Don’t make me prove my pain.
At some point we established the belief that empathy is too expensive to give out.
We falsely believe that empathy is damaging to self reliance and independence, and so we tell each other to suck it up – or challenge someone’s hardship with our own opinion of what could be worse.
But I would say that devaluing someone’s emotions is the surest way to emotionally abuse them into damaging habits.
Our primary form of communicating the abstract and complicated components of our experience is through our speech – our stories – it is our duty to each other to believe these stories (about our emotional experience) because this is the how we reach out our minds to hold hands.
“I doubt it.”
I grew up with friends and boyfriends who rarely believed that my emotional state could be as bad as I said it was.
Unfortunately, mental health awareness and support are recent trends that certainly didn’t exist in my neighbourhood until after a series of shocking suicides. So when I was depressed at 12, it was taken as my admission to the “emo group”. My moments of utter existential despair and overwhelming grief were translated into an act in order to back up my (supposed) gloomy music tastes.
Then, in high school and beyond, my emotional roller coasters have been treated by some to be a ploy for attention, a false exaggeration, or an attempt to keep up with the trend of suicidal ideation (that is horrifically spreading through schools).
In intimate relationships (with roommates and partners) I was told that I came from a dramatic family and that I probably didn’t really want to die.
When our expressions of sadness are ignored, our feelings of loneliness are reinforced and we have to search out even more drastic ways to tell our message.
I began to think that the only way people would believe that I was depressed was if I cut myself. I would write “help me” in sharpie on the underside of my arm, only to wash it off before anyone could see. Occasionally I would have a rebellious thought that I would just kill myself so that “they” would finally believe me. On top of the very real genetic hormone imbalances that I was dealing with, I also had the added guilt and confusion of being ignored when I was at my most vulnerable.
I don’t know why emotions need to be validated, but I do know that when they are not we become starved beings who will do anything to find the soft comfort of empathy.
Self Reliance Is NOT Damaged By Empathy
In a particularly unhealthy relationship, my boyfriend told me that he didn’t support me (by hugging or talking etc) when I was having a panic attack because he wanted to make me stronger and encourage me to change.
But like a plant, my motivation to grow and bloom comes only from within my own stems and I was struggling to survive in an environment without nourishment.
As soon as I began counselling and moved away I was able to focus energy back into my ambition and self reliance. It was only when I was finally heard and had my feelings validated that I was able to become a highly functioning, successful adult.
When interacting with another human being we must be as the sun, soil, and water in our support. We should shine compassion from our eyes’ rays whenever we are able. We should water our friends’ soil when the wind blows us to, and we should offer up our ideas and experiences to be digested by each other’s roots.
To counteract many generations of “suck it up” parenting, there are trends of bubble wrapped kids where sympathy is sometimes used to create codependent relationships, serve a parent’s feelings of inadequacy and dampen a child’s experience. This is equivalent to running a hose directly to the base of a plant and leaving it on indefinitely. There is such thing as too much of a good thing, and when we meet those who are constantly flowing with dependency-creating-compassion we leave feeling the ache in our teeth from too much sweetness. Often this kind of support drains the giver, and turns off the receiver from emotions and intimacy because of the uncomfortableness of such overbearing empathy.
Hearing Vs. Listening About Someone’s Life
Supporting each other takes curiosity and attention. It means that when we are in conversation, we must take respites from our own dialogue to really ponder what the other person is describing from their point of view.
My friend was telling me about how another friend fell off the roof doing a silly dare. I laughed at the foolishness of it and felt a little bit of life’s ironic joy in the justice of it. As my face hardened in the familiar sarcastic “serves him right”, my friend’s story got more and more desperate – he tried to justify the event by saying how high up it was in exact feet. And I realized that there was no reason for me to be smug about it. I wasn’t involved in the event, and I had no place to judge.
So then I tried to imagine what it would feel like to fall through the air in the dark at a party and land painfully on the ground. During this thought experiment I said to my friend “that must have been scary”, and was instantly met by his honest voice saying “yes it was.” From then I could imagine the fear that he must have felt going to the hospital with his friend, or the girlfriend’s horror after hearing the phrase “fell off a roof”, and I truly felt the significance of the event, and was restored to an empathetic human place of genuinely wishing health and happiness to everyone.
Giving Each Other Everyday Support, Without The Awkwardness
Meet stories with emotional phrases. Say “that must have been confusing, difficult, exhausting, lonely, fun, fulfilling etc”, and you will find the conversation enriched by your new level of shared experience. You will find that the person describing an event may not be aware that it was tiring for them until you (with your outside perspective) describe it as so. It may be an eye opening experience for them that clears away some of their own emotional confusion, and allows them to take the time to recover that they need.
We walk around with wounds on our back asking each other how bad they look. We must understand that it is not our job to heal these wounds, it is our job to describe them from our perspective with honesty, to believe their description of them, and to contribute to an environment in which they can heal themselves.