by guest blogger Pam Fullerton, psychotherapist and writer
I learned something valuable this week that I would like to share it with you. But first, a little reflection on something I wrote last week, because it’s connected to what I learned this week.
In a recent post on my blog 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 who’s suffering.
In this same vein, I also 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 with his disease. He said no one could empathize unless they’d also had cancer. I think what he was trying to say was that he felt people didn’t understand what he was going through during his incredible challenge with the disease. 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.
However, 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 find a connection. Tom may not know it, but because of his painful experience, he will be more empathetic to those suffering, even though he may not have had the same exact experience.
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 Brené Brown’s Ted Talk, entitled “The Power of Vulnerability.” It resonated with her. She recognized that she’s learned over the years to numb her emotions so that she never feels hurt, sadness, shame, or any of those icky feelings. But what she learned was that when we shut down our negative emotions, we also shut down the positive ones. 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 typically 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.
Anger 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 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 rather if she was disappointed in the person. She said, “Yes, you’re right, I didn’t feel the disappointment you described. 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 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 also 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 for her. 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 comforted by my tearful expression of empathy, but felt uncomfortable with it. 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’s 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—even feeling your emotions—eventually, it will be in your comfort zone. 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, things like joy, happiness, and excitement. 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’ll stay with the pain for a few minutes. That’s a gift that you’re giving to them. Don’t be afraid when you sit with someone in his or her pain. Mostly, we fear sitting with people in their pain because it may take us to our own pain that we want to avoid, or 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, or friend, I fear the same thing. I don’t like feeling helpless, inadequate, lost, or frightened. But I do know that whether it’s at work or at home, when I sit with people in their emotions, they know I care, and they know I love them. And eventually, empathetic listening does help a person move out of his or her pain. I have to trust knowing that being with people in their pain will eventually get them through; I have to trust and sit with my feelings of fear and helplessness.
BUT I’ve learned that what I see as comfort by being with someone in his or her pain and feeling his or her pain (empathy) is not comfortable for everyone. For some, it provides comfort, and for others it’s frightening. I know that people are uncomfortable with emotions. I know that people do not like vulnerability. But I’ve learned that for some—not all—when I feel their pain with them, there is no denying the pain. If I feel it, I become a mirror for them. They feel it.
Empathy allows people 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.
*Details of the stories told in my blog have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
Pam Fullerton has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for the past 19 years. Although she works with a variety of life issues that are presented to her in therapy, her passion is to understand the vast complexities of all relationships. She believes that healthy connections with others are what promote personal growth. Keep up with her writings on relationships, mindfulness, and more by subscribing here.