By Jane B. Mayer
A wise friend and I were discussing the difficult time so many folks are having right now. We spoke of how extending support and empathy to another often activates discomfort (and sometimes even shame) in the person on the receiving end of that care.
We spoke of our own knee-jerk responses when sympathy/empathy is offered to us:
- “Oh thanks, but really, I am fine. Other people have it so much worse than I do.”
- “I mean, I know everyone loses their parents, I will get through this.”
- “Whatever, I am so pathetic. I just need to regroup and get on with it.”
These statements are sometimes uttered aloud. These statements sometimes race through our minds.
We receive sympathy or empathy and sometimes, we get uncomfortable.
- We aren’t that bad off.
- We aren’t that unable to walk through what we are going through.
- If we had our proverbial sh*t together, we wouldn't be so upset anyway.
The problem is that, in the moment, this stands solidly against the reality of how we feel.
There are times in life when things are hard, when things feel hard.
There are times when we are in pain or discomfort of so many kinds: sadness, fear, anger, frustration, and sometimes just a melange of all of those emotions put together.
Every moment isn’t right for intellectualizing, solving or comparison, sometimes we just need to be seen, and we need the kind words that another human being extends to us.
We humans are wired for connection. We come out of the womb as babies seeking connection. This need never ends for us in our human journey. We can turn the need down, we can learn (often early on) how to push it away, but we need connection. Without it, we often have a lingering discomfort, a sense that something is off and it can be expressed through malaise or anxious, compulsive thinking, shopping, drinking, exercising, low-level repetitive and compulsive ______ (insert behavior here).
A kind word, a sense of being heard and offered support can be medicine. Sometimes medicine doesn’t taste or feel good going in, and yet…we need it.
Sometimes compassion and attention make us uncomfortable because we might believe that those words are reserved for someone who is really suffering. But that isn’t how we are built. We are built for connection when things are good and when things are hard. We are built for connection, period.
Just because someone offers you compassion, doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering enough to deserve it.
Just because someone offers you empathy, doesn’t mean you are damaged.
The next time someone offers you a kind word, try to take a pause. Give yourself permission to stand in that compassion and love, and feel it.
In this pause is where we exchange humanity, where we exchange the necessary medicine of surviving this road called life.