there is a grey zone between being an out and out ‘Survivor’ and a total ‘Gibbering Wreck’ (the latter being the ‘Survivor’s biggest nightmare). From trusting no-one the journey is not to trusting everyone, it is to learn to trust, sometimes just one single ‘someone’.
So in comfort to those of you bravely struggling to cope with the curve balls that Life has thrown you at this time, allow yourself the privilege of being selective in who you trust or not. But if you trust no one, then welcome the opportunity to practise moving a little closer to the grey zone. Below I set out the behaviours of the people you will have to try and avoid and in doing so I hope to explain to those of us who so badly want to help, why our comfort not always heals.
When the psyche is rubbed raw with worry and pain, or grief, we become acutely attuned to the tone of the compassion being offered. This makes you highly alert to any note of falseness, selfishness, or hidden agendas.
What feels good is the strong embrace, physical or ‘virtual’ that tenderly ‘holds’ the part that hurts. It won’t threaten your composure, but if you were to choose to fall apart for a moment, you would be safe and not exploited.
However, this may be an experience that the inner ‘Survivor’ will never let you have once you believe all expressions of compassion and support are contaminated. The unhelpful others, and we have all those people t some point, contaminate their offers of sympathy in a number of ways:
- They may infect their compassion with the fear that this might happen to them, or their loved ones. The “I am so sorry for you” has an undertone of “I am so relieved it is not me”. If you are having a hard time, then your raw radar will pick up the vibe immediately. In the embrace of a well-meaning but unhelpful other we end up comforting their fear, expending energy we need for our own process. I say we have ALL been that unhelpful other at some point, because it is human to hear of adversity and thank whatever divinity, fate or luck you subscribe to for the fact that the hand of adversity passed your door.
- Then there are those that seem to smell another’s adversity and vulnerability a mile away and come running. They offer well-meaning love and support but perhaps your need is not at the forefront of their enthusiasm. It is their own need to feel important, to feel wanted, to feel needed that generates their compassion and so woe betide anyone who tries to come through and out the other end. Far too many of us therapists have had to admit that their inspiration to help others comes from a deep seated need to be ‘needed’ and every one of us has had to do the inner work that allows us to see our clients right through the process, from wounded and vulnerable, even dependent, to strong and able to be carried on their own wings.
- Then of course there are those that ask you to bypass the pain or offer it to a Higher Order, since ‘everything happens for a reason’. I believe there are events in this world that are unreasonable, random, and unacceptable. Yes, we may choose to attribute meaning to an painful event after having first experienced its pain and challenges. For inspiration read Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wonderful book Man’s Search for Meaning. I may be biased, but I feel that all too often ‘everything happens for a reason’ is a glib cop out from standing by someone as they do the hard Existential work of choosing between bitterness or light.
Console by all means, but let’s do our own work first
So before we offer solace of any kind, let’s take a little time to go through our own brief process of fear and relief before we approach the person we would like to support. And when we don’t know what to say, let’s say nothing. Don’t offer platitudes or kitchen tile wisdoms to make you feel less comfortable…
BE uncomfortable with the other… adversity IS uncomfortable and unsettling. Make yourself empty enough to resonate and be filled with the need of the other, for a brief time, and then we let it go.
And if we can’t muster that, as a friend of mine recently experienced, when the final stages of a relative’s terminal illness came too close to reawakening her own experiences, we should have the courage, as she did, to say ‘no for now’. Better to support from a pure place, than to add to the burdens of the person having a hard time.
Perhaps the expression should be “I feel strong for you”, because after all that is what we need so badly when the going is tough.
We need others that stand firm, to make no demands on our patience or our time, and to accept us just as we are; strong when we’re strong, wobbly when we’re not. And these others do exist, and they will gradually help bring the out and out ‘Survivors’ into the grey zone where each human being belongs; powerfully vulnerable, and vulnerably powerful!